Peter Carey on the Dismissal and ‘Conspiracy Theories'

Peter Carey spoke to Michael Williams for the Wheeler Centre last week about his new novel Amnesia, his school days at Geelong Grammar and Monash, the Australian character, and researching hacking.

In the week after Gough Whitlam’s death, he also spoke at length about remembering the Dismissal, why he doesn’t like the term ‘conspiracy theory’, and why America had an interest in the Whitlam government’s demise - and might have been involved. This is an edited selection from Carey’s conversation on these themes, in his own words.

I don’t remember the day, though I should. I was in Melbourne. Grey Advertising had been a very boring advertising agency, and we turned it around in about two years, and we came down here to win more prizes than the Campaign Palace and we were very happy.

It was just after the Dismissal. I remember making some speech from the stage about that. I don’t think anybody was very interested in it, though I was. I was very, very angry, like a lot of people – and it seemed impossible that we should tolerate it. I thought that the upper house refusing supply was, to my understanding, unconstitutional, though our press didn’t really want us to look at it that way.

It’s genuinely interesting, when one looks at newspapers in the last couple of days, with their huge glorious colour portraits of Gough – a position that he deserves in our hearts, or my heart at least. After three years only of prime minister … But if you look at the papers from 1975, they’re the ones that were assisting seriously in his downfall, spreading misinformation.

I don’t know what we make about that, about how he can be deified today and was brought down by them then.

The word conspiracy theory’s really awful. If there’s a conspiracy theory, no one ever conspires to effect anything. But there are huge government agencies, with vast carparks full of employees who go to work every day and have superannuation (and if they’re lucky, healthcare) whose job it is to conspire. And to help affect, by whatever means, what is seen as the national good of the United States. So of course things like that happen all the time.

If you think about how the Americans must have felt when that Labor government came to power and they had to listen to Australian cabinet ministers and all sorts of other people calling them mass murderers … that would have been really, really shocking. Because we hadn’t been in the habit of doing that sort of thing. They bombed Cambodia, somebody said something. We withdrew our troops from Vietnam, recognised China: did a lot of things that they didn’t like.

Then there was Jim Cairns, who was of course a treasurer who was much criticised on the left for trying to make capitalism work so well. He was known certainly in Washington as a Communist, had probably been a Marxist. He was the deputy prime minister. If Gough had died, we would have had a Communist leading us. I think that would really worry them.

Above: Watch the video of Michael Williams in conversation with Peter Carey, in full.

On top of which, of course, that old base up at Pine Gap is really useful, and may be even more useful now. If you want to deliver a drone somewhere, Pine Gap might be essential for you to do that. And Gough recklessly and foolishly said, when the lease on this base was about to expire, that he would be inclined to renew the base, but if they tried to bounce us, he would reconsider the position. He’s a very internationally-minded man, and he’s threatened a great power … I don’t think they liked that.

We have all sorts of evidence. There’s a cable that was not made public until 1977 where you see the CIA in a panic with ASIO that Whitlam’s not behaving the way they want. And on that particular occasion, Whitlam was revealing that the head of base at Pine Gap was in fact a CIA guy. That’s something that the United States had been denying … that there were any CIA people in Australia. In that cable, the CIA’s complaining about having to provide fresh alibis for people at the embassy who were in ‘defence’, or whatever they were meant to be in.

There’s so much evidence of this, and we’ve had years and years to talk about it. And the sad truth is, I think, that the minute anybody says the sorts of things that I’m saying now, then I’m a loopy, leftist paranoid conspiracist … who doesn’t even live here anymore.

But the evidence is … well, who remembers the Khemlani loan affair [which the Fraser-led opposition used as the trigger to block supply, leading to the Dismissal] or even what it was? Or how it all happened?

There was a notion … a ridiculous, ridiculous stupid notion that we might actually own our own national resources. (And we know that’s bad. And pathetic anyway.) The various ministers in the government were trying to raise money, some more expertly than others, and there was a man who got himself involved in this by the name of Khemlani, and maybe he was a CIA stooge.

The deal with Khemlani, as I recall, was that the Labor ministers would get these huge commissions from these millions of dollars of loans. So, in the middle of all these scandals that kept erupting every day, Khemlani arrives in the country and he has two huge briefcases stuffed full of paper which is the evidence of the venality and criminality of the Labor party and the Labor government. He’s surrounded by police. It was very dramatic and really convincing, but if you want to follow that news story, that’s it. There was nothing in the bags, there was no story. There was nothing.

There’s something in the way we’ve lived … We couldn’t really accept the notion that our great friend and ally would do such a thing, which is why the moment the press made it sound a ridiculous idea, we wanted to believe it because it’s more comfortable to believe that.

Apart from our unsuccessful attempt to exterminate the Aboriginal people, we have been blessed with little internal conflict and bloodshed. The blood has not stained the wattle many times. I don’t know if we have the preparedness to sacrifice everything for the sort of upheaval a resistance to that would have incurred.

Certainly we do know that John Kerr had the army on the ready. That’s not a paranoid conspiracy theory, that’s something that’s documented. So what sort of person would then encourage people to resist this when you know there’s going to be consequences, that this would be really serious civil strife? We were not going to do that.

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