Two days after the dismissal of the Whitlam Government by the Governor-General I decided to drive past Parliament House searching as usual for what my children affectionately call ‘Dad’s historical atmosphere’, and sometimes less affectionately ‘Dad’s excursions down memory lane’. This time two things caught my eye. One was the proclamation pinned on to the door of Parliament House proclaiming that the Governor-General had dissolved Parliament. The other was a booth on the lawns opposite Parliament House in which a man was selling souvenirs and post-cards. I wondered then whether the first portended the end not just of a particular parliament, but the end quite soon of parliamentary government, by which I mean the responsibility of the government to the group with a majority in the House of Representatives, the people’s house, and the responsibility of the House of Representatives to the people. I considered, too, whether the appearance of that small shop perhaps meant the return of the ‘money changers’ to our temple of politics—whether an age of the accountants and the book-keepers was going to have a final brief, stormy period in our history before the angry young men of the Left swept them all into the dust-bin of our history.
These were gloomy thoughts. But a few weeks later on 13 December, when I happened to be in Derby in England, a town where the meanness of the English governing class sank to an all-time low, as D. H. Lawrence was fond of pointing out, a fruity noncommittal English voice confined my worst fears. The Australian electors, bombarded for months by stories of the incompetence, the bungling, the corruption, the jobbery &c, &c, &c, of the Whitlam Government, had put back into government in our country a group of men who had the moral values of a troop of Boy Scouts, and the economic and social values which were rapidly disappearing off the bee of the earth except in countries such as South Africa, New Zealand, Rhodesia, and possibly Spain. During the ensuing painful days I read, part in anger, part in agreement, editorials in the serious English, French and German papers which told their readers that ‘the ocker’, or the ‘Ugly Australian’ was still in charge ‘down under’—that the ‘ocker’ had destroyed the man who, like Prometheus, had been trying to teach Australians that they could steal fire from heaven, that they were capable of better things.
The one great consolation in this time of shame for our country, in this period when we threatened once again to pledge ourselves to the past and to defend the old order of society, when a Prime Minister should glory in an idea of resurrecting the past rather than leading us into the future, was to know that other people were also shocked, bewildered, and even frightened about our prospects. They were fearful, that is, that we, too, like the other reactionary societies in South-East Asia and elsewhere, were about to be wiped off the face of the earth, that the peoples of the world, carried away as they were and are by a hope of better things for mankind, would not let us survive—that we always had been intruders here, and now, like the South Africans and the Rhodesians, and possibly much later, the white New Zealanders, we would either be eliminated and disappear off the face of the earth as though we had never been, or, mercifully, and with quite undeserved charity, be given a chance to return to the place whence we came, that precious grave-yard of the contemporary world, the United Kingdom and Western Europe.
The pity of it was that there were people in our society with ideas on what should be done. One was Charles Birch, who has been Challis Professor of Biology in the University of Sydney since 1960. In 1975, that year in which the money-changers and accountants—the men with a passion for interest rates seemingly as dionysiacal as the passion of some men for ‘other things’—were to have their terrible day of triumph, a man dressed in the clothes of a bygone age, dismissed one of the greatest prime ministers this country has ever had, and then had the colossal effrontery later to tell the Australian people that history would vindicate his action. It was in that year that Charles Birch published his brilliant book on what mankind in general, and Australians in particular, had to do quite quickly if human life was to survive on this planet.
There was nothing startling or novel in what he had to say. The great distinction of the author, indeed his great gift, was that he combined within himself the mind of the scientist, the soul of the poet, and the gift of prophecy—by which I mean that power to see into the heart of what is wrong in any generation, and denounce that great evil with true moral passion. It was and is a magnificent book-a tract for the times, and a human appeal to all of us to ‘gird our loins’. Birch has both common sense and a perception of the mystery at the heart of things. His book is all about how what we have generally understood by the term civilisation can survive.
The interesting thing, reading it down here on the far south coast of New South Wales where that other secular humanist, James Cook, first saw ‘smook’ in our country, and knew that the country was inhabited, is that no leader of either the Liberal or the National Country Party ever made one remark over the years during which Professor Birch was collecting his material to warrant inclusion in the book. The Labor Leaders, as Professor Birch points out, did have ideas. Gough Whitlam and Tom Uren appointed Mr Justice Hope to collect material and write a report on the ‘National Estate’. That document stands as a monument of what must be done. It is now threatened with becoming a museum piece, or one of those documents historians of future generations will point to as examples of what might have been done if Labor had been given a chance to preserve Old Australia, and marry it, as it were, to the Australia of 1975.
But Labor was not given that chance—and hence Donald Horne’s magnificent denunciation of the ‘men in black’, men with the hearts of walnuts, who were quite determined to use every card in the pack to stop Gough Whitlam and his government helping Australia get to 1975 before the progressive and hopeful part of the world took the next step forward. Gough Whitlam himself has called Horne’s book the greatest philippic ever written in this country. Perhaps you can gauge the measure of its achievement, and the very high level of its performance, by the zeal with which the ‘heart dimmers’ and ‘head shrinkers’ have attempted either to belittle or to misrepresent what he has had to say.
It is a book about many things. It is a brilliant analysis of Kerr’s possible reasons and motives for dismissing Whitlam. Donald Horne does not doubt for one moment that the Australian Constitution confers on the Governor-General the power to dismiss a Ministry or a Minister. The Constitution does not mention the circumstances under which the Governor-General should exercise that power; that is to say the Constitution lays down no guide lines. Donald Horne also points out that the Australian Constitution is based on an uneasy, clumsy union of two principles of government-the federal principle, and the responsible government principle.
As every student or our constitutional history knows, after somewhat tedious debates the Founding Fathers seemed to decide that wherever the federal principle collided with the responsible government principle, then the responsible government principle must take precedence. That was what Whitlam was arguing all through those agonising days in October and November after the ‘men in black’, and their much-bedizened women, went into their huddle at the Lakeside Hotel and answered, for themselves, Lenin’s great question for any seekers of power: ‘What’s To Be Done?’ I remember sitting on a sofa in the lobby at the Lakeside Hotel that Sunday afternoon, and sensing, my God, they are going to do it, they arc going to use the powers (ill-defined as Donald Horne so rightly insists) to get rid of Gough Whitlam. But how will they do it? I did not guess then, nor did any of those with whom I discussed the question, guess that the Liberals only had to follow the advice of the old evangelical hymn: ‘Ask the Governor-General to help you, comfort, strengthen and keep you. He is willing to aid you. He will carry you through’.
It is just because the Governor-General used his constitutional powers—those powers most people thought belonged to the days of yesteryear—to serve the interests of the Liberals rather than Labor that the men of good-will, men who may have been bothered by all those errors human frailty and folly had caused Whitlam and Co. to fall pray to, were filled with a righteous indignation. Similarly, it was the Governor-General’s complete failure to let Whitlam, Hayden, Enderby and McClelland know the way in which his mind was moving which led to the charge of treachery against him. Those familiar with the human heart know that the memory of treachery lives on longer than any other human injury or evil.
Some cling to the hope that when passions die down history will be kinder to the Governor-General than his present attackers. Some even say that it is cowardly to criticise his action. So perhaps one should add that the history of mankind is written by the victors. As it seems now quite certain that 1975 was an aberration, a temporary halt in the people’s march to victory, the Governor-General and his beneficiaries can expect little mercy from the historians of the people. It may be that in one hundred years’ time some research worker in the early days of the ‘People’s Government’ will come across Kerr’s letter to Whitlam of 11 November, 1975, and see that there was a teeny-weeny case for Kerr. But, if one may judge from what happens to historians in the People’s democracies of today, that historian would not be given the paper on which to write his defence, let alone the opportunity to publish it. The people’s historians judge their opponents harshly. So there is no IlOpe for the Governor-General from them: maybe God will judge him and all of us less harshly, but, according to Nietzsche, God is dead.
What is clear is that those historians of the future will find in Birch and Horne men of genuine moral passion. Their works will live on as testimony that we are not all ‘bastards’, not all ‘ockers’ who were out for a ‘quick quid’, and not all driven by some mad hatred against intellectuals and dole bludgers,—all those people Whitlam tried to help. Now we will see what terrible things are in store (or the creatures when God seems to have forgotten. Now for a while the world here will belong again to the men of brawn, the men with the terrible delusion that they are the only ones who work. So if the boy from Balmain had really wanted to impress the historians of the future, he might have been wiser to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the moral of Great Expectations. The Joe Gargerys of his younger days would have proved that they, rather than Sir Garfield Barwick, are the children of light.
Manning Clark (1915 – 1991) was an Australian historian and the author of the best-known general history of Australia, his six-volume A History of Australia, published between 1962 and 1987.
The books discussed in this article are Charles Birch, Confronting the Future (Penguin, Melbourne 1975) pp. 360, $2.95; Donald Horne, Death Of the Lucky Country (Penguin, Melbourne 1976) pp. 115, $1.50.