The Age: “Go now, go decently”

Around the nation on October 15, 1975, many newspapers editorialised against the Whitlam government.

Later the same day, Malcolm Fraser announced that the Opposition would block the Budget with the aim of forcing the removal of the government.

It is now known that Fraser talked with newspaper editors prior to October 15.

The editorial in The Age is the most well-known. The newspaper’s editor, Graham Perkin, died the following day, at age 45.

The Age

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Text of editorial in The Age, Wednesday, October 15, 1975.

Go now, go decently

We will say it straight, and clear, and at once. The Whitlam Government has run its course; it must go now, and preferably by the honorable course of resignation – a course which would dispel all arguments about constitutional proprieties, historic conventions and “grabs” for power. It must go because it no longer has the degree of public support and acceptance that permits Governments to govern effectively. There are now too few people who will accept its policies, no matter how virtuous or commendable those policies may be. The Government is discredited. If integrity in government means anything, if competence in government is important, resignation would be the decent and responsible final step for a Government so haunted by the ghosts of its past follies that no current proclamations of good intentions, of rising hopes can dispel the furies.

When the Minister for Minerals and Energy (Mr. Connor) resigned yesterday, it was not just the fall of another Labor Minister. It was – and should be – the beginning of the end for the Whitlam Government itself. Two senior Ministers sacked in a mere four months for exceeding their authority, and deceiving Parliament in the process, is a fatal blow to the integrity of the whole Government and to the authority of the Prime Minister. This is not a case of two junior Ministers who failed to live up to expectations. Both Dr. Jim Cairns and Mr. Connor were engaged in reckless attempts to raise mammoth foreign loans for dubious and ill-defined purposes, through improbable intermediaries, and without that impeccable authority which should be the basis of all Government financial dealings. They were senior Ministers, close to the very centre of Labor power. Their improprieties were not accidents, voluntarilty and honorably admitted. They were deliberate decisions. And they were exposed.

The overseas loans affair has now despatched two senior Ministers. How many does it take? Three, six, eight? Does a government hang on, no matter what the repercussions of one of the most mysterious and reprehensible set of circumstances in our short history? When the full dimensions of the loans affair were first revealed in our columns in July, we urged the Prime Minister to appoint a Royal Commission with full powers to investigate the matter. Instead, he summoned the Parliament to an emergency sitting, used his numbers to bludgeon the Opposition into submission and watched with some glee while a hostile Senate so mishandled proceedings as to positively strengthen his dubious hand.

Denial and defiance

Where would be now be if he had treated the loans affair with higher principle and absolute frankness from the start? He could be no worse off than he was yesterday. Here was his Minister for Minerals and Energy, principal actor in the low grade farce known as the loans affair, defending his probity against a statutory declaration and a set of telex messages provided to the Melbourne Herald by Mr. Tirath Khemlani, the loans “middleman” with whom Mr. Connor made such merry, but unorchestrated, music from late 1974 until May last. But May what? The 20th? The 23rd? Later? There is the rub, and the core of litigation which severely limits the capacity of a newspaper too (sic) fully canvass the real issues.

In charity, a rare and indulgent quality in politics, Dr. Cairns might be forgien – although not excused – for his earlier grave error of judgment. By contrast, Mr. Connor has been recalcitrant. He is guilty of doubly, and deliberately, compounding his colleagues’s earlier mistake. Having witnessed, and concurred in, Dr. Cairns’ dismissal from the Ministry, Mr. Connor apparently continued to pursue his fantasy of financing, by foreign loans, a national minerals and and energy empire after his authority to do so had been revoked by the collective decision of his colleagues – a decision in which he participated. And he denied he was doing it. He owes his downfall, and the inevitable downfall of the Whitlam Government, to his defiance.

What trust can now remain in a Government in which senior Ministers defy and deceive each other? Mr. Whitlam must know, and should now acknowledge, that his Government desperately needs a new mandate. It needs it not so much for its policies, tattered and self-contradictory though some of them have become, but for its integrity and its competence. Mr. Connor’s defiant paternalism, his silent but now exposed contempt for the pronounced policy of his party and the known opinions of his colleagues, have reduced the integrity of the Whitlam Government below the threshold of belief. It may be too much to expect a government in such disarray to submit itself voluntarilty to the judgment of the electorate. But that is what Mr. Whitlam should now do if he is seriously committed to preserving the system of responsible government and his own reputation as a constitutionalist.

Onus on Government

If he fails to do so he will bear much of the responsibility for the constitutional and political crisis which will now follow Mr. Fraser’s decision to use the Opposition’s slender Senate majority to drive from office a Government which still commands a clear majority in the House of Representatives. Mr. Fraser has always said that any plan to bend the Constitution required a balance between the continuity of government and the Opposition’s obligations to the electorate. But the responsibility for preserving the constitutional system rests even more heavily on the Government than on the Opposition. If Mr. Whitlam now persists in maintaining his Government’s right to rule when its moral basis and popular support have both eroded, he will bear the heavier blame for the corruption of the Constitution and the political system it supports.

Since Mr. Fraser first canvassed the prospect that he might use his Senate majority to reject the Whitlam Government’s Supply, we have strongly and sincerely rejected the idea. We do not concede the principle, even at this late hour, and even in circumstances which we believe are reprehensible (although Mr. Fraser’s definition of the word may be be a little different from ours). In 50 years’ time, it is unlikely the loans affair will be regarded as more than a bizarre, but relatively minor, point of history. Yet in 50 years’ time, mis-use of the Senate for purposes to which it is constitutionally unsuited, may be regarded as the most destructive and pointless blow to our democratic institutions since Federation.

Yet the problem remains: how are we to be governed amid all the current economic turmoil, amid record unemployment, by a Government which sweeps the corpses of senior Ministers and the remnants of discredited policies under the rug with such an attitude of fantasy? Because it is no less than a fantasy to pretend that the Government can any longer claim a franchise. If its behavior has been too frequently unprincipled, so have been its reactions when that behavior is exposed. The great risk is that Mr. Fraser is about to manoeuvre himself into power with no better reputation for political principle and no higher regard for the political proprieties. Let us, for God’s sake, have one political party that will not debase itself.

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