Whitlam Dismissal

The Whitlam Dismissal
What have been some important political
developments in post-war Australian history?
How have significant individuals and groups
exercised their democratic rights in the postwar period?
On November 11 1975 , for the first time in
Australia’s Federal History a democratically
elected Government was dismissed by the
appointed Governor General, the Queens
The debate still rages today
The impact still reverberates in Australian
The Senate is primarily intended
to be a States house and a house
of review.
The Loans
It has the power to reject or defer
money bills or appropriation bills.
1975 was the first time
since Australia's federal
government was
established in 1901 that
the Senate had blocked
Does an elected
government have the right
to govern for 3 years?
The Role of
the Senate
Australian principals of democratic government originate
from two the sources - the constitution itself and the
conventions that surround its application.
A convention is the typical, usual or accepted manner in
which an aspect of government operates.
Constitutional Power
of Governor General
( an appointed
The right to sack an
elected government
Australia is a constitutional monarchy. It has a democratic system of
government, however, its Head of State is the Monarch, when that person is in
Australia, or the Governor-General otherwise.
Much of the Governor-General's role is ceremonial or symbolic - opening
Parliament, swearing in Government ministers. However, he has a number of
more substantial functions, such as serving as president of the Executive Council,
which attempts to ensure that all actions of the government are constitutionally
correct and lawful.
The Governor-General also has another set of powers called `reserve powers'.
Not all the reserve powers are fully spelt out within the Australian Constitution
and some which are clearly stated have never been employed. For example the
Governor-General is nominally the Commander-in-Chief of Australia's armed
forces, however, he never acts in this capacity.
It was one of these powers that Sir John Kerr called upon when he dismissed the
Whitlam Government.
The Whitlam Labor Government came to office on December 2, 1972. It
was the first time in 23 years that a Labor Government had been elected.
Some analysts also claim that for the Liberal/National Country Party
Coalition, having been in government for a generation made it difficult
for its members to accept either their new position as the Opposition or
the legitimacy of the Whitlam Government.
The Whitlam Government introduced a program of marked reform. This
reform program included pulling Australian troops out of Vietnam;
banning sporting contact with South Africa; commissioning inquiries into
Aboriginal land rights; abolishing education fees; supporting women's
rights; lowering the voting age to 18; modifying the electoral system;
introducing Medibank (universal health insurance funded through
taxation) and making welfare payments available to single parent
Mixed with the Government's program of reform were a series of scandals and administrative
blunders, including the Whitlam Government's ill-fated attempt to raise money through loans
from the Middle East in a manner that was widely condemned as illegitimate.
These scandals and blunders served to discredit the Government in the eyes of the Opposition
and later the electorate.
High inflation and high unemployment also damaged the Whitlam Government.
Throughout its period in office the Whitlam Government never had a clear majority in the Senate.
From December 1972 to December 1975, the Coalition was able to use its numbers in the
Senate to form alliances with either Democratic Labor Party senators or independents and
reject many government bills.
In April 1974 the Whitlam Government went to an early election in an attempt to prevent the
Senate from frustrating its legislation.
It won this election, but did not secure a majority in the Senate.
On October 15, 1975, the Coalition used its numbers in the Senate to block the Whitlam
Government's Appropriation Bills. This denied the Government the money it needed to
World Wide oil crisis leads to
Inflation and rising interests
Labor Unpopular
Party due to scandals
Constitutional crisis
“My view is
Governor General
will act on the
advice of his
ministers…as the
Queen does on the
advice of hers.”
“The Governor Generalship is
a developing
institution….coming more
and more to symbolize
Australia’s independent
identity. This is done on the
basis of knowledge and
understanding by the
Governor General of policies
and principles.”
Ladies and Gentlemen. Well may we say 'God save
the Queen', because nothing will save the GovernorGeneral.
EG Whitlam, 11 November 1975
Malcolm Fraser- Leader
of the Liberal
Minister for Minerals and
power broker
Sir Garfield Barwick
Justice of the High
“The appointment is a responsibility I am looking
forward to. It provides the opportunity to play a
non-controversial but important role in national
affairs...”. Sir John Kerr on his new appointment as
John Kerr, born in Balmain the son of a boilermaker, began his career as a lawyer in 1938.
He had been financially and academically mentored by HV Evatt through his University
years. Evatt had written a book in 1936 called The King and His Dominion Governors
where he explored the reserve powers of the Governors under the Constitution
Kerr was a member of the Labor Party until the Labor Party-Democratic Labor Party split
of 1955, after which he allowed his Party membership to lapse. From that point Kerr
became increasingly involved with the legal establishment and cultivated his relationships
with Liberal politicians.
In 1966, the Liberal Government appointed Kerr Judge of the Supreme Court of the ACT
and the Commonwealth Industrial Court. In 1972, Kerr was appointed NSW Chief Justice,
and knighted the same year.
He accepted Gough Whitlam’s appointment as Governor General in 1972
After the 1972 elections the
Labor Party had 26 members in the Senate,
Liberal Country Party had 27
Four DLP members who usually voted with
the Liberals
Two Independents who voted with Labor
In April 1974 Whitlam offered a DLP Senator
Vince Gair, the job of Ambassador to Ireland.
This was seen by the Opposition as a trick to get
rid of a political opponent
 Using a majority in the Senate, Snedden
threatened to deny funds to the Government to
force Whitlam to the polls. Leader of the
Opposition in the Senate, Reg Withers, argued
 “Because of its maladministration, the
Government should not be granted funds until it
agrees to submit itself to the people.”
Whitlam embraced the election Snedden was forcing, intending to
secure a further three year term of government. He advised the
Governor-General to dissolve the House of Representatives and the
Senate for an election.
An election for both the House of Representatives and the Senate was
held on May 18, 1974. Both Snedden and Whitlam campaigned hard.
Both believed they would win.
The election proved to be one of the closest in Australia’s history. It took
ten days for the results to become clear. Whitlam became the first Labor
Prime Minister to be re-elected—but a majority in the Senate still eluded
him. In the House of Representatives, the Labor majority was reduced
from nine to five seats. In the Senate it was much closer. Labor secured
29 Senate seats, as did the Coalition. Two conservative Independents
won the remaining Senate seats, Liberal Movement Senator Steele Hall
(SA), and Michael Townley (TAS), who was admitted to the Liberal Party
shortly after the election.
32 Labor seats
37 liberal seats
Australian Greens 5 seats Bob Brown
Family First 1 Steve Fielding
Independents 1 Nick Xenophon
In mid-1975, the Government and Opposition were evenly
balanced in the Senate, as long as the two Independents voted
with Labor. But on June 30, Queensland Labor Senator Bert
Milliner died suddenly and everything changed.
 Queensland Country Party Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was
vigilant for any opportunity to subvert the power of the federal
Labor Government. He believed Whitlam was pursuing a
centralist, socialist agenda that was destroying his State. Now
Bjelke-Petersen had a chance to influence the balance of power in
the Senate—attacking the Federal Government where it was
weakest. Bjelke-Petersen used his influence in the Queensland
Parliament to secure the appointment of a complete unknown to
fill Milliner’s place. Albert Patrick Field stepped out of obscurity
and into the limelight. Although he was a member of the Labor
Party, Field was openly hostile toward Whitlam and his
Government. This ensured his nomination by Bjelke-Petersen
Rex Connor had plans to make Australia’s minerals and energy resources
the cornerstone of the Australian economy. To finance his vision he
needed four billion dollars. The meeting at the Lodge gave Connor
authority to raise a loan. The loan was sought from the Middle East,
awash with ‘petrodollars’, following massive increases in oil prices in 1973
and 1974. A London based broker, Tirath Khemlani, was used by Connor
to arrange the loan in return for a substantial commission.
It was expected that the loan would come through in the short term. It
did not. Try as he might, Connor was unable to contact Khemlani and in
the end no loan was ever obtained, and no commission was paid.
Approval to seek the loan was withdrawn on January 7, 1975, but
renewed on January 28, 1975 for the lesser amount of two billion dollars.
Connor’s authority was finally withdrawn on May 20, 1975. The same day
in the House of Representatives, Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser
began a sustained attack on the Government.
When Whitlam, Murphy, Connor and Cairns
met at the Lodge they met as the Executive
Council. Under the Australian Constitution,
Executive Council meetings are held for the
Governor-General to approve Government
decisions. The Governor-General is not
required to be at these meetings but it is
convention that he be informed of them in
Malcolm Fraser argued that appropriate procedures had not been
followed in authorising the loan. “The facts... raise the strong
possibility that there was an illegal conspiracy to defraud and to
deceive”. Whitlam responded by asserting that: “...no responsible
person has...made any specific charges of impropriety, of illegal or
corrupt conduct on the part of my Government”.
 Then on October 10, 1975, Khemlani flew to Australia intending to
secure his commission. He brought with him evidence of
correspondence with Connor dated after Connor’s authority to
negotiate had been withdrawn. The fate of Rex Connor was
sealed. He resigned from Cabinet on October 13, 1975. But the
damage had been done. The credibility of the Labor Government
had been shaken, its position weakened, and the way paved for
the Opposition’s final assault. Two days later the Opposition made
a decisive move to oust the Whitlam Labor Government.
At 2:56pm Fraser announced that he would use his Senate
majority to block Supply until the Government agreed to
call an election.
In Fraser’s view:
The opposition now has no choice. We will use the power
vested in us by the Constitution and delay the passage of the
Government’s money bills through the Senate until the
Parliament goes to the people.
Whitlam responded:
I state again the basic rule of our parliamentary system:
Governments are made and unmade in the House of
Representatives—the people’s House. The Senate cannot,
does not, and must never determine who the Government
shall be.
Fraser harnessed what he saw as his opportunity to catch Whitlam
‘with his pants well and truly down’. At 2:56pm Fraser announced
that he would use his Senate majority to block Supply until the
Government agreed to call an election.
In Fraser’s view:
The opposition now has no choice. We will use the power vested in us
by the Constitution and delay the passage of the Government’s
money bills through the Senate until the Parliament goes to the
Whitlam responded:
I state again the basic rule of our parliamentary system:
Governments are made and unmade in the House of
Representatives—the people’s House. The Senate cannot, does not,
and must never determine who the Government shall be.
The Queen was not informed of the Governor
Generals intention to sack the Prime Minister,
nor did he ask her approval. He did however
ask the advice of Sir Garfield Barwick, Justice
of the High Court and a former Liberal
Attorney General
Whitlam was outraged by his dismissal. As
soon as Fraser was commissioned as PM the
supply bills were passed in the Senate.
In the House of Representatives the Labor
Party immediately moved a vote of no
confidence in the new Liberal Government
which was carried 64-54. When a Government
loses such a vote the convention is for
another Government to be formed
"a perversion of our democratic process" Julia Gillard
"Kerr's duplicity and secrecy was contemptible, as
was the Liberal Party's fantasy of a divine right to
rule," Senator Stott Despoja
"We are the people who brought about the clash of
political wills. We are the people who stretch the
fabric of the constitution … and I think it's been one
of the great injustices of Australian history that John
Kerr — whose fate it was to resolve a deadlock he did
not create — has been so savagely maligned by
history. John Howard
Although the Australian Constitution gives the exercise of a wide range
of powers to the Governor-General, the central convention of responsible
government is that the Governor-General only exercises these powers
in accordance with the advice tendered to him or her by the Prime
Minister and the other ministers of State. The only exception to this
convention is what is known as the “reserve powers”.
The reserve powers allow the Governor-General to act with some small
degree of personal discretion, without or contrary to Ministerial advice.
They are the right of the Governor-General to restrict, refuse or
override the authority of an elected government. The use of the
reserve powers is restricted to those very few situations when others fail
to adhere to the central conventions of responsible government, or
when the agreed conventions fail to supply an answer to a situation.
In practice, the reserve powers are only an instrument of last resort
Australians seem to view failure as heroic: we
have the Eureka Stockade, Ned Kelly, and
Gallipoli, among others, who are, at first
failures, but they have been mythologised as
legendary heroes.
 In a number of letters, emotional responses of
martyrdom and `embryonic' mythology are
clearly evident. When we survey, today, the
Australian ethos, history has judged, Whitlam
a great Australian icon, Kerr has become a
twisted, somewhat evil character, while
Fraser has become a forgotten figure
The Australian crisis illustrates how unwritten
conventions can operate flexibly during a crisis, seen
by some as a benefit, while being used by others as
an argument for the codification of the reserve
 . The latter view is not accepted by many prominent
Australian constitutional scholars, who argue that
the flexibility is needed, and would be lost in
codification. It is argued that in a system where the
Houses have equal power, a head of state with wide
reserve powers is required to serve as umpire.
 Codification of powers essentially eliminates the
vice-regal ability to use discretion in their exercise,
and these scholars argue this discretion is necessary
in order to resolve unforeseen difficulties
 The crisis did precipitate one
constitutional change, passed by
referendum in 1977, that effectively
requires that State Governments to fill
Senate vacancies with a member of the
Party of the original holder of the seat,
if they choose to fill the vacancy at all.
The dramatic events
fuelled those who
called for a
referendum on the “
Republic” to rid
politics of “ crown
interference”. They
used the argument
that the dismissal
proved that the
Constitution was
inherently flawed.
Their efforts
culminated in the
referendum of 1999
It is argued that the subsequent Labor
Government, led by Bob Hawke, was so
frightened of repeating the mistakes of Whitlam
which led to the dismissal that it became one of
the most conservative Labor Governments in
our history. It is certainly true of the early years
of that government that Whitlam's name was
evoked as something to be feared, whereas in
recent times Whitlam has assumed a more iconic
status in the Labor Party
“The significance of the dismissal on November 11
1975 was a profound development, a stunning
shock to most Australians whatever side of the
political divide they inhabited. The Dismissal
caused deep political and personal ripples in the
lives of many Australians, particularly those who
had come of age in the 1960’s and 70’s.” Sybil
 “ In the immediate aftermath of the dismissal
Australians were probably more divided than at
any other time in the 20th century.” Geoffrey
“we do think Mr. Fraser was wrong to use the Senate so
unconventionally – no matter how much the Labor
Government deserved to be censured. We think he has
opened the way to unstable government; he has
opened the way for a future Labor Opposition to do the
same thing to a future Liberal Government. No
Government is now safe – no matter what numbers in
the Lower House – unless it also controls the Senate.
The Senate has become the kingmaker in national
politics. So we might have elections every years. What
a thought! What insanity! What a perversion of the
spirit of the Constitution!”
Whitlam dismissal
Whitlam was dismissed on 11 November 1975 and
became the only Prime Minister to have been
dismissed from office. It occurred because Whitlam
had a hostile Senate controlled by the opposition, who
used its power to delay the passage of the Supply
It also occurred because two Labor/pro-Labor
senators had been replaced by two Liberal/pro-Liberal
senators creating an even more hostile Senate.
Whitlam believed he had time to try to force the Bills
through the Senate so he refused to resign. There had
been a series of scandals involving government
ministers. Although Whitlam had been elected in
1972 and should not have needed to go to the people
with another election until 1975, he did not control
the Senate and, to try to gain control of the Senate, he
had called for a double dissolution election in 1974
when it should have been only a half-Senate election
to try to gain a majority. The dismissal caused a huge
controversy which continues to this day.
Sir John Kerr
The governor general appointed by the Queen on the
recommendation of Gough Whitlam, then prime
minister. After receiving advice from various
people, he resolved to solve the impasse created by
Whitlam’s refusal to resign by dismissing him. He
used the ‘reserve powers’ of the governor-general,
as written in the Constitution, under which he had
the power to dismiss a prime minister if that person
could no longer govern. In the opinion of Kerr,
Whitlam could no longer exercise his role as prime
minister because he could not guarantee supply and
therefore he should resign. When he did not, Kerr
exercised his reserve powers. Many believed that
Kerr did not have the power to dismiss the prime
minister and that Whitlam should have been given
the opportunity to go to the people for another
election. Others believed that Whitlam should have
done the ‘right thing’ and resigned before Kerr was
forced to act, as other prime ministers had done in
the past and that Kerr, indeed, had the power to do
what he did.

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