These notes are taken from the online study notes for Monash University’s Out of Empire course.
Out of Empire, Episode 12.
One of the most controversial events in Australian political history was the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government by Australia’s Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, in November 1975. The subject of episode 12, this incident relates very directly to the guiding theme of this series, and readers will react very differently to it, partly according to their varying notions of where Australia stands in its relationship with Britain.
Here are a few questions to ponder, as you consider this material:
- Are comparisons with ‘the Westminster system of government’ valid in this Australian context?
- To what extent, if at all, did the Governor-General act as ‘the Queen’s representative in Australia’, in the 1975 incident?
- Was it appropriate for Whitlam’s Australian Labor Government to appeal to the Queen to reverse our Governor-General’s decision?
- Does the fact that the Australian electorate gave Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal Party a hearty endorsement at the ensuing general election justify Fraser’s actions in 1975?
- Did the events of 1975 create a dangerous precedent in Australian political history?
On 11 November 1975, Sir John Kerr dismissed the Whitlam Government and invited the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser, to form a caretaker administration. Ironically, Kerr had been appointed to his post only sixteen months previously by Prime Minister Whitlam. Most Australians were taken by surprise, because the Governor-General’s action was unprecedented in more than seven decades of Australian federal government experience. Melbourne’s Age newspaper was quick to criticise Sir John Kerr: ‘The decision of the Governor-General…to dismiss the Whitlam government was, we believe, a triumph of narrow legalism over common sense and popular feeling’. The deposed Prime Minister reacted more heatedly, abusing the Governor-General and urging the government’s supporters to maintain their rage.
Sir John Kerr’s action emphatically broke with seventy five years of Australian political convention. Although he was the Crown’s representative in Australia, he took this action without consulting the Queen. So it is important to ask why he chose to exercise at that time the reserve powers granted to the Governor-General under Australia’s constitution. Did Kerr’s action in fact mark a decisive erosion of Australia’s painfully developed political independence, as his critics loudly asserted? For many Australians of widely varied political persuasions, the election of the Whitlam Government in December 1972 had appeared to be a watershed in Australian social and political experience, clearly distinguishing ‘the old order’ associated with R.G. Menzies from a coming new era of vital change and social and political reform.
Menzies had actually resigned the prime ministership almost seven years previously, in January 1966, and during the ensuing period three Liberal prime ministers attempted modifications to the old order to meet changing public expectations. John Gorton, for example, established the Australian Council for the Arts, questioned the traditional acceptance of unrestricted foreign investment in Australia, and initiated preparations for New Guinea’s eventual independence from Australia. Gorton even advocated an increase in Asian immigration, at a time when this created wide resentment within the Australian electorate. William McMahon’s Liberal Government not only loosened up Australia’s very restrictive censorship laws, but worked on trade practices legislation, set up an inquiry into poverty and adopted a new policy directed at improving life for the inhabitants of Australia’s coastal cities.
Australia’s first Australian-born Governor-General for many years, Richard Casey, was appointed by the Menzies Government in 1965. Traditionally, British aristocrats had filled the position, although a Labor Government had shocked many worthy Australians by appointing that eminent Australian citizen, Sir Isaac Isaacs, to the same position in 1931. By the mid-1960s an earlier Australian reverence for things royal was weakening, and the previously obsequious media no longer held the monarchy above any hint of criticism.
Australia’s relationship to Britain was also changing at a much more fundamental level. Whereas prior to 1939 Australian respect for things British was underpinned by what were perceived as vital economic advantages to be gained from the imperial connection, Britain had entered the European Common Market in the mid-1960s, and its once dominant trading relationship with Australia had declined to a point where Britain purchased a mere 9 per cent of Australia’s exports. Japan, by contrast, already bought 27 per cent of Australia’s total exports. A few years before, it had been possible to buy Australian butter in Britain at a fraction of the price paid by the Australian consumer, but Australia’s economic position was changing to match the realities of a new international situation.
Australian governments of the immediate post-war period had been reluctant to allow the United States to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of British power from Asia and the Pacific. By the later 1960s conservative Australian governments felt that their country was becoming very vulnerable in a much-changed world, and were happy to commit Australia to a close relationship with the United States. Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War resulted from this new nervousness about national security, in an Asian region no longer able to be held in check by the European powers. Young Australians confronted with a very real possibility of being balloted to be sent abroad to fight in a vicious and puzzling Asian civil war, were especially alienated by what they perceived to be a cynical exercise in international politics.
Public alienation from the older political order was further encouraged by signs that the comfortable post-war economic order was disappearing. It sounds ridiculous in the 1990s, but the 2 per cent unemployment of the McMahon era was then regarded as politically catastrophic. When the Americans were forced to abandon their Vietnam campaigns, William McMahon had no choice but to bring most of the Australian troops home too. The Labor Party led by Gough Whitlam had vigorously opposed the Vietnamese involvement, and would gain the public credit for the withdrawal of Australian troops from what had become a very unpopular military embroilment.
The Labor Party led by Gough Whitlam won government at the elections held on 2 December 1972, and the new government began implementing its radical program in an unconventional manner that set the tone for the three years that followed. Because the full Labor caucus could not meet until all election results were finalised, the new Prime Minister and his deputy, Lance Barnard, governed directly as a ‘duumvirate’ for almost three weeks. With the 27 ministries divided between them, they hastily began implementing Labor’s policies. Among the forty decisions they announced were a request to the Arbitration Court to reopen its hearings on equal pay for women, the allocation of extra funds for the arts, and the abolition of conscription for military service.
Gough Whitlam’s policy speech to the Australian electors had spelt out a far-reaching program of reforms that focused heavily on the needs of urban Australia. A highly coordinated urban and regional development program was to be appropriately funded, education and social welfare would be the recipients of larger government allocations than previously, land tenure would be made available to Aboriginal communities, and a national health scheme would be set up. It is notable that neither Britain nor the British monarchy were mentioned in Whitlam’s pre-election speeches, with the United States having to some extent become the ‘imperialist’ bogie of a new era in international relations. Republicanism was not an issue. Indeed, even in an August 1973 television interview with David Frost Whitlam denied that he had any desire to replace the Governor-General by a President, adding:
The system of Governor-General works quite well. After all, no government of any political complexion can be better pleased than with a system where the head of state, the ceremonial head, holds position for a certain number of years on the nomination of the national government. The system works very well and our Governors General, certainly the Australian ones, have always been top men.
That quiet confidence that the Governor-General was essentially a figurehead goes far to explain why Whitlam would later feel so betrayed by ‘his Governor-General’.
Despite his general acceptance of the role of the monarch in the Australian political system, Whitlam was quick to change some aspects of the traditional relationship. Cancellation of the previous government’s list of persons to be granted New Year’s Day Honours was one of his earliest prime-ministerial decisions. Developments during the three year term of Whitlam’s government generally reflected a desire to modify rather than to completely cut Australia’s links with the monarchy. Within months of his election, Whitlam visited England’s Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and spoke to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Whitlam claims that Queen Elizabeth ‘very much welcomed’ his proposal that she should henceforth be known as ‘Queen of Australia’, under a new Australian Royal Styles and Titles Act. Later in that year the Queen approved a new Australian honours system, the Order of Australia, to replace the previous British system of knighthoods, peerages and titles. After a public opinion poll in September 1973, the traditional Australian national anthem of God Save the Queen was replaced by the more nationalistic Advance Australia Fair.
Labor’s program for widespread social reforms was much more controversial in the eyes of an Australian public accustomed to long years of conservative government.
Many years before, R.G. Menzies had himself initiated child endowment – now known as the family allowance – as a limited means of transferring income to families with children. The scale of the Whitlam government’s sweeping social-welfare program required a significant increase in government spending and in legislative activity. Having grown accustomed to the notion that they were the only legitimate political representatives of the Australian people, the conservative opposition parties were agitated by the speed with which Whitlam pushed his bills through the parliament. They denied that the Whitlam government possessed a mandate for sweeping social reform, and claimed the right to block objectionable legislation in the Senate, where the Opposition retained a majority. Senator Reg Withers, leader of the Opposition in the Senate, was hardly complimentary to those who had so recently elected the Whitlam Government when he told his fellow senators:
Because of the temporary insanity of the two most populous Australian states, the Senate may well be called upon to protect the national interest by exercising its undoubted constitutional rights and powers.
That threat to use the Senate to thwart Labor’s reform program would dog the remaining years of the Whitlam administration. Originally intended to protect the interests of less populous states, the constitutional powers entrusted to the Senate had become a tool of party political interests.
Throughout the three years of the Whitlam government the opposition parties persistently disputed Labor’s right to govern the nation. Among many bills rejected or heavily amended in the Senate were several intended to increase the role of government in economic and social affairs; not least being the Health Insurance Bill. Another bill designed to equalise the size of rural and urban electorates, and thus to advantage city dwellers at the expense of sheep, was twice rejected in the Senate. Not surprisingly, bills to remove penal sanctions from the Arbitration system received similar treatment, as did bills designed to give the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory two senators each.
Several ill-considered decisions by members of the Whitlam government gave extra force to public fears (largely arising from ideological differences) about the radical Labor program. Whitlam’s Attorney-General, Senator Lionel Murphy, became a controversial figure very quickly. His instigation of a raid on the headquarters of ASIO, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, to check on security arrangements for an imminent visit by the Yugoslavian prime minister, led to him being censured by the Opposition-dominated Senate. One year later, with a Senate election approaching, Murphy was at the centre of another controversy. Having learned that Queensland Senator Vince Gair was unhappy at his treatment by his own party, the conservative Democratic Labor Party, Murphy initiated the movement that led to Gair being offered the tempting post of Ambassador to Ireland by the Whitlam Government. This cunning move was intended to give Labor a bare majority in the Senate, and to allow its reform program to proceed without further hindrance.
The Leader of the Opposition, Bill Snedden, condemned Whitlam’s action as ‘the most shameful act ever perpetrated by an Australian government’, and the Opposition moved to block the government’s essential spending legislation in the Senate unless Whitlam agreed to hold an election for the House of Representatives at the same time as the looming Senate election. Appropriation and Supply bills, which provide a government with the necessary funds to keep the everyday machinery of government ticking over, cannot be amended by an Opposition but can be either deferred or rejected. A policy of bringing government to a standstill by rejecting Supply in the upper house had occasionally been used in nineteenth-century Victoria, but in the federal context the Senate had not hitherto attempted to use that dangerous power. Whitlam responded by calling a double dissolution of parliament, which meant that there had to be a new election for both houses of parliament. The Whitlam government was returned to office, although with a smaller majority, and Whitlam still could not gain a majority in the Senate. The main result of the Labor victory was that Bill Snedden lost the support of his coalition colleagues, which led to his replacement as Leader of the Opposition by Malcolm Fraser in March 1975.
Outside the immediate parliamentary sphere, opposition was being further aroused against key Labor social-welfare policies by powerful vested interests. The major doctors’ organisations agitated loudly against what was then regarded as a revolutionary Health Insurance Bill: the ancestor of our current Medibank system. Whitlam’s government appeared to the more conservative State governments to be undermining States’ rights by imposing a centralist political influence from Canberra. In roads finance, for example, important federal road funds were provided with distinct conditions attached, necessitating their use in urban areas. This did not appeal to a Victorian coalition government with long-standing rural links. When the federal government established the Australian Assistance Plan to help regions undertaking social-planning programs, the Victorian Liberal government appealed to the High Court. Other State writs were taken out against a regional employment scheme, a National Parks Act and the new Australian Legal Aid Office. Another novel Labor initiative, the Women’s Affairs section of Whitlam’s Prime Minister’s Department, aroused great opposition from States that feared the economic and social implications of radical changes in the status of Australian women.
Against this context of widespread backlash against Whitlam’s radical reforming program, a second Supply crisis gradually developed. Whitlam and two senior ministers held what purported to be a meeting of the Executive Council on the somewhat inauspicious evening of Friday 13 December, 1974. The Executive Council consists of the Governor-General and his ministers, and exists to give formal approval to decisions made by Cabinet. Normally, such a meeting would be attended by the Governor-General and two or three ministers, and under the Australian constitution it can only be called by the Governor-General or by the Council’s vice-president. In this case, neither the Governor-General nor Vice-President were present at the meeting, the former being at a ballet performance in Sydney. Whitlam decided to proceed regardless, and to obtain the Governor-General’s approval the next day. Decisions were made at this meeting to borrow $4 billion for ‘temporary purposes’ that related to Labor’s ambitious reform programs, and these decisions soon became the focus of public controversy.
Perhaps more serious was another consequence of that meeting. The Governor-General felt that his high office was being taken too lightly by the Prime Minister who had appointed him. Kerr later claimed that his major concern had not been the legal one, but whether the office of Governor-General was being properly regarded. Such feelings are very likely to have influenced Kerr’s attitude during the Supply crisis of late 1975. Whitlam would sometimes be accused of not taking the opinions of his own colleagues sufficiently seriously; his actions at the controversial Executive Council meeting were not out of character.
What was to become known as ‘the Loans Affair’ or ‘the Khemlani Affair’ steadily gathered momentum from the beginning of 1975. By February the Liberal shadow Treasurer, Philip Lynch, was asking awkward parliamentary questions about the government’s loan plans. On 23 April he had extracted information about how much Whitlam’s minister, Rex Connor, had been authorised to borrow, including the interesting fact that the proposed amount had been halved to $2 billion during January. Connor’s unorthodox methods of seeking the necessary loan funds soon added more fuel to the flames of public controversy. An Australian public not accustomed to the idea of borrowing huge sums from obscure sources was disturbed to discover that Connor was dealing with a London-based money broker named Tirath Khemlani. An increasingly alarmed federal Treasury applied strong pressure to the government, so that Connor’s authority to obtain loan funds was revoked by Whitlam on 20 May, 1975. The media controversy about ‘the Loans Affair’ provided journalists with exciting headlines, and public suspicions were aroused to the extent that the Opposition could sense an advantage in forcing another federal election.
Connor apparently continued to seek funds without government authorisation, and was forced to resign amidst more excited headlines. As if that were not bad enough, Whitlam had also been forced to sack his controversial Deputy Prime Minister, Jim Cairns (another favourite media target), for allegedly misleading parliament.
Meanwhile, other parliamentary events were creating a situation where the Opposition could feel confident about blocking the government’s Supply in the Senate, and where the Governor-General might feel compelled to act contrary to the interests of the government. When Whitlam’s controversial Attorney-General, Lionel Murphy, was appointed to be a judge of the High Court, the Premier of New South Wales broke with a long-respected convention of filling that Senate vacancy from the ranks of the same party as the departing member. His appointment of 72-year-old Cleaver Bunton, Mayor of Albury, set a precedent for other determined opponents of the Whitlam government. The death of a Labor Senator from Queensland during the winter parliamentary break gave that State’s conservative premier, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen an opportunity to further thwart Canberra’s Labor leadership. The new Queensland Senator, Pat Field, openly professed his willingness to vote against any Whitlam legislation, so that the Senate became even more of a thorn in the side of the government. Whitlam, however, was in a position to call a half-Senate election, the result of which might have countered the strategies of the conservative State premiers by giving Labor a temporary majority in the Senate.
The Opposition parties saw a political opportunity and seized on it. Three government money bills requiring the approval of the Senate were deferred by that body ‘until the Government agrees to submit itself to the judgement of the people’. This action led to a war of nerves between an Opposition determined to force another election and a government equally determined to go on governing the country. Although the Opposition Leader, Malcolm Fraser, harboured no doubts that the circumstances of the country warranted him in blocking supply to the government, not all his party associates agreed. That distinguished Liberal politician, James Killen, openly deplored the Senate’s action, questioning the wisdom of breaking with a long-standing parliamentary tradition that had contributed greatly to Australian political stability.
A protracted deadlock resulted from the blocking of funds for the everyday functioning of government, and this forced Governor-General Sir John Kerr to think about what role his office might have to play in resolving the crisis. Kerr sought advice on the Governor-General’s options from a former Solicitor General (and later a Liberal front-bencher) Bob Ellicott and from the Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Garfield Barwick, both of whom advised that he could bring on a double dissolution of parliament. On 11 November 1975, the Governor-General dismissed Whitlam from office and invited the Liberal leader, Malcolm Fraser, to form a caretaker government which could break the deadlock over supply and allow the country to function fairly normally until the December elections.
The result was a roar of disbelief and outrage from adherents of the Labor government. Such a thing had not occurred under Britain’s Westminster system of government, where the administration with a majority in the lower house was considered to be inviolable against such external interference. Legal and academic experts differed widely in their assessments of the rights and wrongs of the situation. Although there was little doubt that the Senate had the power to block supply, it was fiercely contested whether the Senate should ever exercise that right.
Supporters of Sir John Kerr argued that because the Whitlam government could not govern without supply, and the Senate clearly had the legal power to reject Supply, then the best resolution was to force an election and allow the democratic process to decide the conflict. To many of those who were shocked by Kerr’s move, it appeared that national independence was seriously threatened by that rare surviving link between Australia and Britain: the office of Governor-General.
Although ‘the Queen’s representative in Australia’, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, was widely held responsible for the dramatic fall of the Whitlam government, the situation was primarily an outcome of the compromise struck at Federation which gave the Senate its unique composition and its considerable powers. It occurred in a peculiarly Australian context and was dependent on the specific features of our federal system, particularly the powers of the Senate. Nothing akin to it has been associated with government and monarchy in recent British history.
The victorious Fraser coalition government did not reverse Whitlam’s major change to the expression of Australia’s relationship with the Crown, whereby the reigning British monarch is still acknowledged as ‘Queen of Australia’. But the novel and dramatic actions of the Queen’s representative at Canberra could hardly avoid strengthening incipient Australian republican feelings.