The first move to block passage of the Supply bills in the Senate came at 4.35pm on Wednesday, October 15, 1975 when Senator Reg Withers rose to speak on the Loan Bill.
In a 25-minute speech, Withers outlined the Opposition’s argument that delaying Supply was a legitimate parliamentary tactic and called on Prime Minister Whitlam to call an immediate election.
Withers moved an amendment to the Loan Bill that was passed by 29 votes to 28 at approximately 5.26pm. Senator Albert Patrick Field was absent, his position having been challenged in the High Court. Senator Cleaver Bunton, the independent appointed to fill Senator Lionel Murphy’s vacancy, voted with the ALP government, as did the Liberal Movement’s Senator Steele Hall.
Withers served in the Senate in 1966 and again from 1968 until 1987. He was Lord Mayor of Perth, between 1991 and 1994. Withers died on November 15, 2014, aged 90, just three weeks after Whitlam’s death.
- Listen to portions of Withers’ speech (11m)
- Listen to the 6pm ABC Radio News (5m)
- Listen to ABC Radio’s PM program (24m)
Speech by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Reg Withers.
Senator WITHERS (Western Australia – Leader of the Opposition) – I speak on this Bill rather than Appropriation Bill (No. 1 ) because the Loan Bill 1975, presently before the Senate, is inextricably linked with Appropriation Bill (No. 1). In view of the announcement made by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Fraser) this afternoon I thought I ought at the earliest possible time in the Senate put down the Opposition’s view on the Loan Bill 1975, Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 1975-76 and Appropriation Bill (No. 2) 1975-76. I should like to advert to a few remarks made earlier by the Special Minister of State (Senator Douglas McClelland). He made a very interesting speech in which he complained at some length about the time this Bill has been in the Senate. May I just say in reply to Senator Douglas McClelland that, some weeks ago, my colleague Senator Carrick asked 7 questions. There have been opportunities for Ministers speaking since that date to answer those questions. As yet, answers have not been forthcoming. I have no doubt that the Minister for Minerals and Energy (Senator Wriedt) will answer those questions to the best of his ability when he speaks in this debate later. It is the intention of the Opposition to take steps to force this Government to an election for the House of Representatives. I say that now so that there can be no doubt about our position. At the conclusion of my speech I will be moving an amendment.
The Opposition will attempt to delay this Bill and Appropriation Bill (No. 1) and Appropriation Bill (No. 2). It will delay them because we have decided that the people must be given a chance to express their will. The only way to force the Government to submit to the people is by this device. The Opposition is not rejecting the Budget. It is not taking action that will cause anyone to suffer. We will pass legislation providing social service and repatriation payments, State grants and any other legislation of a similar nature. We will give that sort of legislation a speedy passage. Let there be no mistake. We are not cutting off the flow of money to the people. We are merely adopting the constitutional method of giving the people a choice. Immediately the Government agrees to hold an election the Opposition will pass the Loan Bill and the Appropriation Bills. There will then be no delay.
The Opposition is merely giving the people an opportunity to say whether they wish this incompetent Government to remain in office. This is a decision taken consciously and responsibly by the Opposition. The Opposition has weighed the conflicting principles carefully, but it has decided that it must follow its responsibility to the Australian people. We have decided that an election is in the best interests of the people. Australia today is in a position of crisis and uncertainty- a crisis not caused by the Opposition but caused by the incompetence of the Government, the dishonesty of the Government and the corruption of the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam). This is a government that lurches not just from crisis to crisis but from scandal to scandal. Nothing is worse than this incredible loans affair. It is an affair which involved an attempt to go behind the Constitution and the Loan Council. It was an attempt to defy the Parliament and an attempt to impose massive debt repayments on future Australians without either their knowledge or their approval. It is not enough for the Prime Minister to claim that the affair has ended because the people involved have been removed. The Prime Minister has hidden behind his Ministers and has refused to take the responsibility himself- a reponsibility clearly placed upon him by virtue of his position as Prime Minister. His Ministers have been made sacrifices on the altar of his ego. Yet still he survives. Not only does he survive, but also he now threatens to defy the Parliament by refusing to go to the electorate. Never has a Prime Minister evinced such cowardly disgraceful behaviour.
The loans affair has been well canvassed in the last few months and especially in the last few days. It has shown a government composed of people who have shown themselves to be dishonest, deceitful and corrupt. But the loans affair is only one aspect of this Government’s continued farrago of deceit and deception. This Government came to power on the promise of open government. Instead, it has told a continuing saga of untruths. It has tried to conceal its decision on the Baltic States. It denied the truth of the Vietnam cables and it has not told the truth about the loans affair. These are just a few illustrations of this Government’s continued refusal to tell the truth.
It has not merely not told the truth to the Australian people; it has betrayed them. It has inflicted upon them the greatest unemployment since the depression. This unemployment has been created by the Government’s policies and by its incompetence, a situation in which as each day goes by 500 more Australians are thrown out of work. It should not be necessary for the Opposition to take any action in these circumstances. The Government should be so ashamed of itself and so disgraced by its actions that it will resign. It has inflicted the most damaging inflation this country has ever known. It devalued the dollar from its pre-Labor value of 100c to a value of only half of that of 1972. It has so destroyed the economy that its resuscitation, if allowed to decline further, would become almost impossible. The sufferers have been the poor, the weak and the socially deprived- the very people the Labor Party claims to support and represent.
Any government of any persuasion, if it had any decency in this situation, would resign. But this Government has not resigned. It has been so obsessed with power for power’s sake that it has forgotten how to govern. It has forgotten how to be responsible. It has forgotten how to honour its obligations to the people who elected it. Now, crippled by incompetence and surrounded by the victims of his wrath, this man, this egotist, this well-known world traveller still insists on his divine right to rule. The Parliament should remember this: Mr Whitlam is not a president, he is not a dictator and he is not a king. He is a Prime Minister who has duties and obligations to the Parliament and to the people. He has no divine right to rule forever. He is constrained by the Parliament, despite his attempts to defy it. He has lost the confidence of the people and he has lost the confidence of the Parliament.
To struggle along propped up by the discipline of the Caucus- a situation which allows the Prime Minister to govern with the support of the minority of the Parliament- is destructive to our parliamentary system and is destructive to Australia. There has been much nonsense talked about by people from the Government and, most latterly, by the Prime Minister himself. He is now in direct conflict with the Government. He is threatening desperate measures. The fact that he even makes the threat shows his contempt for the Parliament and for the electorate. He is contemptuous of the people. It is a sorry state when desperation can drive a man to these lengths. The very fact that he is so determined to cling to power makes it all the more necessary for him to be driven to the polls. It is a time-honoured tradition of Parliament that conditions may be imposed on the granting of money. That is what the Opposition is doing now. It is not an improper condition. Nothing could be more proper than giving the people a right to choose. The Prime Minister can do one of two things. He can defy the Parliament, defy the Constitution and defy the Crown. He can create even more unnecessary instability and chaos and make the crisis and deadlock worse or he can take the proper course and let the people resolve this situation quickly and properly. Every day of delay exposes his fear. The Prime Minister shows his total arrogance and ignorance of the Constitution by the blatant assumption that he has a right to these appropriations. We say that he has not. The Constitution makes it clear that money is granted to the Crown and not to the Prime Minister. Mr Whilam has no divine right to receive supply from the Parliament. Mr Whitlam ought to remember that he holds the office of Prime Minister at the pleasure of the Crown. It is his obligation to the Crown to secure that supply. If he cannot do so, then the Prime Minister has an obligation to hand in his commission as Prime Minister. He knows that. Yet he still tries to abdicate his duties.
The record shows the inconsistency, the hypocrisy and the deceit of this Government. It claims the Senate cannot force it to the people. To make such a claim is not only incorrect but also is unconstitutional. The Senate was given the power to reject a money Bill quite deliberately. This was done when the Constitution was framed to ensure that if a government became so morally and intellectually bankrupt, if it became as disastrous as this Government has become there should be the ultimate check, that is, withholding of money until it agrees to let the people express their will. No academic, lawyer or other such person has seriously disrupted this right. The Government has reached such a state now that the Opposition has a clear duty to force it to the people.
The Australian Labor Party in the past made no apology for its actions in this regard. It is remarkable how quickly the Prime Minister forgets his own words. He has forgotten – conveniently forgotten – that on 12 June 1970, when referring to the States Receipts Duties (Administration) Bill, he declared his Party would vote against the legislation in both Houses of the Parliament in a bid to force an election. He said:
Any Government which is defeated by the Parliament –
It is notable that he used the word ‘Parliament’, of which the Senate is a part- on a major tax Bill should resign.
A little later he declared:
This Bill will be defeated in another place. The Government should resign.
Mr Whitlam made clear his understanding of the constitutional situation at that time. I ask: Why then does he suddenly reverse his position? Of what is he afraid? Is it because he fears the judgment of the people? I put this proposition to you, Mr President, and to my colleagues in the Senate: He wants to defy the judgment of the people. He wants a licence to rule and to rule perpetually. A little later, Mr Whitlam made his attitude even clearer. He said on 25 August 1970 that the purpose of the Labor Party was: -to destroy this Budget and to destroy the Government which has sponsored it.
He was one of those who voted against the second reading of the Appropriation Bill in the House of Representatives. He was one of those who agreed that the Senate Opposition should do the same. He should remember that on 4 November 1970, 23 Labor senators voted against the third reading of the Appropriation Bill in the Senate. They did so for one reason: They wanted to force the Government to the people. The fact that they lacked the numbers is irrelevant to their intent. The present Leader of the Government in the Senate (Senator Wriedt) had none of the qualms he at present expresses about the course the Opposition is taking. He voted against the Appropriation Bills. I suggest to honourable senators opposite that they look at the division lists for that day. The vote of the Leader of the Government in the Senate proves that he was prepared to force the Government to the people by a vote of the Senate. Why does he now reverse his position? If further proof was needed on the matter, one need only to look at the opinions of Mr Justice Murphy. He made no secret of his interpretation of the Senate’s powers. He evidenced no hypocrisy about the Labor Party’s attitude. On 12 May 1967 he said:
There is no tradition, as has been suggested, that the Senate will not use its constitutional powers whenever it considers it necessary or desirable to do so in the public interest.
He went on to say:
There are no limitations on the Senate in the use of its constitutional powers except the limits self-imposed by discretion and reason. There is no tradition in the Australian Labor Party that we will not oppose in the Senate any tax or money Bill or what might be described as a financial measure. Our tradition is to fight, whenever and wherever we can, to carry out the principles and policies for which we stand.
In the same speech he went on further to state:
If we consider it to be in the public interest that a measure be rejected, who gave us the tight to refrain from doing so under some pretended notion that the Senate cannot reject a tax or money Bill?
Senator Young – Who said that?
Senator WITHERS -Mr Justice Murphy, then Senator Murphy. I think that that opinion may carry a little more weight with honourable senators opposite that the opinion of lawyeracademics. Senator Murphy’s attitude to the powers of the Senate and the traditions of the Labor Party was clear and consistent, unlike that of the Prime Minister who twists and turns at every opportunity, who says one thing when it suits him and the reverse when it equally suits him. On 18 June 1970, Senator Murphy- Mr Justice Murphy now- said:
The Senate is entitled and expected to exercise resolutely but with discretion its powers to refuse its concurrence –
Senator Keeffe – What was that bit about discretion?
Senator WITHERS – He said, ‘but with discretion’- to any financial measure, including a tax Bill.
I am delighted with the interruption because it gives me the opportunity to state that I never quote out of context. He added:
The Australian Labor Party has acted consistently in accordance with the tradition that we will oppose in the Senate any tax or money Bill or other financial measure whenever necessary to carry out our principles and policies.
He then incorporated in Hansard a list which filled 3 pages of Hansard of money Bills his Party had voted against in the Senate not once, not twice but during a period between 1950 and 1970. I say: So much for the Labor Party’s traditions. Its tradition has been to try to reject money Bills in the Senate and to try to force governments to the people, but when threatened itself it squeals with anguish. I say: It is typical of the humbug and hypocrisy of this Government.
If further proof was necessary, I point to the Victorian experience of 1952 when the Labor Party decided to force the Legislative Assembly to the people. I note that the Prime Minister is trying to avoid subjecting himself to the people by the device of a half Senate election. That will not resolve the current crisis. It is a device and nothing more. A half Senate election cannot resolve the crisis because of the 36 senators who would be elected 30 would not take up their seats until after 1 July 1976. In any case, the question is not the composition of half the Senate but the feelings of the people about this Government. To attempt to prevent the people exercising this judgment is a denial of democracy. It would be a phoney sham. I quote the comments of Professor Patrick Lane in a letter to the Canberra Times this morning. He wrote: do the people want the Senate to spring a legitimate safety-valve – the refusal of Supply – to let the people say what they want?
That is what the Opposition is doing, that is, using that constitutionally provided safety valve on behalf of the people. Finally, I put this to the Senate and to the people: The Senate is not refusing supply; it is not rejecting the Budget, but it is demanding an election. The moment the Prime Minister takes the only decent course open to him – the calling of an election in which his Government can be tested at the polls – the flow of money will resume. This Bill and the Appropriation Bills can pass in a few minutes. We will do everything to speed up their passage, once the Prime Minister announces the election date. But I say this quite deliberately: If there is any attempt by the Prime Minister or if there is any attempt by the Government – (Senator McLaren interjecting)–
Senator WITHERS – Whatever else I would do I would never eavesdrop and repeat a private conversation, which would be about the lowest thing in which any member of this Parliament could indulge. One could not get any lower than to eavesdrop in the dining room on one’s colleagues and repeat the conversation in the Parliament. If the Government is so fearful of the judgment of the voters that it will not allow these Bills to pass, the onus will be upon it. It will stand condemned for its actions. The Government, and the Government alone, will be responsible. We will grant these funds immediately the Prime Minister does what in all decency he should do. If the Prime Minister has any sense of responsibility, any sense of decency, any sense of courage and any sense of honour, he will take the only course left open to him- he will agree to an election at which the people can determine the fate of the Government and the fate of every person sitting in this place. We on this side of the Senate are not fearful of an election. Indeed, we believe that both the Senate and the House of Representatives should be tested in the most democratic way, that is at the ballot box. Opposition senators have no desire to remain in their positions while the members of the House of Representatives have to face the people. Unlike the Prime Minister, we have no wish to be protected from the voters. The Opposition believes that both Houses should go to the people. We challenge the Prime Minister to arrange for that to happen.
He has the opportunity because the Parliament is now in a state of total deadlock. It has been deadlocked on 21 Bills so far and it now faces a deadlock on the most important legislation of all- the Appropriation Bills. This deadlock must be resolved. The Constitution provides the proper method for resolving the deadlock between the two Houses, that is, a dissolution under section 57 of both Houses of the Parliament and an election for both. If this deadlock continues it will be the fault of the Prime Minister. It will be his fault because of his fear of the ballot box.
This deadlock has been brought about by the incompetence of this Government, led by a Prime Minister who will not apply to himself the standards and sanctions he applies to other Ministers. He refuses to submit to the same code of conduct he demanded from Mr Connor and Dr Cairns. His failure to apply those standards and sanctions is the only reason why he presently remains in office. If the Labor Party will not remove him the Opposition must in duty bound give the voters an opportunity to do so. If he refuses to give the voters an opportunity, let it be on his head. On behalf of the Opposition, I call upon the Prime Minister to take the only honourable course, that is to resign his commission and allow an election to be held for both Houses. In order to bring that about I move:
Leave out all words after ‘That’, insert: this Bill be not further proceeded with until the Government agrees to submit itself to the judgment of the people, the Senate being of the opinion that the Prime Minister and his Government no longer have the trust and confidence of the Australian people because of-
(a) the continuing incompetence, evasion, deceit and duplicity of the Prime Minister and his Ministers as exemplified in the overseas loan scandal which was an attempt by the Government to subvert the Constitution, to by-pass Parliament and to evade its responsibilities to the States and the Loan Council;
(b) the Prime Minister’s failure to maintain proper control over the activities of his Ministers and Government to the detriment of the Australian nation and people; and
(c) the continuing mismanagement of the Australian economy by the Prime Minister and this Government with policies which have caused a lack of confidence in this nation’s potential and created inflation and unemployment not experienced for 40 years. ‘
I commend the amendment to the Senate.