May 2005

Arts & Letters


By Clive James

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The nickname ‘Diamond Jim’ fitted James McClelland the way ‘Big Julie from Chicago’ fitted the gangster in Guys and Dolls who rolled spotless dice, with the difference that Diamond Jim wasn’t acting. He was really like what his nickname said: spruce, sparkling, charming, the Australian politician with the touch of the patrician, the one whose jacket sat neatly on his shoulders and who didn’t sweat even in hot weather. In the late 1980s, at a time when I knew less than I should have known about what had been going on in Australia for the previous quarter of a century, I interviewed him for the one and only series of my talk show ever taped in Sydney. All the others were taped in the UK and broadcast there in the first instance, appearing in Australia only in syndication. Predictably (predictably in retrospect, that is: if it had been predictable beforehand I would never have made such a blunder) the series made in Australia was the one greeted by Australian critics as a patronising, sub-standard rush-job designed to lower Australia’s repute in the eyes of the watching world.

Actually we took great care with that series, and especially with the casting. Along with the veteran painter Lloyd Rees and the already illustrious poet Les Murray, James McClelland was one of the guests I was determined to get on the air. I was pleased when he said yes, and he seemed pleased enough at the level of questions he was asked. But he must have been surprised not to have been questioned more closely about his presence in the blast area during the explosion – exactly 30 years ago this month – that has come to be remembered as The Dismissal.

I knew roughly what had happened. Gough Whitlam, as prime minister, had incorrectly believed that his appointee as governor-general, Sir John Kerr, would not fire him. McClelland, a member of Whitlam’s Labor government and a lifelong friend of Kerr’s, had not guessed that Kerr would push the button on Whitlam. After Kerr duly did so, McClelland had never talked to Kerr again. It was a sore point, but that was no good reason for my steering clear of it. If I had realised just how sore a point it was, I would have asked McClelland about little else. I wasn’t there to soothe his ego – which, although nothing extravagant, was immaculately brushed, like his hair.


The truth was that McClelland, the most intelligent of men, had become a walking reminder of just how wrong one man can be about another. In a key sentence from his entertaining autobiography Stirring the Possum, he stirs the possum by putting his elegant finger on the exact nub of the whole Dismissal issue. At this point in his book, McClelland is delivering his assessment of Kerr’s own Matters for Judgment, an embarrassingly limp apologia written by Kerr in the last and unhappiest part of his life. McClelland’s key sentence goes like this – “At no point does he [Kerr] explain why, apart from his fear that it would ensure his own sacking, he did not simply say to Whitlam: If you can’t get supply by a certain date I may have to dismiss you.”


According to McClelland, the best Kerr can say for himself is that he couldn’t warn Whitlam that dismissal might be in the wind, because if he had warned Whitlam, Whitlam might have dismissed him. In other words, it might have been a race to telephone the Queen. As Paul Kelly convincingly shows in his book November 1975, the race to the telephone was a mythical scenario: Whitlam could never have got the palace to dismiss Kerr before Kerr had irretrievably dismissed Whitlam. Those technicalities aside, McClelland hits the point that would have mattered anyway, even if Kerr had lost his job: that Kerr should have been thinking about more than the job. Thinking about more than the job was the job, or else the job meant nothing. McClelland quotes devastatingly to show Kerr advancing his own silence as some kind of qualification. “I kept my own counsel as to the constitutional rights and wrongs of what was happening until I decided what must be done …” Keeping his counsel was exactly what Kerr couldn’t do and still be acting according to the Constitution, since the constitutional provisions on the reserve powers stated clearly that among the governor-general’s first duties were to advise and to warn.


He neither advised nor warned. Kerr resented Whitlam using him as a rubber stamp. But Kerr had already kept silent on the crucial Loans issue – that is, he had submitted to being a rubber stamp at the very moment when he should have been asking Whitlam what his government thought it was doing by trying to raise money privately so that it would be able to go on governing without the Senate’s approval. By being silent about that, Kerr encouraged Whitlam to slide further into folly. McClelland rather soft-pedals that last point, as you might imagine; when it came to a choice, he was definitely Whitlam’s man and not Kerr’s, a preference for which it is hard to blame him. (I too find Whitlam’s charm hard to resist, and if I had ever worked for him I would have been no better than anybody else at telling him what he didn’t want to hear.)


Personal preferences aside, McClelland in his memoirs is as good as any dramatist about the main characters stalking the halls of Canberra in those stirring times – Kerr, whose injured vanity decided the issue; Whitlam, who didn’t see the crunch coming; and himself, who should have foreseen it all but somehow didn’t. On a detached estimate, however, McClelland can be seen (a) to have got Kerr right, (b) to have been too hard on himself, and (c) to have been nothing like hard enough on Whitlam – or, rather, on Whitlam’s government. That government, McClelland included, belonged to Whitlam to a dangerous extent. By even thinking of raising money to govern without the Senate’s approval of supply, Whitlam was preparing to govern without a parliament – the very thing the governor-general’s reserve powers are designed to stop.


While proposing to govern without a parliament, Whitlam was already governing without a cabinet. Scarcely anyone knew about the Loans scheme being cooked up, its secrecy a tacit avowal of its fundamental unreality. The Loans affair was the latest in a series of bizarre episodes that had reduced Whitlam’s administration to a wreck. His government had become deeply and deservedly unpopular with the electorate. McClelland is well within his rights when he says that it had already recovered from its low point and might have gone on recovering – and certainly he himself had brought a welcome air of competence to his own department. If an election had been called for late enough in the following year, Labor might conceivably have been back with a chance.


But here again is a nub, and this time it is a nub that even the unflappable Diamond Jim could barely bring himself to point out. Malcolm Fraser, leading the Liberal opposition, was ready to break the crisis by consenting to a double dissolution with a late election date. Whitlam refused the offer. Whitlam preferred the crisis: he thought he could face the opposition down. And indeed he might have done, if Kerr had given him another week. But Kerr’s decision isn’t the issue. The issue is how Whitlam got his government into that situation. He did it by making his isolated will prevail. There is no point making a fuss about how the governor-general carried on like an old Queen if one is unable to contemplate that the prime minister carried on like an autocrat. McClelland is ready to accuse himself of having been bamboozled by Kerr. He is less ready to admit that he was buffaloed by Whitlam. He can bear the idea of having failed to guess what the position of de facto head of state would do to a man of Kerr’s character. What he couldn’t bear was having failed to guess how the advent of charismatic leadership would affect the Labor Party.


Diamond Jim knew all there was to know about the Labor Party, but only up until then. In the past Labor leaders had been men like Ben Chifley or H.V. Evatt: sometimes highly qualified, but never stars. In the future they would be men like Bob Hawke and Paul Keating: stars even when they were not highly qualified. Whitlam was the transitional figure. He was the first star, and thus a man utterly unlike McClelland himself. McClelland had glamour but it was not a pose: he was a man of the people. It was just that he was one of those men who never have to think about dressing the part, because they have natural taste, and they inspire awe for that reason. Though both his parents were Irish, only his mother was a Catholic, which was a flaw in his Labor pedigree but a minor one. In all other respects he had an impeccably underprivileged background, the arrival of the Depression ensuring that his admission to university would not distract him from a lifetime of doing it the hard way.


There were no Commonwealth scholarships in those days, so the brilliant young man had to forego his opportunity. He joined the workforce and was soon caught up in the radical politics raging within it. With capitalism so obviously on the point of collapse, he gave his allegiance to Trotsky, after the communists in the Federated Ironworkers had shown him what Stalinism was made of. (The real news about what Trotsky had been made of was at that time harder to come by than it is now.) Having actually read the works of Karl Marx from end to end, he had no trouble arguing the Stalinists out of the room, but always from the premise that it was he who was the true proletarian. Although obvious officer material, he spent the war in the ranks. It was only after the war, with Australia unaccountably booming under the Menzies government, that McClelland enrolled in Sydney University’s law school and began his ascent to the seriously well-cut jacket.


His immaculate grooming never had anything to do with social climbing. For one thing it is possible, even today, for a man to climb a long way in Australian society while being no better groomed than the Man from Snowy River’s horse; and for another, he was too intelligent to restrict his views by forgetting his origins. As his Sydney Morning Herald column, written in his retirement, regularly revealed to an enchanted public, he had a capacity to take in the whole texture of Australian life. He was the kind of natural democrat who charms an audience by treating everyone as a member of an elite, and his later writings – An Angel Bit the Bride is the essential collection – can be recommended for the insouciant manner in which they distil the generously sardonic vision that Australia’s left-wing intelligentsia sorely needs to rediscover in order to be less repellently doctrinaire. He was particularly good at tracing the connection between the deterioration of the language and the corrosion of democratic values. The demagogic tendency to brand grammatical accuracy as elitism was one he spotted early. On the other wing, he was properly alarmed by the cosiness of the alliance formed between the media multibillionaires and the Labor Party hierarchy. Though the prospect of rule by oligarchy didn’t put him off a republic, it would have been interesting, had he lived until the 1999 referendum, to find out whether he thought the same prospect had put the public off a republic.


Unlike many men who have enjoyed power, he had a deep and lasting suspicion of it. Really he thought its concentration should be limited by statute, and he might have pursued the point with more vehemence if he hadn’t also thought that the possession of great privilege was its own punishment. In a TV studio green room in Sydney one afternoon, Diamond Jim told me the best story about Rupert Murdoch’s meanness (what the Americans would call cheapness) I have ever heard. The essence of the story was that Murdoch had stiffed him for the price of a hamburger, but what doubled me up was the way Jim conveyed Murdoch’s anxiety that the stratagem might not work and that he, Murdoch, might actually have to part with money. Apparently Murdoch, to convey the proposition that he had forgotten his wallet, actually patted his pockets. Jim showed me how Murdoch did it: a kind of ritual palpation, as a man might caress something flat with fingers archly surprised that it isn’t full. A cat may look at a king, and Jim, always the coolest cat in town, had looked hard at a king among hustlers.


All his life, there wasn’t much Diamond Jim missed. But he did miss the significance of Whitlam’s overbearing personality – or at least, he missed it at the time, when it mattered. Perhaps, like many clever men, he had trouble believing that another clever man might be blind to his own impulsiveness. Perhaps, in those hectic hours at the finale, he just lacked time to think. Perhapses aside, the magnitude of his error is evident from what he could never bring himself to get angry about. He got angry, very angry, about Kerr’s failure to tell Whitlam what he had in mind. But he never got angry about Whitlam’s failure to ask.


If Whitlam, instead of appointing Kerr as governor-general, had appointed James McClelland, and then patronised James McClelland by not asking his opinion on the supply crisis, James McClelland would have been no less likely than Kerr to deduce that Whitlam was living in a dream world. The difference between Kerr and McClelland is that McClelland would have raised the issue. But if Whitlam had not listened, McClelland would have had to dismiss him. If I could go back in time to our TV interview, that’s the extra question I would ask McClelland. If you had been in Kerr’s shoes and Whitlam had ignored your advice, would you have dismissed Whitlam? And if McClelland had said no, I would have asked: then why would you have taken the job?

Clive James

Clive James was an author, critic, broadcaster and poet. He wrote more than 20 books, including his memoir, The Blaze of Obscurity, and a collection of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum.

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