The Whitlam Dismissal took place 25 years ago today.
The Dismissal was the most traumatic and significant political event in the first one hundred years of the Australian federation, but constitutionally little was changed by it.
Despite the passage of time, the events of 1975 still reverberate through Australian politics.
Between 1972-75, Whitlam often referred to a “born-to-rule” mentality amongst the Liberals. He claimed that they could not accept defeat after having become so used to being in Government.
During this time, the Senate rejected over 30 major pieces of legislation and forced hundreds of amendments to other bills.
Because of the alteration of the numbers in the Senate, Whitlam argued that the Senate was “tainted” and did not reflect the feelings of the people as expressed in the 1974 election. When he was dismissed and Fraser appointed, Whitlam remarked that this was “the first time the burglar has been appointed caretaker.”
Beyond the legal and constitutional questions about the powers of the Senate and the Governor-General, many Labor supporters felt that their government had been cheated of office by a conspiracy of Opposition, business and media interests. It was felt by some that the “establishment” would never allow a Labor Government to govern.
For Malcolm Fraser, many Liberals now agree that his government lacked “legitimacy”, despite the massive victory it had in the elections held in December 1975.
It is also 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.
Constitutionally, there has been no change to the powers of the Senate or the Governor-General since 1975. A referendum sponsored by Fraser, and supported by Whitlam’s Labor Party, requiring State Parliaments to appoint senators from the same party to casual vacancies, was carried in 1977, as was a referendum requiring High Court judges to retire at 70.
The most significant change is probably political. It is difficult now to imagine the Senate being able to repeat its 1975 performance. The Australian Democrats, who have controlled the balance of power in the Senate for most of the period since 1981, are committed to not blocking Supply.
The question of an Australian republic was rekindled by the Dismissal, although the defeat of the 1999 referendum has halted its progress.