US Meddling in Australian Politics

On November 24, 2007 the Australian Labor Party swept into power with Kevin Rudd replacing conservative Liberal Party Prime Minister John Howard. I awoke that morning with an email from a friend about this victory with the subject line “about bloody time! John Howard was becoming an embarrassment.” I concur. George Bush’s “coalition of the willing” (or “killing” as I say) is rapidly fading out. This news took me back, however, to 1972 and the Labor Party victory of Gough Whitlam. I was also in a state of euphoria with that win, but by 1975 the Whitlam government was dissolved by what some said was a CIA coup. Americans seem not to know about this important history.

You might ask the question “Why would the U.S. go after a democratic ally?” Most people normally think that the CIA business of ousting governments occurs in oil rich areas like the Middle East; countries that fall directly under the original Monroe Doctrine such as the beleaguered Latin Americans; or former western colonies in Africa and Asia that the U.S. thinks are fair game for the U.S. imperial ventures. But it appears that if the Americans or the CIA are bothered by some government they will go about its business of destabilization regardless. The level of democracy or alliance with the U.S. seems to have no meaning.

Being just out of Australia in 1972 and living in Singapore as the wife of a junior Australian diplomat, I was elated when receiving the news that Whitlam had become the first Labor Party Prime Minister in 23 years. I knew he was opposed to the Vietnam War and assumed that the alliance between Australia and the U.S. on the war would be strained if not broken. Little did I recognize at the time, however, the sweeping and significant progressive domestic policy changes Whitlam would initiate in Australia. Little did I realize how angry he would make the Nixon administration and the CIA.

Whitlam’s appointments for various ministries were filled with highly respected Australians such as Rex O’Connor as the Minister for Minerals and Energy, Dr. Jim Cairns who became the Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister, and Clyde Cameron as Minister for Labour. While Whitlam was more moderate than some of his ministers, still they all had a mission. For one, they wanted to “buy back the farm,” which was basically to establish control away from multinationals of the oil and other minerals, that then were 60% in the hands of foreigners, and to have it controlled by Australians. This is not an unreasonable goal, which the Americans, as you can imagine, did not appreciate.

In the early 1970’s the war in Vietnam was raging. Australia, under the conservative Liberal Party Prime Minister Harold Holt in the 1960’s, had sent Australian troops and advisers to Vietnam even without the consent of the South Vietnamese. The action was thought by some to have been primarily to please the Americans. It was a sycophantic behavior. The Labor Party opposition, on the other hand, was filled with those who were intensely opposed with Holt’s actions and to the war itself.

Tensions began to build between the Australians and the Americans over the Vietnam War. Various labor politicians were openly calling Nixon and Kissinger “mass murderers” and “maniacs.” In their fascinating article “Coup D’etat in Australia: 20 years of Cover-up” (New Dawn Magazine – 1996) Steve and Adelaide Gerlach write that:

Dr. Jim Cairns called for public rallies to condemn U.S. bombing in North Vietnam, and also for boycotts of American products. The Australian dockers unions reacted by refusing to unload American ships. While Whitlam was more moderate than Dr. Jim Cairns, Clyde Cameron and Tom Uren (prominent anti-Vietnam War Labor Ministers), he felt he had to say something to the Americans. He wrote what he considered a “moderately worded” letter to Nixon voicing his criticism of the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong in North Vietnam, on the basis that it would be counterproductive. Nixon, needless to say, was not amused. Some insiders said he was apoplectic with rage and resented the implications that he was immoral and had to be told his duty by an outsider.

Kissinger added that Whitlam’s “uninformed comments about our Christmas bombing [of North Vietnam] had made him a particular object of Nixon’s wrath.” (Mother Jones, Feb.-Mar., 1984, p. 15)

Soon after Whitlam took office, the American ambassador to Australia, Walter Rice, was sent to meet with Whitlam in order to politely tell him to mind his own business about Vietnam. Whitlam ambushed Rice, dominated the meeting, and spoke for 45 minutes rebuking the U.S. for its conduct of the Vietnam War. Whitlam told Rice that in a press conference the next day, “It would be difficult to avoid words like ‘atrocious’ and ‘barbarous'” when asked about the bombing.

The Prime Minister also appointed Sir John Kerr as the Governor General of Australia. Kerr, while a Labor Party member, was only marginally so in his politics. The Governor General is supposed to represent the interests of the Queen but Whitlam thought, of course, that Kerr would serve, as had all others in his position, at the behest of the Prime Minister’s requests and interests. The position is thought to be mostly ceremonial. Whitlam was mistaken on this score as Kerr ends up playing the central role in finally ending the Whitlam government.

Kerr was generally conservative and a monarchist. He, for one, had been on the executive board of the Association for Cultural Freedom and Law Association for Asia, which were largely thought to be CIA front organizations.

In fact, in an October 15, 2000 article in Australia’s “The Age”, author Andrew Clark writes that the Law Association was helped by the Asia Foundation which was “exposed in Congress ‘as a CIA established conduit for money and influence .The CIA paid for Kerr’s travel, built his prestige, and even published his writings through a subsidized magazine” (Clark took this information from Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathon Kwitny’s book “The Crimes of Patriots”).

What Whitlam accomplished the first 100 days of his government is enough to make many of us drool over such vision. Steve and Adelaide Gerlach (1996) outline some of Whitlam’s profound policies:

In the domestic sphere, Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s first 100 days put Bill Clinton to shame. The Whitlam government ended conscription and ordered the last Australian troops home from Vietnam. It brought legislation giving equal pay to women, established a national health service free to all, doubled spending on education and abolished university fees, increased wages, pensions and unemployment benefits, ended censorship, reformed divorce laws and set up the Family Law Courts, funded the arts and film industry, assumed federal responsibility for Aboriginal Affairs (health, welfare and land rights), scrapped royal patronage, and replaced “God Dave the Queen” as the national anthem with “Advance Australia Fair.”

He is also credited for ending the infamous “white Australia policy” so that finally immigrants from neighboring Asian countries were allowed legal immigrant status in Australia.

Whitlam’s foreign policies were also quite remarkable and against U.S. interests. He broke ranks with previous Australian Prime Ministers by reaching out to other Asian leaders to create trade and diplomatic relationships. He was one of the first western leaders to attempt normal relations with Chinese leaders. He also, in the midst of the war, established a consular relationship with North Vietnam by opening an embassy in Hanoi and the allowed the opening of a Cuban consulate in Sydney.

In other words, for all intents and purposes, Australia under Whitlam was not serving at the behest of British or U.S. dictates. It was independently establishing its own relationships. This was not appreciated by the Nixon administration, least of all Henry Kissinger who disliked the Labor leader immensely.

Prior to the Whitlam and since, American governments have considered Australia as a strategic location and partner in its military ventures. The Americans have bases in Australia, not the least of which being the “secret” base known as Pine Gap in the Australian dessert. Whitlam wanted to have more specifics on what the Americans were doing there. He discovered that Pine Gap (a satellite surveillance base) was run by the CIA and he made a public announcement about this. In fact, Victor Marchetti, former Chief Executive Assistant to the Deputy Director of the CIA, and one of the drafters of the Pine Gap treaty, confirmed this suspicion: “The CIA runs it, and the CIA denies it,” he said (Steve and Adelaide Gerlach, 1996). Whitlam also asked the Americans for a listing of all CIA operatives in Australia.

The Americans were supposed to share information with the Australians from their satellite findings but since the Labor Party had won it was thought that much of the information was being denied the government. Whitlam threatened he would not sign an extension of the Pine Gap lease due in December 1975 and this again infuriated the Nixon administration. (It was thought by most that Whitlam was posturing and that he was not likely to end the lease, but this still concerned the U.S.)

The fact is that the infamous Pine Gap base activities were making Australia vulnerable to attack and this angered Whitlam, as he had no control over the base activities. Again, Steve and Adelaide Gerlach (1996) write that:

There were at least three occasions when the Americans did not share vital information about the bases.

1) The transmitters at the North West Cape were used to assist the U.S. in mining Haiphong harbor in 1972. The Whitlam government was opposed to the mining of Vietnamese harbors, and would not have appreciated U.S. facilities on Australian soil being used to assist such an undertaking.

2) The satellites controlled by Pine Gap and Nurrungar were used to pinpoint targets for bombings in Cambodia. Again this was an activity to which the Whitlam government was opposed.

3) Whitlam was furious when he found out after the fact that U.S. bases in Australia were put on a Level 3 alert during the Yom Kippur war. The Australian bases were in danger of attack, yet the Australian Prime Minister was not alerted to this. (Incidentally, Kissinger was angered that Whitlam could be such a pest about such matters.)

There’s one other facet that plays a role here in terms of foreign policy and it has to do with Chile. A little known fact is that the Australian Secret Intelligence Services (ASIS) was involved in the overthrow of President Salvadore Allende in 1973. Clyde Cameron said that the ASIS operatives were serving at the behest of the CIA to help in the coup against Allende, as the CIA was not able to work effectively in Chile under Allende. “They had to do their dirty work through somebody else,” Cameron noted, “and they chose the Australian intelligence organizations.” When Whitlam discovered this he demanded that the ASIS be withdrawn from Chile yet they paid no attention to his orders. When Whitlam discovered they had not yet left Chile he was furious and, as Cameron says “put the knife through a lot of these people responsible for ignoring his directions.” By that time, however, Allende had been assassinated and Pinochet had taken over (“CIA in Australia” Part 3, Melbourne, Australia Public Radio News Service, 1986).

The American response to the Whitlam government was sinister, which leads to another important character in this cast and it was U.S. Ambassador Marshall Green. The U.S. State Department appointed Green to Australia in 1973. For the most part U.S. Ambassadors to Australia were rubber stamp diplomats who were being given the post as a political favor. This was not so with Green and the Labor politicians recognized this. Green was known as the “coupmaster.” Clyde Cameron notes that, “Marshall Green was for many years a top CIA operative who orchestrated the overthrow of the Sukarno government which led to the installation of President Suharto. He was involved in the CIA intrigue in Vietnam and in the overthrow of the government of Greece. He’s a very, very skilled operative in the art of destabilization of governments that the United States doesn’t approve of” (“CIA in Australia” Part 2, Melbourne, Australia Public Radio News Service, 1986).

When Clyde Cameron was visited by Ambassador Green at his office, he asked the question “what would you do if our government decided to nationalize the Australian subsidiaries of the various American multinational corporations?” Taken aback Green quickly said “Oh, we’ll move in.” Cameron asked if he meant the marines? And Green said that they didn’t do that kind of thing anymore but that “there are other things.” This is indeed the case (“CIA in Australia” Part 2, Melbourne, Australia Public Radio News Service, 1986).

One other facet in the scheme of things was the Nugan Hand Bank in Sydney, another CIA front organization, which was “founded in the early 1970’s by Frank Nugan, an Australian who had studied law for a while in Canada, and Michael Hand, and American who had fought with the Green Berets in Vietnam and then worked for the CIA airline, Air America” (John Bacher, Peace Magazine, 1988). The Nugan Hand Bank never banked. It was filled with a huge number of former military and CIA officers. Bacher says its four main services were “a way to flout laws and move money overseas; tax avoidance and schemes; extraordinarily high interest rates; and international trade connections.” The bank was involved with “drugs and arms dealing,” according to Bacher, “in Thailand, Malaysia, Brazil and the whole Rhodesian government of Ian Smith.”

As Bacher and others have noted, the Nugan Hand Bank was in the prime position to destabilize the Labor government. It “helped finance bugging and forgery operations.(and) transferred $24 million to the Australian Liberal Party through its many associated companies” (Bacher, 1988).

Whitlam at one point complained openly about the CIA meddling in Australian domestic affairs.

As the Labor ministers were attempting to move forward with their “buying back the farm” plan, the oil crisis of the early 1970’s impacted the Australian and virtually all the world economies. A scandal ensued in an attempt to borrow money from a Middle Eastern source that forced the resignations of Labor ministers Cairns and O’Connor. Leaks about the negotiations for a loan began appearing in the press implicating the ministers. There were likely mistakes made by the Labor ministers but the accusations as presented by the press appeared way out of proportion. The Liberal Party, being in control of the Senate, used this scandal as an excuse to deny passing Whitlam’s budget and to force an election, which occurred in December 1975.

In the meantime, Governor General Kerr stepped in, just before Whitlam was about to make public more of the information he had about Pine Gap and the CIA involvement and one month before the decision would be made on the U.S. bases lease. Kerr had been in conversation with the Liberal Party leader Malcolm Fraser and others prior to his critical action.

On the fateful day of November 11, 1975 Kerr used his reserve powers as Governor General and dissolved the Whitlam government at 1:10 PM. Malcolm Fraser was given the position as caretaker Prime Minister. The Liberal Party won the election in December 1975.

According to Clyde Cameron, Kerr had been in touch with the Australian armed services and the U.S. Embassy prior to the Whitlam dismissal. There was speculation that a labor strike might occur in response to the Whitlam dismissal so the plan was for the Americans to send in their Pacific fleet to bombard Sydney if it was needed (“CIA in Australia” Part 2, Melbourne, Australia Public Radio News Service, 1986).

The whole “loan affair” controversy is filled with questions, not the least of which includes strategically placed leaks to the press about the Labor ministers’ activities and a signed letter by Dr. Cairns giving the go ahead for one loan activity that has always been refuted by him.

Steve and Adelaide Gerlach (1996) report that, “In 1981, a CIA contract employee, Joseph Flynn, claimed that he had been paid to forge some documents relating to the loan affair, and also to bug Whitlam’s hotel room. The person who paid him was Michael Hand, co-founder of the Nugan Hand Bank (The National Times, Jan. 4-10, 1981).”

Many Australians have been seeking the smoking gun in the Whitlam ousting. One of my Australian friends says that Kerr was simply a megalomaniac. But as former CIA operative Ralph McGehee said:

“Well, my views are as though what’s the problem? I mean, we had a whole series of Agency spokesmen who said, `oh, yes, there was an Agency role in the overthrow of the Whitlam government’. I just don’t know why Australians can’t accept that. And then the CIA National Intelligence Daily said, `some of the most incriminating evidence in that period against the ministers in the Whitlam government may have been fabricated.’ This is about as strong as you get them to say so. It is quite obvious that information was being leaked about ministers Rex O’Connor and Jim Cairns and some of it was being forged which is a standard CIA process. Jim Flynn, who was associated with elements who were involved with the Nugan-Hand bank, he said that he was involved in manufacturing the cables and leaking them to the press. You have the statements by Christopher Boyce who was in a relay point for information from the CIA and in his trial he said that `if you think what the Agency did in Chile was bad, in which they spent 80 million dollars overturning the government of Chile there, the Allende government, you should see what they are doing in Australia’ (“CIA in Australia” Part 1, Melbourne, Australia Public Radio News Service, 1986).

Whitlam made the mistake of thinking that the Australians had some control over their own country and its policies. One of the critical factors resulting in the end of his government was the likely expectation by him and others that government employees would follow the dictates of the newly elected government. The allegiances developed after 23 years of the conservative Liberal Party authority were obviously still in place. To complicate matters further, the Australian Secret Service was seemingly following the dictates of the CIA rather than the Australian authorities. The CIA was obviously able to make good use of these well-established relationships.

Former CIA officer Marchetti says it best: “in essence this is like the old days in Europe where the nobility of various countries had more in common with each other than they did with their own people. This is true of intelligence services. They tend to have more in common with each other and their establishments which they represent than they do with their own people (“CIA in Australia” Part 3, Melbourne, Australia Public Radio News Service, 1986).

Also, when it comes to strategic interests, the U.S. does not seemingly want to be bothered with the interference of democratically elected officials.

Whitlam was threatening to not extend the lease for the U.S. bases in Australia. This also harkens back to the 1980’s destabilizing efforts on the part of the U.S. against the anti-bases movement in the Philippines. The U.S. was noted in this period for the launching of an intense anti-communist campaign in the Philippines and the funding a paramilitary groups or deaths squads to destroy the Filipino activism. The Filipino movement against extending the U.S. bases agreement (primarily for Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base) resulted in the deaths and torture of countless Filipinos who fought against the U.S. presence and to encourage the Filipino Senate not to allow for the lease extension.

What the Australian Labor Party was attempting at the time was in keeping with many of the anti-colonial movements after WWII, which was primarily to claim independence and have a modicum of control and benefit from their own natural resources. This is what Salvadore Allende was attempting at the same time period in Chile and what Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and others in South America, Asia and Africa are engaged in presently. Unlike Allende in 1973, Whitlam was not assassinated yet the demise of his government was as symbolic and devastating for many of us around the world.

You’ve got to hand it to Whitlam, though. He certainly did his best!!

HEATHER GRAY produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She can be reached at



Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at