November 11: I never let this day, Remembrance Day here in Australia, go by without remembering, not Armistice Day and the end of WW1 for which it was intended, but that other event of the date; The Dismissal, in 1975.
I don’t need to say to anyone reading this right now how relevant this occasion is to the present. The blistering outrage across the world at the election of a reality TV celebrity to the Presidency in America is leaving jaws hanging open, and futile mass protests in that country’s major urban centres are underway; just as they were here on 12th November 1975.
The day before, our Prime Minister Gough Whitlam had been sacked in a nifty move by the Queen’s representative. Gough had swept huge socialist policies into effect after gridlocked years of conservative government led by a procession of utterly uninspiring Liberal (i.e. Conservative as opposed to Labor) Prime Ministers, one of whom managed to literally disappear at sea.
I was a 24 year old photography student. Gough had become the very first Labor Prime Minister since the year before I’d been born. I and about 15% of Australians alive today remember the event ‘as if it were yesterday’, and still at least half of those rage on at the injustice of his dismissal. Amongst so many achievements, Whitlam ended conscription, saw Australia out of Vietnam and invited refugees from the war to settle in Australia, made tertiary education free for all and introduced Medibank, a universal health care system, as well as no-fault divorce and a real Australian national anthem, recognised Aboriginal land rights and granted independence to Papua New Guinea.
Governments have see-sawed between Liberal and Labor since, but Labor showed it stood for something.
The Parliament House steps were crowded to overflowing with reporters and public service officials on the day of the Whitlam government’s dismissal. Photographers ducked around in front as Mr (later Sir) David Smith, official secretary to the Governor-General, read the proclamation dissolving both Houses of Parliament.
One was Maurice Wilmott (1928-2000), who was staff photographer in the Canberra press gallery for the Australian newspaper and the Sydney Daily Mirror. He remembers:
I’d been down in Sydney on a visit and I was having a drink in the pub near the newspaper office. When I came out I noticed a lotto offical cars, including the Governor-General’s, parked neat the office entrance. I thought to myself, “Oh, oh. Something’s going on.”
I’d barely got back to Canberra when I got a phone call from Brian Hogben, one of the paper’s executives. He said, “Maurie, I want you on the top step of Parliament House tomorrow morning from 7am onwards. Don’t ask why. Just be there and don’t move.” So I was. And I waited and waited and then Gough and Smith (the Governor-General’s secretary) arrived and I banged on the twenty-millimetre wide-angle lens and started belting away. I must have shot a whole roll.
‘How did I feel? Well, Gough was not one of my favourite people and I’d had a couple of clashes with him over photographs I’d taken of Labor politicians at play. I’ve no sympathy for any politician so I don’t feel much at all. I knew it was an important picture and I was glad I was in the right place at the right time.’ [Wilmott quoted in Phillip Knightley (2001) Australia: A Biography of a Nation.]
Wilmott was a toughened veteran, used to standing his ground in the crush and getting the shots. Winner of the first Walkley Award in 1956 before moving to Britain to photograph for Paris Match, leading British and Australian magazines and Time/LIFE, he rejoined Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd in 1964 and photographed in Vietnam, venturing across the Mekong and emerging unscathed with scoop shots of Vietcong. After working in Japan for UPI in 1968 he returned to Australia to photograph politics in Canberra for News Limited.
It is no accident that his wide-angle photographs create a false memory of being there, of witnessing Whitlam towering over Smith as he reads the proclamation, every so often staring into the future, and when Smith had finished, drawling the baleful;
Well may we say “God save the Queen”, because nothing will save the Governor-General! The Proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor-General’s Official Secretary was countersigned Malcolm Fraser, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr’s cur. They won’t silence the outskirts of Parliament House, even if the inside has been silenced for a few weeks. … Maintain your rage and enthusiasm for the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day!
I had no TV, and it there was some delay before these pictures found their way into the papers. In fact, The Sydney Morning Herald announced the dismissal with one measly picture of Malcolm Fraser, our next Prime Minister.
For me now, the memory is of Wilmott’s winning shots in which Whitlam’s statesmanlike aplomb is most evident.
It is instructive to compare his with those of another photographer who was Graeme Thomson. His pictures, good as they are, are just not as close and a psychologically a little too late:
Meanwhile in America the recent event has aroused similar sensations of injustice; a new president elected with the support of mostly disaffected white rural males and with fewer votes than his rival whose supporters come mainly from the urban centres. There’ll be righteous rage for some time to come and whatever the outcome, the rage will be maintained because its memory is encapsulated in images we experience as if we had been there.