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Prime Minister interviews


John Howard on the Whitlam Dismissal

11 November 2000

Published in The Age

“There was a certain steel that entered everybody’s soul after 1975,” John Howard says. He is referring, of course, to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, twenty-five years ago today.

In a wide-ranging interview*, the Prime Minister told The Age that federal politics was “more detached” in the years prior to 1975. “Is there more venom [now] at a personal level? I think there probably is.”

Howard recalls the eleventh of November, 1975 “very vividly”. Then a junior member of Malcolm Fraser’s shadow ministry, Howard remembers “running into Tony Eggleton [then Liberal Party federal director], and saying something about things probably coming to a head. Tony had that inscrutable look about him. I think by that time he knew that Fraser had been asked to go to Government House.”

Howard has “no reason to think” that Eggleton knew the reason Fraser had been summoned by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr.

The reality was that Fraser had been asked to park his car out of sight and seclude himself, so as not to arouse suspicion, whilst Kerr handed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam a letter dismissing him from office. On Whitlam’s departure, Fraser was ushered in, and commissioned as Prime Minister of Australia, pending a federal election a month later.

Howard recalls: “I certainly remember Fraser swinging through the door, walking at a furious pace, with Eggleton after him. This was about twenty minutes later in the corridor. And I thought I saw a Bible in his hand. And I thought, ‘Why did he have a Bible in his hand?’ But he did - he had the Bible in his hand that he was sworn in on.

“Kerr had sacked Gough, and installed Fraser as the caretaker Prime Minister.”

In the House of Representatives debate which followed, Howard recollects that the Speaker, Gordon Scholes, “kept a remarkable degree of order, given the tumult of the occasion. It was certainly a fairly difficult day - a lot of passion and tension.”

Howard feels that the vitriol consequently directed by the ALP at Sir John Kerr was “appalling”. “I could understand them heaping vitriol on us - on Fraser. It seemed rather perverse to me that he should have been the greater object of spleen. Because after all, he was left with the unenviable task of resolving a deadlock between two very determined people. I thought that was unjust.”

“That issue,” the Prime Minister believes, “will never be resolved to everybody’s satisfaction. But I felt sorry for him.”

Did the Whitlam Dismissal accelerate moves toward an Australian republic? “I think it probably did, in the eyes of some people.” More broadly than that? “You’ll never really know that. Our relationship with Britain and the Crown has evolved a lot over the years.”

* The Prime Minister’s interview, covering a range of issues including Hansonism, Australia’s relationship with Indonesia, and his retirement plans, will appear in The Age on Saturday December 2.

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