The Loans Affair, also called the Khemlani Affair, was a political scandal involving the Whitlam Government of Australia in 1975, in which it was accused of attempting to unconstitutionally borrow money from Middle Eastern countries through the agency of a mysterious Pakistani banker called Tirath Khemlani, bypassing standard procedures of the Australian Treasury. Minerals and Energy Minister Rex Connor, along with Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister Dr Jim Cairns misled Parliament and were forced from the Whitlam Cabinet over the Affair, which was a key precursor to the Constitutional Crisis and the Dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975.
Minerals and Energy Minister Rex Connor wanted funds for a series of national development projects. He proposed that to finance his plans, the government should borrow $US 4 billion (at that time a huge sum of money). It was a requirement of the Australian Constitution that non-temporary government borrowings must be through the Loan Council. Although the development projects were long-term, Whitlam, together with ministers Cairns, Murphy and Connor authorised Connor to seek the loan on 13 December 1974, without involving the Loan Council. Connor had already been investigating the loan. Through an Adelaide builder, he had been introduced to Pakistani dealer Tirath Khemlani. According to Khemlani, Connor asked for a 20-year loan with interest at 7.7% and set a commission to Khemlani of 2.5%. Despite assurance that all was in order, Khemlani began to stall on the loan, notably after he was asked to go to Zurich with officials of the Reserve Bank of Australia to prove that the funds were in the Union Bank of Switzerland as he had claimed. The government revised its authority to Connor to $2 billion.
Tirath Khemlani played a pivotal role. He was employed by Dalamal and Sons, a London-based commodity-trading firm
The raising of foreign loans for the Australian Government at the time required the authorisation of the Loan Council. It was common knowledge that funds were usually borrowed from European banks or financiers. Connor's attempt to secure the loan was unusual for several reasons:
- The size of the loan was extremely large for the time.
- When a project of this scale and cost is undertaken, governments often attract foreign investment and ultimately form a business partnership, whereby the foreign investor would retain partial ownership and/or rights over the resources once the project is complete. However, this option was rejected by Connor who was renowned for his desire to have Australian resources controlled and owned by Australians.
- The Minister for Minerals and Energy was raising the loan independent of Treasury.
- Rather than attempting to raise the loan from US financiers, Connor attempted to raise the loan from Arab financiers, with Khemlani acting as the intermediary. There are unconfirmed reports that Arab financiers offered lower interest rates on governmental loans than US Banks/financiers. The Middle East at the time was awash with "petro-dollars", as the price of oil quadrupled between 1973 and 1974
Connor was duly authorised to raise loans through Khemlani in late 1974. Between December 1974 and May 1975, Khemlani sent regular telexes to Connor advising that he was close to securing the loan.
However, the loan never eventuated and, in May 1975, Whitlam sought to secure the loan instead through a major US investment bank. As part of the loan procedure, this bank imposed an obligation on the Australian Government to cease all other loan raising activities pertaining to this loan and accordingly, on 20 May 1975, Connor's loan-raising authority was formally revoked.
Progression after its leak
As news leaked of the plan, the Opposition began questioning the Government. Under questioning from Fraser, Whitlam said on 20 May that the loans pertained to "matters of energy", that the Loans Council had not been advised, and that it would be advised only "if and when the loan is made". The following day he told Fraser and Parliament that authority for the plan had been revoked. On 4 June 1975, the Treasurer and deputy prime minister, Jim Cairns, misled Parliament by claiming that he had not given a letter to an intermediary offering a 2.5% commission on a loan. Whitlam removed Cairns from Treasury and made him Minister for the environment, before dismissing him from Cabinet.
A special one-day sitting of the House of Representatives was held on 9 July 1975, during which the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam tabled the documents containing evidence about the loan and attempted to defend his government's actions.
Beset by economic difficulties at the time and by the negative political impact which the Loans Affair conjured up, the Whitlam Government was vulnerable to further assaults on its credibility.
Although Rex Connor's authority to seek an overseas loan was withdrawn following leaking of the scandal, he continued to liaise with Khemlani. The Herald, a major Melbourne daily newspaper, published documents proving this and Connor was forced to resign from the cabinet. He was replaced by the Minister for Agriculture, Ken Wriedt.
The Melbourne Herald newspaper journalist Peter Game tracked down Khemlani in mid-late 1975 and following an interview, he broke the story that ultimately opened up the Loans Affair. When Connor directly denied Khemlani's version of events, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, Khemlani flew to Australia in October 1975 and provided Peter Game with telexes sent to him from Connor that refuted Connor's denial.
On 13 October 1975, Khemlani provided a statutory declaration and a copy of the incriminating telexes sent from Connor's office, a copy of which was forwarded to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Upon receiving the documents, Whitlam dismissed Rex Connor from his government for misleading parliament. In his letter of dismissal, date 14 October 1975, Prime Minister Whitlam wrote: "Yesterday I received from solicitors a copy of a statutory declaration signed by Mr Khemlani and copies of a number of telex messages between Mr Khemlani’s office in London and the office of the Minister for Energy. In my judgment these messages did constitute "communications of substance" between the Minister and Mr Khemlani."
The loans affair embarrassed the Whitlam government and exposed it to claims of impropriety. The Malcolm Fraser-led Opposition used its majority in the Senate to block the government’s budget legislation, thereby attempting to force an early general election, citing the loans affair as an example of ‘extraordinary and reprehensible’ circumstances.
Fraser told Parliament that the government was incompetent and the opposition Liberal-Country Party Coalition delayed passage of the government's money bills in the Senate, with the intention of forcing the government to an election. Prime Minister Whitlam refused to call an election. The deadlock came to an end when Whitlam was dismissed by the Governor General, John Kerr on 11 November 1975 and Fraser was installed as caretaker Prime Minister, pending an election. At elections held in December 1975, Malcolm Fraser and the Coalition were elected in a landslide victory.
In popular culture
The Loans Affair was dramatised in the 1983 Ten Network mini-series called "The Dismissal".
- Brian Carroll; From Barton to Fraser; Cassell Australia; 1978
- "The middleman who caused the 'blow-up' of 1975 - National - theage.com.au". Melbourne: www.theage.com.au. 29 October 2005. Retrieved 2008-10-22.
- "In office – Gough Whitlam – Australia's PMs – Australia's Prime Ministers". Primeministers.naa.gov.au.
- "Before office – Malcolm Fraser – Australia's PMs – Australia's Prime Ministers". Primeministers.naa.gov.au.
- Topical Discussion on the Loans Affair and the Dismissal (Includes Chronological Timeline of Key Events)