The Whitlam dismissal: Four decades on

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Whitlam flanked by a painting of Kerr, the man who brought down his Government (Image by Peter van der Veer via Flickr)

Even with all the changes wrought by Whitlam and subsequent governments, we still have the British Monarch as our Head of State, writes Stephen Williams.

THE WHITLAM Labor government was dissolved by Governor-General Sir John Kerr on 11 November 1975, following a stalemate in the Senate over the Government’s money bills.

Whitlam had won office in 1972, with 67 seats to 58 against Liberal Prime Minister William McMahon’s Coalition.

Labor ran a fresh It’s Time campaign, following a record 23 years of conservative government. Interestingly, the Murdoch press supported Labor in the election. This must have had considerable influence.

There had been a half-senate election in 1970, resulting in equal seats for Labor and the Coalition, with eight crossbenchers (in 1972, there was, unusually, only voting for a single Senate seat).

Whitlam’s Labor was highly reformist: it overturned conscription; withdrew our remaining forces from Vietnam; introduced Medibank (now Medicare); and scrapped fees for tertiary education. Many other progressive changes took place, including sounding the death knell of the White Australia policy.

Whitlam won a double-dissolution election in May 1974, called following the blockage of Government bills in the Senate. Labor won 66 Lower House seats to 61. Whitlam had only lost one seat. At the same time, a full Senate election of 60 seats resulted in Labor 29, Coalition 29, with two crossbenchers. That meant Labor had gained five Senate seats.

One of the crossbenchers, Tasmanian Michael Townley, joined the Liberals in early 1975. There were a couple of controversial Senate replacements in the period leading up to Whitlam’s dismissal, but the essential point is that Labor was just shy of controlling the Senate.

Whitlam appointed Kerr to the post of Governor-General in July 1974 after Paul Hasluck refused to stay on past his five-year term. Businessman Ken Myer also refused the job.

Billy Snedden clung to the Liberal leadership following its electoral defeat in 1974, but Malcolm Fraser successfully toppled him in March 1975, thus becoming opposition leader.

Whitlam’s prime ministership is a complex subject, but it would be fair to say it wasn't without controversy. There was, of course, the Jim Cairns sex scandal. Trouble culminated in the so-called Loans Affair when the Whitlam Government sought to borrow a large amount of money for its infrastructure plans from the cashed-up Middle-East via a Pakistani broker.

The loan never eventuated, but the path taken was unusual, to say the least, with some ministers eventually misleading Parliament when the scandal surfaced. These ministers either resigned or were sacked.

Fraser, as Opposition Leader, smelt blood. In the second half of 1975, he instructed his Senators to block the supply of money bills in the hope of forcing Whitlam to another general election, as they had done the previous year.

A stand-off ensued, with Governor-General Kerr the meat in the sandwich. Kerr had the putative reserve powers to dismiss the Prime Minister. We now know he sought and received written advice from High Court Chief Justice Garfield Barwick about it. Kerr also had verbal advice from former High Court Justice Anthony Mason — Mason revealed his side of the story only in 2012, following the release of some of Kerr’s official papers.

Whitlam seems to have thought he had Kerr under control (he had appointed Kerr after all). But he was to learn otherwise.

One option for Whitlam was to ask Kerr for a half-Senate election to break the impasse. However, Kerr, without warning, dismissed Whitlam, with Fraser seemingly aware of what was about to happen. Fraser was appointed caretaker PM by Kerr upon Whitlam’s dismissal.

He then quickly got the money bills through the Senate before Labor knew what had hit it.

Whitlam’s defiant media speech outside parliament house after the dismissal is now etched deeply into our history:

Well may we say ‘God save the Queen’, because nothing will save the Governor-General! The proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor-General's official secretary was countersigned ‘Malcolm Fraser’, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr's cur.”

Kerr’s action was unprecedented at the Federal level, although two dismissals had already happened at the state level.

Kerr chose to blindside Whitlam rather than warn him about a potential sacking. In 2012, former Justice Mason claimed that he advised Kerr that he should give Whitlam such a warning. This would have meant a "race to Buckingham Palace", with Whitlam almost certainly sacking Kerr first. But Kerr had possibly another nine years in his sinecure, then a fat pension to enjoy.

No doubt, he didn’t want to risk either.

Fraser won the ensuing 1975 election in a landslide, despite the controversy of the dismissal.

For all of their ups and downs, the Whitlam years were, and are, fascinating.

They included:

  • The release of the oral contraceptive pill from the early 1960s had led to considerable social changes, not just sexual liberation.
  • The emergence of environmentalism in the late 1960s was partly responsible for free-market forces coalescing into the propaganda machine it still is today.
  • The Vietnam War (1962-75) had a profound socio-cultural effect on society.
  • The Bretton-Woods currency exchange-rate mechanism was dissolved by U.S. President Nixon in 1971.
  • Whitlam, as Opposition Leader, visited China in 1971 to discuss official recognition. McMahon criticised Whitlam, but an official U.S. delegation also visited China almost immediately, making McMahon look like a goose.
  • The Club of Rome published the seminal book The Limits to Growth in 1972.
  • In the early 1970s, oil prices dramatically increased, causing unusually high inflation.
  • The Balibo Five (Australian journalists) were killed in October 1975 as Indonesia prepared to invade East Timor.

Hence, the Whitlam period was one of considerable economic and social upheaval.

And it could be argued that some of the Prime Minister’s senior colleagues were not the sharpest tools in the shed.

It is interesting to speculate on what might have been if Whitlam had control of the Senate. Or if Kerr had followed Mason’s advice. One can further speculate on events if Hasluck, the Governor-General immediately before Kerr, had stayed on past 1974. Or if businessman Ken Myer, Whitlam’s first choice, had agreed to be the Governor-General.

As it is, despite Australia's having matured considerably since 1975, we still have the British Monarch, Queen Elizabeth, as our Head of State, with the Monarch’s representative being the Governor-General, Peter Cosgrove.

Moreover, the Governor-General can still dismiss a democratically elected government. Although, they may well pay a very high price for such an action, no matter how sincerely done, as Kerr certainly did pay.

In current times, as well, the Australian Republic Movement seems stalled since its cunning defeat in the 1999 referendum.

Moreover, the Australian media still seem insatiable for royal tidbits – no matter how banal – as the marriage and recent Australian tour of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle amply demonstrated, with the ABC happily joining in the frenzy of tabloid silliness (but Meghan’s frocks and shoes were, admittedly, impressive).

It seems to not matter where the House of Windsor’s authority comes from — they have royal blood, don’t they? I guess their authority comes from our seeming pleasure at tugging the forelock and our acceptance of the notion of divine authority through paternal lineage.

And Windsor isn't even their real name!

If Whitlam was still around today, I'm sure he'd be leading the charge towards an Australian Republic. 

Stephen Williams writes mainly about politics, economics and the environment.

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