The 1975 Coup that Australia Still Fails to Confront

We have recently been able to view the early 1970s communications that took place between the then Governor General John Kerr and Buckingham Palace. This has been thanks to the tireless work of Melbourne academic Professor Jenny Hosking. The mainstream media have published extracts from this correspondence. The picture that emerges from the correspondence, chiefly between John Kerr and the Queen’s principal private secretary Sir Martin Charteris, is that Kerr disapproved of the Labor government and in particular the foreign policy stances that it embraced.

One of those stances was of critical relevance to the sequence of events leading up to the dismissal of the Labor government by Kerr in November 1975 that will be discussed below.

The coverage of the palace papers by the mainstream media displays a particular mindset that has been almost completely ignored in the media coverage. That media has seized upon the fact that the bulk of the correspondence did not bear the Queens signature, but that of her principal private secretary, Charteris. The inference the media has invited us to draw is that the sequence of events did not directly involve the Queen and her responsibility for the dismissal could therefore be severely downplayed.

Such an approach displays a profound misunderstanding, or more likely, deliberate concealment, of the role of the palace in the 1975 coup that terminated the life of the Whitlam Labor government. It is unthinkable that the principal private secretary would have acted on his own initiative without the knowledge and approval of the Queen.

For all the professed outrage that a democratically elected government could be overthrown by the actions of a person answerable to a foreign head of state, there is no evidence at all that those powers have been kerbed in any way. In theory, assuming Kerr acted within his powers, there is nothing to stop a repetition of those events at some future date. That this should be the case, 45 years after the precipitating events, is extraordinary. A serious question has to be posed as to why it is that Australia, so often asserting its nation- hood, should tolerate this extraordinary subservience to a foreign head of state. It was certainly a question notably absent from mainstream media coverage of those historic events.

Equally absent from most mainstream media coverage of the events that Kerr’s papers refer to, is that Kerr was a long-time asset of the United States CIA. The Whitlam government had pursued a number of foreign policy initiatives that had displeased the United States. Three are of particular note. In this writer’s view the events of November 1975 cannot be properly understood without understanding the role played by the changing Australian foreign policy stance and the reactions it invoked in the United States.

The first of those three critical decisions was the decision by the Whitlam government to withdraw Australian troops from involvement in the Vietnam war. The United States had replaced France as the dominant European power in that country after the latter’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu and their subsequent withdrawal from Vietnam.

Their replacement by United States forces had a number of consequences, including the cancellation of the nationwide elections that would almost certainly have been won by the North’s Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Under United States control, the South instead installed a puppet dictator and for the next 20 years the South was governed by regimes under US military control. That regime was in turn overthrown in 1975 by which time the Australian troops had been safely withdrawn.

The second major foreign policy initiative was Whitlam’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of China. That decision met with enormous criticism from the Liberal Opposition who had not been told of similar moves being planned by the Nixon administration.

The third initiative was probably the most important with enormous ramifications that persist to the present day. That was the decision of the Whitlam government to close the United States controlled Pine Gap spy centre located near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. The coup took place the day before Whitlam was to make the announcement of Pine Gap’s closure to the Australian parliament. It is highly significant that Pine Gap remains operational to this day. It is still under United States control and is one of multiple US bases in the country. It is undoubtably the number one missile target for both Russian and Chinese systems.

The removal of the Whitlam government was therefore a high-priority for the United States. As part of their preparations for the coup, they appointed Marshall Green as United States ambassador to Canberra in 1973. Green was known in US diplomatic and spy circles as the “coup master”. There were good reasons for that appellation.

Green had been the man behind the 1961 coup of South Korea’s Park Chung-Lee. Four years later his next major assignment was in Indonesia where he organised the July 1965 coup that displaced President Sukarno. He in turn was replaced by President Suharto who then loyally served United States interests for the next three decades (1967–1998).

Green later went to Chile where the left-leaning President Salvador Allende was replaced on 11 November 1973 in yet another United States organised and financed coup. Again, the pattern was similar with Allende’s replacement Augusto Pinochet imposing a pro American right wing dictatorship from 1973 to 1998.

His appointment as United States ambassador to Australia in early 1973 was part of a US plan to displace the Whitlam government with one more amenable to US foreign policy wishes. The timing of the coup the day before the intended announcement of Pine Gap’s closure is one of the most powerful indicators of United States involvement.

Another key development was that in 1975, according to John Pilger and never denied let alone rebutted, was that Whitlam discovered that Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence agency, was decoding secret Australian cabinet cables and passing that information on to the Americans ( 23 October 2014.)

The coup not only displaced a democratically elected government. It had a chilling effect on both major political parties. Ever since the coup it has not mattered which of Labor or Liberal held government. Subservience to United States foreign policy wishes has been the overwhelming characteristic of Australian foreign policy, not just in diplomatic support but also joining at least three illegal foreign wars (Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria).

Australia also provides loyal and almost  unqualified diplomatic support in United Nations bodies for the State of Israel whose record for foreign interference in its region is matched only by the United States.

While the release of the palace papers is therefore to be welcomed it would be naïve and foolhardy to believe that it will have the least effect on Australian foreign policy. That remains a major battle yet to be waged.

James O'Neill is a retired Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at Read other articles by James.