The Guardian • Issue #2097

Pine Gap on Red Alert: Australia’s ‘allies’ revealed

Part One

Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Photo: Peter Hunter – (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In October 1973, the US government placed all of its bases on nuclear alert, including the Pine Gap and North West Cape bases in Australia, without informing the Prime Minister. Speaking with the ABC, Brian Toohey, a journalist and former Labor staffer who has written extensively on Pine Gap and the Whitlam government, revealed that the US had broken its agreements with Australia. This story is just one example of the secrecy and foreign intervention which defeated Australian democracy in 1975.

The red alert was in response to tensions created by the Yom Kippur War, also known as the Fourth Arab-Israeli War. As the US supported Israel against Arab nations, led by Egypt and Syria and supported by the USSR, then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger issued a DefCon 3 alert as the Americans prepared to deliver nuclear strikes should the conflict escalate to war with the Soviet Union. Australia was to be a key player in this war plan, through the secretive US military facility Pine Gap and other US bases across the country. Even Australia’s own military bases continue to be available for US use, and would likely have been involved in a US and Israel-led nuclear war.

There was one major problem. Australia knew nothing about it.


Whitlam’s time in office was plagued with secrecy from Australia’s so-called allies, as well as Australia’s own intelligence apparatus and political elites. Whitlam is perhaps most famous these days for his unprecedented dismissal on the 11 November 1975 Governor-General Sir John Kerr. The narrative most Australians are told is that Whitlam failed to pass his Budget in the face of political deadlock between the Labor-led House of Representatives and the Liberal advantage in the Senate. Kerr, obliged to defend responsible government, was forced to use, for the first time, the reserve powers of the Crown to dismiss Whitlam and install his political nemesis, Liberal Party leader Malcolm Fraser, as caretaker PM.

This story does not even begin to cover the true scale of political intrigue both domestically and internationally which conspired to remove Whitlam from office. Australian historian and political scientist Jenny Hocking, in her biography Gough Whitlam: His Time, provides a much more detailed picture. Months before the political deadlock, Malcolm Fraser, in close contact with former PM Sir Robert Menzies, began secret communications with Kerr regarding the possibility of sacking Whitlam. It is from these meetings that the deadlock emerged as a deliberate strategy by Fraser’s Liberal Party to undermine the Whitlam government and create an excuse for Kerr’s intervention.

Kerr also met with Chief Justice Garfield Barwick and Justice Anthony Mason of the High Court. Barwick and Mason assured Kerr that he possessed the power to remove Whitlam and, in clear violation of the doctrine of separation of powers, devised with Kerr a strategy to install Fraser as PM. Mason encouraged Kerr to tell Whitlam about the existence of these powers and warn him about a possible dismissal. Fraser was informed. Whitlam was not.

Hocking has also campaigned for more information to be revealed through her successful case in the High Court against the National Archives. Secret correspondence between Kerr and the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, as well as then Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth II herself have been released as a result of this case. Now referred to as the Palace Papers, these documents reveal that the Queen had extensive prior knowledge of Kerr’s plans to dismiss Whitlam. In fact, as Hocking notes Kerr’s every action seems to have been informed by correspondence with the Royals. Not only did the Royals assure Kerr that he had the power to dismiss Whitlam, but Charteris wrote to Kerr that “The Queen would take most unkindly” to any advice from Whitlam that would challenge Kerr’s own position.

It is a platitude today to say that the Crown is politically neutral and has no real power. Even Buckingham Palace stated after the dismissal that “neither Her Majesty nor the Royal Household had any part to play in Kerr’s decision to dismiss Whitlam.” The Palace Papers reveal this to be nothing but lies. The Queen and the Royal Household lied to the Australian public about their involvement in undermining the democratically elected government of Australia, and kept their involvement secret for nearly fifty years.


A major part of Whitlam’s programme was the drive for greater Australian sovereignty. Whitlam began a push towards the nationalisation of Australian resources. He also began to move Australia towards the Non-Aligned Movement (a largely decolonial movement which sought to avoid taking sides in the Cold War) and opened relationships with the German Democratic Republic, Vietnam, and most significantly, China.

Whitlam was also opposed to the USA’s regime of secretive military installations on Australian soil. The October 1973 red alert is just one incident in the long history of the USA’s disrespect for Australian sovereignty. One of Whitlam’s campaign promises was to reveal the secrets of Pine Gap to all Australians. He also opposed the involvement of ASIS in the CIA’s coup of the democratically elected leader of Chile, Salvador Allende. Whitlam instructed Australian intelligence agencies, such as ASIO and ASIS, to cut ties with the CIA. These instructions were largely ignored. A 1976 Royal Commission revealed that ASIO had been providing the CIA with extensive, secret information about Australian politicians. Whitlam’s international policy deviated from the Americans’ further, as he resolutely opposed Apartheid and withdrew Australian soldiers from Vietnam.

The Socialist Party of Australia (now the CPA) wrote to Whitlam in 1973 posing ten questions on foreign policy, among them issues of nuclear disarmament, détente, and the withdrawal of military bases from Australian soil. In his response, Whitlam stated plainly that “We do not favour the extension or prolongation of any of those existing [stations].”

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