Books

Jenny Hocking
The Dismissal Dossier

There was more than a little melancholy attending this week’s 40th anniversary of the Dismissal. With the departure of Gough, and then Mal, as I suppose we must call him, all the principals have now departed. When the half-century comes around, our last great historic moment will have slipped into history itself. 

Too late to “right the wrong” (Bob Ellis’s poor suggestion for Labor’s post-Dismissal election campaign) we can at least try to get the wrong right. Few have been more assiduous in this than Whitlam biographer Jenny Hocking, and her essay-length book The Dismissal Dossier has about it the clarity and force of maintained rage.

Hocking is concerned that even those supportive of Whitlam’s project have imbibed the dismythal: that faced with a breakdown of government, Sir John Kerr made a bad choice, based on an overestimation of the reserve powers available to the governor-general. 

In fact, as Hocking shows, Kerr had been meeting – conspiring is the word – with not only Malcolm Fraser, but also chief justice Garfield Barwick, and future chief justice Anthony Mason, all without informing Whitlam or seeking advice through proper channels. 

Indeed, even what we thought we knew was wrong: Barwick, seen as chief legal troublemaker, was a cover for Mason who armed Kerr with his extreme take on reserve powers. Whitlam wasn’t driving the country to bankruptcy insouciantly, but had proposed a half-senate election days earlier to break the deadlock. Kerr was less concerned about chaos in government than in covering up the fact that the loans affair had passed through government-in-council and been signed off on, rather than being Rex Connor’s mad frolic all of his own.

This all ended in the “second Dismissal”, when, as supply passed, caretaker prime minister Fraser received a no-confidence vote from the house, and Kerr promptly dissolved parliament before he could be advised of this fact by the speaker. Most of us have known some of the history, few of us all of it. The book’s only fault is the lack of a framing introduction, for there are Australians who have voted in 10 federal elections yet are too young to have a personal memory of 1975. The writing finger signs the writ and then, having signed, moves on.  XS

MUP, 277pp, $16.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2015 as "Jenny Hocking, The Dismissal Dossier". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: XS

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