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Gough Whitlam’s Post-Dismissal Press Conference

Whitlam was dismissed as Prime Minister at 1pm on November 11. The Parliament was dissolved at around 4.45pm.

After delivering his famous speech on the steps of Parliament House, Whitlam held a press conference.

WHITLAM: Clearly the great issue, almost the sole issue of this campaign will be whether the Government which the people elected with a majority in the House of Representatives will be allowed to govern from now on. The whole of this system is under challenge as we see. Now up till the very last division in the House of Representatives where, we have always believed, governments should be made and unmade. We won that division by a majority of ten votes; sixty-four for us, fifty-four for the others. And during this campaign the overwhelming issue will be, are we to have three year Governments in Australia; is the Party which gets a majority in the House of Representatives to be allowed to govern? That is, it’s the future of Parliamentary democracy as we have known it.

JOURNALIST: Mr Whitlam, do you believe that Sir John Kerr did a deal with Malcolm Fraser before today’s announcement?

WHITLAM: I don’t know.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister are you surprised to know that the Opposition Parties in fact knew of this decision before you went to Government House?

WHITLAM: I don’t know whether they did know. I’m making no assumptions or at least I’m making no allegations.

JOURNALIST: Sir, in his statement, Sir John Kerr said that no other decision was open to him which would enable the Australian people to decide for themselves which was the Government. At any time over the last three or four weeks, did the Governor-General put any proposition to you as Prime Minister for a general election or an election of the House of Representatives or any other election to solve this impasse?

WHITLAM: There was a proposition as to the date of the half-Senate election. And it was as a result of that suggestion that I made the comments I did in Question Time last Tuesday; but there was no response from the other side to that suggestion.

JOURNALIST: The Governor-General has stated the reason for dismissing you was that you no longer had Supply and cannot govern. At any stage did he tell you along the way that he was dismissing you before the Supply ran out on November 30? In other words tell you that if you wanted to have a half-Senate to have it done by November 30?

WHITLAM: No, no. That was not the advice that I gave the Governor-General, nor was it the impression that the Governor-General gave me. Supply had not run out by the time I saw the Governor-General at one o’clock today. And as we all know, about a quarter past two this afternoon the Budget Bills were passed and when Mr Fraser read portions of Sir John Kerr’s views to the House of Representatives those views were no longer well based. Because by that time Supply had been passed. The Budget Bills had been passed.

JOURNALIST: Did he tell you at any stage that he disagreed with Mr Fraser? Mr Fraser has said on a number of occasions that he feared that Labor would gain a temporary majority in the Senate at a half-Senate election at which the Labor Party would be able to pass…

WHITLAM: Clearly I mustn’t go into details between conversations that I have with the Governor-General or the Queen. Those ought to be confidential. But I can assure you, as is clearly the case, Supply had not run out by one o’clock today when I saw the Governor-General, and of course arrangements were being made to see that Government employees and suppliers would have their debts met by their banks. And the Governor-General had been advised that that was completely legal and constitutional.

JOURNALIST: How does it feel being the first Prime Minister since Federation to have been sacked by the Crown?

WHITLAM: I’m the first for 200 years since George the 3rd sacked Lord North.

JOURNALIST: Do you think in years to come that this will result in a move towards republicism in Australia.

WHITLAM: Don’t let me speculate on that. But what I am certain is that no Prime Minister with a majority in the House of Representatives will ever again have his commission withdrawn by the Crown or the Crown’s representative.

JOURNALIST: What’s your view of the vice-regal position now that this current incumbent has refused to accept the advice of the Prime Minister?

WHITLAM: I mustn’t comment on that.

JOURNALIST: Am I right in believing that when you went to Government House today the Governor-General did not wait to hear your advice before handing you your dismissal notice? And secondly, now that it seems to have been established that the Senate is the more powerful of the two Houses, do you think that the Governor-General should have commissioned Mr Withers as Acting Prime Minister?

WHITLAM: That would be the logical extension. But, of course, in the Senate which has just been dissolved, nobody had a majority. And it can’t be said too often, and I believe during the next few weeks of this campaign it will be made very plain, that the only majority that the Opposition secured in the Senate, on this issue of the Budget, were due to the fact that Senator Milliner, the Labor Senator from Queensland was replaced by a non-Labor Senator. If Senator Milliner had still been alive, then the motions to adjourn debate on the Budget would never have been carried. There would have been an equality of votes and those amendments would therefore have been lost. And then, 4 weeks ago, the Senate would have had to vote on the Governor-General’s message asking for the Budget to be passed. Whatever Senator Wither’s qualities may be, he doesn’t have a majority in the Senate. In the old Senate.

JOURNALIST: Could you answer the first question Sir? Did you get a chance to offer advice to the Governor-General before getting your dismissal notice?

WHITLAM: I had spoken to him on the phone this morning; he knew what my advice was going to be. I had the advice in writing. He didn’t accept it.

JOURNALIST: He gave you no indication of what he was going to do when you spoke to him on the phone?

WHITLAM: None whatever.

JOURNALIST: Mr Whitlam, are you satisfied that the former Liberal Attorney-General, who is now Chief Justice of the High Court should have been the only outside legal authority that the Governor-General consulted?

WHITLAM: I think the Governor-General was in error on that issue. The High Court of Australia does not have the function of giving advisory opinions. Some superior courts in other countries do, for instance, the Supreme Court of Canada. The High Court does not have that function. If the views of High Court judges are relevant, then clearly the views of all 7 are equally relevant.

JOURNALIST: Are you saying that at no stage during the talks you had with the Governor-General did he leave you with an impression that he thought that a general election was the proper course?

WHITLAM: On the contrary. He gave me the other impression. He knew that I had and was likely to continue to have a majority in the House of Representatives. And he also knew, of course, that the Opposition didn’t have a majority in the Senate.

JOURNALIST: Are you saying, Mr Whitlam, that he misled you?

JOURNALIST: Have you been in touch with Buckingham Palace or with London about the actions of the Governor-General?

WHITLAM: The Governor-General prevented me from getting in touch with the Queen by just withdrawing the Commission immediately. I was unable to communicate with the Quken, as I would have been entitled to do, if I’d had any warning of the course that he, the Governor-General, was to take.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the Queen knew about this course of action?

WHITLAM: I shouldn’t think so, but I don’t know.

JOURNALIST: Sir, are you suggesting that the Governor-General may have misled you?

WHITLAM: No, I’m not saying that.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the Governor-General took any advice from Buckingham Palace…?

WHITLAM: I don’t know. I don’t know. I was not informed that he had. I would think not.

JOURNALIST: Mr Whitlam, when you say that in the future no other Prime Minister will have his commission withdrawn, what do you mean by that?

WHITLAM: I believe that we will win this election. The third time will prove it. My Government will be elected for the third time and in those circumstances I don’t believe that the Opposition would venture to be as obstructive again. You may say that that is an optimistic thing about them being obstructive. But it’s been quite clear that the public has been alienated by what Mr Snedden did in April last year. And the public has again been alienated by what Mr Fraser has just done. And I believe that there will be a healthy reluctance by future Liberal leaders to be as obstructive in the Senate again. What we need is a Senate which will work. For the last 3 and a half weeks the Senate has refused to vote on the Budget. The first vote that was taken on the Budget, the one at about a quarter past two this afternoon, resulted in the Budget being passed. And it’s not only in this respect that the Senate has been obstructive. The Senate has rejected more bills in the last 3 years than the Senate had rejected from 1901 to 1972 inclusive.

JOURNALIST: Mr Whitlam are you satisfied that the Governor-General had the right under the Constitution to withdraw your commission?

WHITLAM: Oh, no, on the contrary. I’m certain the Crown did not have the right to do what the Governor-General did on this occasion.

JOURNALIST: Mr Whitlam, if you’re re-elected as Prime Minister, will you retain Sir John Kerr as the Governor-General?

WHITLAM: Now, as I have said, what goes on between the Crown, the Queen and I, the Queen and me, or the Governor-General and me, must be confidential.

JOURNALIST: Now that the Governor-General has taken the heat off Sir Phillip Game are you technically Opposition Leader or are you merely the Member for Werriwa?

WHITLAM: I am the twice elected Prime Minister of Australia. There is a caretaker at the moment. There is no elected Prime Minister currently recognised by the Governor-General. But we have the situation, as you know, that no decisions can be taken until the result of the election is known, because Mr Fraser has been given a commission on condition that he makes no decisions. Now that might be a visual condition for Liberal administrations, but the fact is, that he can’t do anything. It was on that condition, that he was given this commission. And then as we know it takes some weeks to count elections under our electoral laws. It took about six weeks, wasn’t it, to count the last election. And if there had been recounts sought in New South Wales for instance, it would have taken three months to count the elections, so we have to face the decisions for a couple of months and that there will be no decisions for a couple of months and that there will be no Parliament able to legislate in Australia, probably for three months.

JOURNALIST: Sir, will that affect the economy?

WHITLAM: Well clearly it will because there are a great number of decisions which have to be made. The economy has already been damaged, unemployment has already been made worse by the conduct of the Senate over the last three and a half weeks.

JOURNALIST: Do you feel any regrets that you appointed Sir John Kerr?

WHITLAM: Oh, please don’t.

JOURNALIST: There has already been some industrial action as a result of today’s proceedings. I would like to ask you a two part question. Do you think that you can continue to urge the Australian union movement to adhere to indexation? And do you think the Australian union movement can regard your election for the third time, as you forecast, as being relevant anymore?

WHITLAM: This is a worry, obviously. A great number of people will give away the Parliamentary system in Australia if my Government isn’t re-elected. My Party has been elected to government twice. On both occasions it has only been allowed to govern for half its term. Now I have, throughout my Parliamentary life and all my senior colleagues, throughout their Parliamentary lives, have insisted that the way to bring about reform in Australia was through the Parliaments. That the was the way the one could achieve change in an orderly, peaceful, democratic fashion. Now a very great number of people are having their faith shaken. If my Government is not elected the third time, then there can be very great apprehension that people in Australia will believe the Parliament is not a vehicle for reform. They’ll try to go outside the system.

JOURNALIST: (About republican feeling – Unclear.)

WHITLAM: It may but I’m too far committed to the monachy as you know to…No, I mean the Queen would never have done this, let’s be frank about this. The Queen would never have done this.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister what were the circumstances and what’s the constitutional significance of Sir John Kerr ignoring the successful motion of no confidence carried in the Fraser government by the House of Representatives today?

WHITLAM: I can’t understand how the Governor-General took this action. As you remember—and of course we will all be cheking this from Hansard tomorrow—somewhere before three o’clock this afternoon the House of Representatives passed the motion declaring that it had no confidence in Mr Fraser as Prime Minister, and requesting the Speak to advise the Governor-General immediately to call me to be the head of the Australian Government. This motion was carried by 64 votes to 54. the Speaker then sought an audience from the Governor-General. An appointment was made by the Governor-General for the Speaker to wait upon him at a quarter to five. At a quarter to five the Governor-General’s official secretary announced from the steps of Parliament House that both Houses had been dissolved. As you all know, somewhere about quarter past two, that is, at least half an hour before the House of Representatives declared that it had no confidence in Mr Fraser, and that it wanted the Speaker to ask the Governor-General to call me to be the Head of the Government, half an hour before that the Senate had passed the Budget Bills. Accordingly at the time that the Speaker sought an audience with the Governor-General the Budget had already been passed. The House of Representatives had already declared a majority of ten that it had no confidence in Mr Fraser. It had already declared that by the same majority that the Speaker should not request the Governor-General to call me to be the Head of Government. Now I can’t understand how, in those circumstances, the Governor-General saw fit to dissolve both Houses. Clearly the things that he had in mind when he drafted the statement he gave me at one o’clock, and Mr Fraser presumably at about half past one, the grounds in that statement no longer applied and you will notice that the Governor-General declared that the two houses were dissolved on the ground of the double dissolution Bill, he did not purport to dissolve the two Houses because the Government didn’t have Supply. Or because what the elected Government didn’t have Supply.

JOURNALIST: That being the case, is there any course open to you, any member of the public, the State Government or anyone to clarify the situation, in the High Court?

WHITLAM: I don’t believe that you can bring the Governor-General before the high Court.

JOURNALIST: When the Governor-General rejected your advice for an early half Senate election did he give you any opportunity to offer alternative advice?

WHITLAM: No, no. That’s right, he withdrew my commission.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister do you believe that you’ve been dismissed illegally?

WHITLAM: Unconstitutionally. There is no Act which says it can’t happen. But it hasn’t happened for 200 years in the Westminster system. There is no Act of Parliament which says it can’t be done. The whole trust of the Constitution is, that the Party which has the majority in the House of Representatives becomes the Government. And that a Party which is the Government doesn’t cease to be the government unless it loses its majority in the House of Representatives. You can have the situation where a government is in the minority in the Senate. But nevertheless, the government remains the government as longas it has the majority in the House of Representatives. There have been times in the past, not only since we’ve had proportional representation in the Senate and the Senate has been very evenly balanced, when of course on several occasions the Menzies Government, the Holt Government too, didn’t have a majority in the Senate. There have been previous occasions, for instance when the first Menzies Government was defeated and the Fadden Government was defeated, that that Party still had a very large majority in the Senate. But nevertheless, Curtin came in, in the House of Representatives, because a majority of the members of the House of Representatives supported him. And the fact that he didn’t have a majority in the Senate, the fact that if they’d been do disposed the Senators could have rejected the Curtin Budget, never of course occurred to anyone.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you’d probably agree that you enjoy a fight. Are you looking forward to the election campaign and when will you officially launch the campaign?

WHITLAM: I can’t be sure when I’ll be making my first Public speech but I think I will be having something of political relevance to say at the Liverpool town Hall on Thursday when I’m at the naturalisation and at the Wollongong on Saturday night when I’m at a social function then. Certainly I like a fight. I’ve won a fair number of fights and I expect to win this one. I’ve never known so clear cut an issue. It’s not just what happens to my Government, what’s been done to my Government, it’s what can happen to any Government which thereafter is given a majority in the House of Representatives by the electors and which retains that majority in the House of Representatives. Parliamentary democracy is at stake in Australia here. The alternative is that whenever the Senate fails to pass a Bill, and the Senate fails to pass a Bill if there’s an even division. There doesn’t have to be a majority against the Government proposal in the Senate, it’s enough if the Senate is evenly divided. Now if, by being evenly divided, the Senate can take the Government of the country out of the hands of the Party which has a majority in the House of Representatives then we can have elections, not only every year and a half, as we’ve had in the case of my first two Governments, but also every six months.

JOURNALIST: Has Mr Fraser told you when he’s going to have an election?

WHITLAM: No, but it is clearly possible to have an election on the 13 December, that was the date which was shown by the Chief Electoral Officer to be feasible for the half-Senate election which I was advising for the Governor-General to suggest as the date to the State Governors. But moreover any later date like the 20th or the 27th would be very difficult because the usual polling places and the usual polling clerks would not be available. The 13th is a perfectly practicable date. It is the earliest we can have it; as far as I am concerned the sooner the better. The third time will prove it.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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