The Dismissal is the latest in a long line of works that covers one of Australia’s most (im)famous points of history, the dismissal of an elected government, headed by Gough Whitlam, by an appointed Governor-General, John Kerr, who was largely meant to be in a ceremonial role, at the behest of Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser.
(For those of you reading internationally, a quirk of the Australian political system is that our liberal party are known as Labour – fair enough, since they were founded on the trade union movement – and our conservative party are known as Liberal, an idiosyncrasy no-one has ever fully explained to me. If anyone can shed some light on this, please do.)
The Dismissal doesn’t really shed a lot of new information on a situation which has been one of the most reported on and analysed events in our history. Rather, it focuses on the different personalities of the major players, primarily Whitlam, Kerr and Fraser, and how the rigid attitudes of each man contributed to a situation that could have been avoided at a dozen different points had any of them been a little more flexible and far-sighted. As it was pointed out, Fraser most likely would have won the next election anyway, to push the matter and create so much division, even forty years later, was a huge price to pay for an extra few months in power.
Whitlam and Kerr don’t escape criticism either, the former being to wrapped up in his vision for Australia to see what was happening and how little compromise it would take to avoid it (among others, Bill Hayden, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating all saw Kerr’s treachery coming) and the latter being self-serving and cowardly – he acknowledges he should have given Whitlam fair warning of his actions, but to do so would have got him dismissed himself. (The irony!) Kelly and Bramston acknowledge that while Kerr took the lion’s share of the blame for the events, all three men were to blame, not to mention a political system whose exploited flaws have never been addressed. (The reserve powers of the Governor-General remain to this day.)
It closes with a postscript as to what happened to all the main ‘characters’- all three men are now dead – as well as the thoughts of every Prime Minister since, including Malcolm Turnball. It’s fascinating to read how divisive the event remains in our political history, and having read it, I have a much better understanding of why this book was filed under 320 (polical science) and not 990 (Australian history).