Did Gough Whitlam Play Us or the US?

13/12/2020

It has been generally accepted that the Dismissal of Gough Whitlam in November 1975 was a “soft coup”. It was the culmination of various tensions between Whitlam and the United States, namely its intelligence communities (and, by extension, our own). One of the oft cited reasons was Whitlam’s purported opposition to the US’ bases within Australia, perhaps the most infamous of which is Pine Gap in Alice Springs. But did Australia’s arguably best Prime Minister actually oppose them as public perception believes?

I have picked up and started reading A Secret Australia: Revealed by the WikiLeaks Exposes, a collation of small essays and interviews by lawyers, journalists, former politicians, academics, etc. discussing what various WikiLeaks’ dumps over the past decade have had to say about Australia, particularly in relation to the US empire. It is in the introduction, written by the editors of the volume Felicity Ruby and Peter Cronau, that they reference a US diplomatic cable dated February 7 1975.

WHITLAM DEFEATS ATTEMPT BY ALP LEFT WING TO CHANGE THE PARTY’S PLATFORM ON BASES”.

The policy in question:

“LABOR IS OPPOSED TO THE EXISTENCE OF FOREIGN-OWNED, CONTROLLED OR OPERATED BASES IN AUSTRALIAN TERRITORY, ESPECIALLY IF SUCH BASES INVOLVE A DEROGATION FROM AUSTRALIAN SOVEREIGNTY.”

The proposed change would have simply changed “a derogation” to “any derogation”. Whitlam is said to have opposed this. When asked about giving the US government notice of terminating the lease for Pine Gap, Whitlam responded by saying, “I would give no such notice”, explaining he had no justification or party mandate to do so. Given the nature of the Pine Gap base and others, I would very much argue that the above policy, changed or not, fits the bill. The platform very much mandates closing the bases.

Terry Higgins, the ACT representative at the conference, concretely argued that the bases implicated Australia in various US operations, such as spying on the Soviet Union (Pine Gap) and assisting US missiles and submarines (the proposed Omega Station). This would, he suggested, place Australia in the middle of hostilities without Australian consent, opening us up to attack. He concludes by stating such a possibility is a derogation of sovereignty. I agree. And the motion was voted on and tabled by the conference.

The cable ends by praising Whitlam’s apparent deviation from the Labor platform change:

“WHITLAM’S FORTHRIGHT DEFENSE OF U.S. JOINT FACILITIES WAS THE CLEAREST PUBLIC STATEMENT HE HAS YET MADE. IT WAS EFFECTIVE AND MOST WELCOME.”

This cable is used by the authors to suggest that Gough Whitlam did not in fact oppose the existence of Pine Gap and similar bases. If true, that would blow apart public perception of the events leading up to the Dismissal, and begs the question of what really sparked the move to overthrow the Australian government. There were many factors, of course, but Malcolm Fraser, once in power, was very quick to renew the leases and throw us into Echelon.

Looking elsewhere, another cable dated August 27 1975 seems to affirm the authors’ conclusion. In relation to Pine Gap, Whitlam says that “neither government [Australian and US] proposed to give notice of termination”. He continued, “The government intends that the facility should continue to be operated jointly in accordance with the agreement”. He cites a Hansard record to contextualise a previous statement in relation to military bases:

“The Australian Government takes the attitude that there should not be foreign military bases, stations, installations in Australia. We honour agreements covering existing stations. We do not favour the extension or prolongation of any of those existing ones. The agreements stand, but there will not be extensions or proliferations.”

This would very much explain the origins of the idea that Whitlam would have refused to renew the Pine Gap lease. That raises the question of whether Whitlam, if the above cables are to be considered support for Pine Gap, considered the base in Alice Springs to be of military significance or capabilities. It would be extremely difficult to argue otherwise, and I’m almost certain Whitlam would have known this, particularly if, as he claimed, had access.

Today, it is widely believed (myself included) that Whitlam would not have renewed the lease for Pine Gap. But as late as August of 1975 he, while deferring to statements made over a year before, appears committed to maintaining the bases as a joint effort with the United States. There are a few possibilities as to what happened between then and November.

First, he could have been courting public approval from the US while working behind the scenes to terminate the lease come December when it expired. This would give credibility to his 1974 statement, and keep in line with his antagonistic attitude towards various security agencies, including ASIO and ASIS. The former he lambasted for their role in covertly assisting the CIA overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973, the latter for their role in aiding the CIA in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975.

That would further prove his opposition to Pine Gap as an intelligence base, not just military, and confirm that refusing to renew the lease was in fact one of the core reasons for the coup.

Second, between August and November, tensions between himself and the intelligence agencies exploded. He removed the heads of both ASIO and ASIS and was in a race against the clock (coincidentally) to name CIA agents and activities. It is perhaps possible that Whitlam had supported the bases but that, as tensions rose and more information began coming to light about CIA infiltration of Australian institutions, he had a drastic shift in attitude. While feasible, his clashes with the intelligence community was a common theme of his term in office, not just limited to the final months. To me that suggests he either did or did not support the bases consistently the whole time and did not flip.

Lastly, and most unlikely in my view, he was in support of the bases from start to finish and had no intention of terminating the leases. I do not see enough evidence to support this conclusion, although it makes the US assessment of him in February 1975 appear quite daft.

Whitlam was most definitely a threat to US and corporate interests, if perhaps an imperfect hero. There is no doubt that the US instigated a coup against him with the complicity of Australia’s intelligence agencies and Buckingham Palace. After questioning my beliefs regarding Whitlam’s approach to Pine Gap and digging a bit deeper, I find myself falling back into the same stance – that Whitlam intended on shutting the bases down in December.

Whether that had always been his intention, as his statement in April 1974 and the Labor policy (even before the tabled changes in February 1975) suggest, or came later as events began to spiral in the lead up to his Dismissal, may be up for debate (or perhaps I missed or have misinterpreted something and it is certain). It is also, in the bigger picture, not overly important – his challenging of US power and moves towards greater independence for Australia on a global stage made him a pariah.

It is one of the most intriguing events of Australian political history, and highlights the critical role organisations and individuals like WikiLeaks or Jenny Hocking have in revealing information the public has the right to know.

Previous piece: Historical Amnesia Goes Both Ways

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