Remembering the Whitlam Dismissal

Gough Whitlam died today at the age of 98. His death comes just a few weeks shy of the thirty-ninth anniversary of his dismissal at the hands of the Governor-General. This momentous event was one of the defining moments of Australian politics, but what exactly happened back in November of 1975, and why is it significant?

Whitlam became Prime Minister of Australia in 1972, and although his Australian Labor Party had a small majority in the House of Representatives, the Senate was controlled by the Opposition Coalition.[1] One of the quirks of the Australian constitution is that, unlike most Westminster systems, their upper house has the roughly the same powers as the lower house,[2] and the Coalition was not shy about using its Senate majority to frustrate the Whitlam Government. In 1974, Whitlam sought a double dissolution (i.e., a dissolution of both the Senate and the House of Representatives) after the Senate refused to pass key pieces of legislation. Although Labor gained seats in the Senate, they still didn’t have a majority–Labor and the Coalition each won 29 seats in the 60-member Senate, and the balance of power was held by two independents.

To make matters worse, the Coalition was able to gain a Senate majority in 1975 thanks to some political skullduggery. Labor Senator Bertie Milliner of Queensland died in June, but the Queensland Parliament refused to elect the candidate proposed by the state Labor Party.[3] Instead, they selected a low-level union official named Albert Field who nominated himself for the position.[4] Although Field was a member of the Labor Party, he made it clear that he wouldn’t support Whitlam. Labor was outraged by Field’s election and went to court to have it nullified. Field ended up taking a leave of absence, which gave the Coalition an effective majority in the Senate.

There was a glimmer of hope for Labor: in October, the High Court upheld legislation giving the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory two senators each,[5] and this raised the possibility that Labor might be able to gain a small majority.

However, this small bright spot was overshadowed by the Coalition’s decision to block supply (i.e., financial legislation) in mid-October in response to a scandal involving the Minister of Minerals and Energy, Rex Connor. When the Senate refused to pass the supply bills, the Whitlam Government was in an awkward position. By longstanding convention, the Crown’s Ministers must be able to obtain supply in order to hold office, and some, including former Solicitor-General Bob Ellicott, argued that the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, should dismiss Whitlam from office if he couldn’t say how he would gain supply.

As the crisis rumbled on, Sir John tried to break the deadlock, and he grew more and more concerned as the stalemate continued. He didn’t share his concerns with Whitlam, however, because he was afraid that Whitlam might ask the Queen to remove him from office if he saw Sir John as a threat.[6]

In early November, the Coalition doubled down on its threat to block supply. Faced with an unwavering Government and an equally resolute Opposition, the Governor-General decided that he had no choice but to remove Whitlam from office. He sought advice from the Chief Justice of the High Court, who counseled him that he had the right to dismiss a Prime Minister who couldn’t secure supply. Another High Court justice echoed this opinion, with the proviso that Sir John should warn Whitlam that he was thinking of dismissing him.

Meanwhile, Whitlam decided to advise the Governor-General to hold a half-Senate election in the hopes of winning a majority that would allow him to obtain supply. He requested a meeting with Sir John on November 11, which was granted. But while Sir John was waiting for Whitlam to arrive, the Governor-General contacted Malcolm Fraser and asked if Fraser could secure supply if he were appointed as caretaker Prime Minister. Fraser replied in the affirmative, and he indicated that he would immediately seek a double dissolution.

When Whitlam arrived at Yarralumla (the Governor-General’s official residence) he tried to give Sir John an instrument of advice for the half-Senate election. The Governor-General refused to accept it and informed Whitlam that he was terminating his appointment as Prime Minister under section 64 of the Constitution. After Whitlam left, Sir John called Fraser and commissioned him as caretaker Prime Minister.

That afternoon, Fraser told the House of Representatives of his appointment as Prime Minister and announced that he would seek a double dissolution. He moved the adjournment of the House, but he was defeated, and Labor used its majority to pass a motion of no confidence in Fraser. The Speaker was ordered to go to the Governor General and ask for Whitlam’s reappointment, but Sir John signed the proclamation dissolving both Houses before the Speaker could see him. After the Governor-General’s Official Secretary read the proclamation on the steps of Parliament House, Whitlam made an impromptu speech containing the famous line “well may we say ‘God Save the Queen,’ because nothing will save the Governor-General!”

The next day (November 12), the Speaker of the House of Representatives wrote to the Queen in a Hail Mary attempt to get Whitlam reinstated, but she declined to get involved. As her Private Secretary told the Speaker in a letter dated November 17:

 As we understand the situation here, the Australian Constitution firmly places the prerogative powers of the Crown in the hands of the Governor-General as the representative of the Queen of Australia. The only person competent to commission an Australian Prime Minister is the Governor-General, and The Queen has no part in the decisions which the Governor-General must take in accordance with the Constitution.

Whitlam believed that his dismissal would be an asset on the campaign trail, but he proved to be mistaken. The Coalition won a landslide victory and secured majorities in both Houses of Parliament, and they would hold power until 1983.

History has not been kind to Sir John. Over the years, commentators such as Paul Kelly have faulted him for failing to be open and transparent with Whitlam. But while greater openness on Sir John’s part might have encouraged Whitlam to be less intransigent, it’s also possible that Whitlam would have repaid Sir John’s frankness by sacking him.

One of the reasons the Whitlam dismissal was so controversial was that many Australians believed that the Governor-General’s role was purely ceremonial, and the idea that he would ever use his reserve powers seemed largely academic. Despite the controversy over Sir John’s actions, the Governor-General’s powers were not abridged, and the Governor-General could theoretically remove a Prime Minister once more.

NOTES

[1] The Coalition consisted of the Liberal Party and the Country Party.

[2] The Australian constitution reflects the situation in Britain prior to 1911 when the House of Lords lost its absolute veto over most legislation.

[3] Section 15 of the Australian Constitution gives state Parliaments the power to fill casual vacancies in the Senate.

[4] The Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was a foe of Whitlam, so he had a vested interest in making sure that Queensland’s new senator wouldn’t be too friendly with the Prime Minister.

[5] This legislation had been passed during a special joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament convened under section 57 of the Constitution. To date, this is the only time this has occurred.

[6] Although the Governor-General technically serves at the Queen’s pleasure, his or her tenure is effectively determined by the Prime Minister.

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2 Responses to Remembering the Whitlam Dismissal

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    A very good summary of Gough Whitlam’s dismissal that I remembered from the time. There is an interesting consequence for our own Parliament. As you correctly note, the Australian Senate retained the powers that the House of Lords held before 1911. Since then, there has been only a delaying power and under the Salisbury Convention the Lords does not oppose legislation at Second reading that is in the Government’s manifesto (or Government money bills). I should also note that following the changes to the House of Lords in 1997, there is some dispute about whether the Salisbury Convention still applies, particularly in the case of a low voter turnout and a low proportion of voter support for a majority Government.
    Now, a question that may well be asked is: if the reform of the House of Lords begun in 1997 is completed with its conversion to a mainly or wholly elected chamber (as is the will of the Commons) will the elected members be bound by the Convention? One can argue that, as they have been elected, they have an equal status to MPs and therefore have the right to reject legislation that they do not agree with. We are faced with the choice between second-class Parliamentarians and a situation like that in the USA where Senate and House of Representatives have to agree on the wording of any Bill; a recipe for political gridlock. Neither option appears to be good, but so far no one seems to have suggested a sensible approach to avoid this.

    • jasonloch says:

      MPs want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want an upper house that has a democratic mandate, but they also want it to be perpetually subservient to the Commons. To me, that’s totally illogical. The norms that currently govern relations between the two Houses are predicated on the fact that peers are unelected. Once that changes, those norms are no longer applicable. If MPs can’t accept that, they should stop arguing for an elected Lords and focus on improving the status quo (e.g., limiting Prime Ministerial patronage).

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