The Irish connection to Australia’s most bizarre series of scandals

ONE of the more intriguing files in the State papers opened this week concerned the appointment of Senator Vincent Gair as Australian ambassador to Ireland in 1974.

His appointment became the first of a series of GUBU-type scandals that rocked the government of Gough Whitlam and ultimately led to the greatest constitutional crisis in Australian history.

Vince Gair was coming to the end of his political career. Born in Queensland on February 25, 1901, he had strong Irish connections. His mother was from Enniskillen, and both of his wife’s parents were Irish - her father was from Clare and her mother from Kerry. Vince went to a Christian Brothers school and some 60 years later still recalled two Irish teachers - a Br Ryan and a Br Hogan, from Clonmel.

Gair served as premier of Queensland from 1952 until the Labor party split in 1957. He later became leader of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) in the Australian Senate, but he was ousted as party leader in a heave in 1973.

Knowing Gair was disgruntled, Whitlam saw a chance to create an extra vacancy among Queensland’s senate seats in the forthcoming election, thus giving his Australian Labor Party (ALP) a chance of an extra seat.

As Whitlam approached Gair with the position of ambassador, Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen considered this a piece of political cynicism. He undermined Whitlam’s plans by moving the election writ before Gair had formally resigned. Once the writs were moved, the Premier would fill any other vacancy.

In a ploy reminiscent of the 1927 Jinks affair here, two colleagues kept Gair occupied - drinking beer and eating prawns - while the premier moved the election writs. This became known in Australian political folklore as “the night of the long prawn”.

The frustrated Whitlam denounced the Queensland premier as “a Bible-bashing bastard”, according to Ireland’s ambassador to Australia, Florrie O’Riordan.

The colourful Whitlam had been elected prime minister in December 1972 as leader of the ALP, which had spent a quarter of a century in the wilderness. His government ran into serious economic problems but he was credited with many reforms, especially in the redistribution of income.

Gair took up his ambassadorial post in Dublin, and Whitlam called on the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs Minister Garret FitzGerald at Government Buildings on December 23, 1974. Ambassador Gair accompanied him. If the Irish government resented being implicated in the Australian scandal, as was widely reported in Australia, they certainly did not mention it at this meeting.

Although the Irish in Australia were traditionally strong supporters of the labour movement, they tended to take a particularly jaundiced view of Whitlam’s government. In early 1975 it pushed through legislation making it easier to get a divorce. The Catholic Church opposed the liberalising legislation, which was pushed through parliament by Attorney General Senator Lionel Murphy (ALP), whose parents were from Ireland. He had already antagonised the Irish-Australians by cutting state aid to Catholic schools. Murphy had become such a political liability to the ALP that Whitlam appointed him to the Australian High Court, stirring up further resentment.

It had been a convention in Australia that any Senate replacements were from the same party as the Senator being replaced, but the Liberal governor of New South Wales replaced Murphy with an independent instead, thereby undermining his party’s position in the Senate, where the government and opposition each had the same number of seats.

“Senator Murphy was a constant reminder of the Vincent Gair affair - which is a lively source of polemics,” Ambassador O’Riordan reported on February 20, 1975.

WHEN Ambassador O’Riordan visited Sydney for requiem services for Eamon de Valera in September, the Gair affair was still being raised constantly.

“I continue to be surprised by the vehement feelings which the Gair appointment arouses in Irish and Irish-Australian circles,” he reported on September 12, 1975. “It is quite definitely felt as a slur to the Irish-Australian community by the Whitlam administration.”

“It is now almost impossible to open an Australian newspaper or magazine without finding some derogatory reference to Mr Vincent Gair,” the ambassador reported on October 21, 1975.

“The Gair affair might have passed into semi-oblivion but for the fact that it was followed by a series of disasters for the Whitlam government.”

One of those involved the recently appointed finance minister, who Whitlam had to have removed after he became involved in a farcical attempt to raise a AUS$4bn loan and was exposed as having an affair with a married member of his staff.

Those scandals, on top of the Gair affair, had a profound impact on the Irish community. “Everywhere I have gone in Australia I have been bombarded with comments, anecdotes, jokes on Vince Gair,” the ambassador continued. “This has happened from governors of states, politicians of all parties, clergy, academics, businessmen, journalists and people in every walk of life. The anecdotes may not be true but many of them are very funny - or would be if we had no connection.”

Whitlam’s wife privately told the Irish ambassador that Gair’s appointment was “very unwise”. Although there was talk about recalling him from Dublin, one Australian official told O’Riordan that this would be a disaster. He said the whole thing reminded him of a remark Disraeli made about Gladstone. If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a tragedy, Disraeli said. But it would be a disaster if they fished him out.

After the government lost Murphy’s seat in the Senate, the opposition provoked a constitutional crisis by blocking some funding bills in order to force Whitlam to call a general election.

Governor General Sir John Kerr, a Whitlam government appointee, took the unprecedented step on Armistice Day, November 11, 1975, of dismissing the prime minister and installing the opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister.

“Well we may say ‘God Save the Queen’ because nothing will save the Governor General,” an infuriated Whitlam declared after the announcement. Fraser, he added, “will go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr’s cur”.

O’Riordan wrote: “It certainly is anomalous that an appointed official - which is what the Governor-General in effect is - can dismiss an elected government.”

The ALP (the DLP by this time having collapsed) had been making a distinct advance in the polls during the Senate stand-off, as 64% of the people opposed Fraser’s policy. Labor had closed a 24% gap in the polls to just 4%, so the election seemed wide open.

Whitlam sought to exploit the situation, using the slogan: “Shame, Fraser, Shame.”

But the results of the general election were a disaster for Whitlam’s Labor Party, which suffered its worst defeat in the country’s history. Fraser gained a comfortable overall majority in both house of parliament.

The Governor General may have been vindicated but he was so reviled in his native Australia that he had to move to England for many years. The Fraser government promptly recalled Gair. Army Intelligence kept a file on Gair in Dublin for some reason, but it was withheld from the documents released this week, even though he died on November 11, 1980.

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