The Australian High Court has ruled that correspondence between the Queen and the Governor-General of Australia, her viceroy in the former British colony, is no longer “personal” and the property of Buckingham Palace. Why does this matter?
Secret letters written in 1975 by the Queen and her man in Canberra, Sir John Kerr, can now be released by the National Archives. On November 11, 1975, Kerr infamously sacked the reformist government of prime minister Gough Whitlam, and delivered Australia into the hands of the United States.
Today, Australia is a vassal state bar none: its politics, intelligence agencies, military and much of its media are integrated into Washington’s “sphere of dominance” and war plans. In Donald Trump’s current provocations of China, the U.S. bases in Australia are described as the “tip of the spear”.
There is an historical amnesia among Australia’s polite society about the catastrophic events of 1975. An Anglo-American coup overthrew a democratically elected ally in a demeaning scandal in which sections of the Australian elite colluded. This is largely unmentionable. The stamina and achievement of the Australian historian Jenny Hocking in forcing the High Court’s decision are exceptional.
Gough Whitlam was driven from government on Remembrance Day, 1975. When he died six years ago, his achievements were recognized, if grudgingly, his mistakes noted in false sorrow. The truth of the coup against him, it was hoped, would be buried with him.
During the Whitlam years, 1972-75, Australia briefly achieved independence and became intolerably progressive. Politically, it was an astonishing period. An American commentator wrote that no country had “reversed its posture in international affairs so totally without going through a domestic revolution”.
The last Australian troops were ordered home from their mercenary service to the American assault on Vietnam. Whitlam’s ministers publicly condemned US barbarities as “mass murder” and the crimes of “maniacs”. The Nixon administration was corrupt, said the Deputy Prime Minister, Jim Cairns, and called for a boycott of American trade. In response, Australian dockers refused to unload American ships.
Whitlam moved Australia towards the Non-Aligned Movement and called for a Zone of Peace in the Indian ocean, which the US and Britain opposed. He demanded France cease its nuclear testing in the Pacific. In the UN, Australia spoke up for the Palestinians. Refugees fleeing the CIA-engineered coup in Chile were welcomed into Australia: an irony I know that Whitlam later savored.
Although not regarded as on the left of the Labor Party, Gough Whitlam was a maverick social democrat of principle, pride and propriety. He believed that a foreign power should not control his country’s resources and dictate its economic and foreign policies. He proposed to “buy back the farm”.
In drafting the first Aboriginal lands rights legislation and supporting Aboriginal strikers, his government raised the ghost of the greatest land grab in human history, Britain’s colonization of Australia, and the question of who owned the island-continent’s vast natural wealth.
At home, equal pay for women, free universal higher education, and support for the arts became law. There was a sense of real urgency as if political time was already running out.
Latin Americans will recognize the audacity and danger of such a “breaking free” in a country whose establishment was welded to great, external power. Australians had served every British imperial adventure since the Boxer rebellion was crushed in China. In the 1960s, Australia pleaded to join the US in its invasion of Vietnam, then provided “black teams” for the CIA.
Whitlam’s enemies gathered. US diplomatic cables published in 2013 by WikiLeaks disclose the names of leading figures in both main parties, including a future prime minister and foreign minister, as Washington’s informants during the Whitlam years.
Gough Whitlam knew the risk he was taking. The day after his election, he ordered that his staff should no longer be “vetted or harassed” by the Australian security organisation, ASIO, which was then, as now, tied to Anglo-American intelligence. A CIA station officer in Saigon wrote: “We were told the Australians might as well be regarded as North Vietnamese collaborators.”
Alarm in Washington rose to fury when, in the early hours of March 16, 1973, Whitlam’s Attorney-General, Lionel Murphy, led a posse of Federal police in a raid on the Melbourne offices of ASIO. Since its inception in 1949, ASIO had become as powerful in Australia as the CIA in Washington. A leaked file on Deputy Prime Minister Jim Cairns described him as a dangerous figure who would bring about “the destruction of the democratic system of government”.
ASIO’s real power derived from the UKUSA Treaty, with its secret pact of loyalty to foreign intelligence organizations – notably the CIA and MI6. This was demonstrated dramatically when the (now defunct) National Times published extracts from tens of thousands of classified documents under the headline, “How ASIO Betrayed Australia to the Americans.” …