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Joint Sitting 30th Anniversary

This is the text of Gough Whitlam’s speech to the Whitlam Institute on the 30th Anniversary of the Joint Sitting.

The Joint Sitting took place in August 1974, following the double dissolution election of May 18, 1974. It is the only joint sitting ever held under Section 57 of the Constitution.

The Whitlam Institute is within the University of Western Sydney.

Gough Whitlam’s speech to the Whitlam Institute on the 30th Anniversary of the Joint Sitting.

At 88 years of age I enjoy being invited to 30th anniversaries of events during the terms of my first and second Governments, which were elected on 2 December 1972 and 18 May 1974. In December 2002, the 30th anniversary of the election of the Whitlam Government was celebrated, Labor’s first election win for 26 years. In December 2003 the 30-year restriction on the release of the 1973 Cabinet Papers was lifted. I intend to survive for the release of the 1974 and 1975 cabinet papers. Today we remember the 30th Anniversary of the first and only Joint Sitting of Australia’s federal Parliament and the accompanying exhibition arranged by the Whitlam Institute within the University of Western Sydney.

Section 57 of the Constitution is the provision designed to resolve deadlocks between the House of Representatives and the Senate. In essence the section provides that, when the Senate twice blocks legislation passed by the House of Representatives, the Governor-General on advice from the Prime Minister can dissolve both houses and call an election for both houses. After the double dissolution election, if the same legislation is passed by the House of Representatives and again blocked by the Senate, the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister can convene a Joint Sitting of both houses to vote on the blocked legislation.

Before 1974, Australia had two double dissolution elections, in 1914 and 1951. Double dissolution elections have subsequently been held in 1975, 1983 and 1987. There was no necessity for a Joint Sitting prior to 1974 as the bills that were the subject of the double dissolution elections were no longer subject to Senate obstruction following the elections. In 1914 the Cook Government lost power and in 1951 the Menzies Government obtained a majority in both Houses. At the Joint Sitting today 30 years ago I stated:

For, momentous as the sitting is, the reasons for it are not a matter of pride. It has come about because of the repeated refusal of the Senate to pass legislation which has been approved by the House of Representatives – the people’s House, the House where alone governments are made and unmade. It has come about because despite two successive election victories by the Australian Labor Party, despite the clear endorsement by the Australian people at the elections only 11 weeks ago of the Party’s policies and of the specific measures now before us, the Senate and the Opposition are still resolved to obstruct the Government’s program and to frustrate the will of the people …. Let it be understood that this Joint Sitting is a last resort, a means provided by the Constitution to enable the popular will – the democratic process – ultimately to prevail over the tactics of blind obstruction.

The first Whitlam Government, elected on 2 December 1972, had to work with Senators who had taken their places on 1 July 1968 and 1971 after being elected on 25 November 1967 and 21 November 1970 respectively. My Government’s legislation faced constant obstruction. The next half-Senate election was due before 30 June 1974. Six bills introduced in the House of Representatives were twice rejected by the Senate. These bills were as follows:

  1. Commonwealth Electoral Bill (No. 2) 1973 to reduce the variable quota between electorates from 20 per cent to 10 per cent.
  2. Senate (Representation of Territories) Bill 1973 to provide two senators for the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory.
  3. Representation Bill 1973 to provide that neither the people of the Territories nor the Territory Senators could be included in the formula for determining the number of members of the House of Representatives to be chosen in each State.
  4. Health Insurance Bill 1973 to establish the Medibank universal medical insurance scheme.
  5. Health Insurance Commission Bill 1973 to establish the Medibank administrative agency.
  6. Petroleum and Minerals Authority Act 1973 to establish a statutory body to control exploration and development of petroleum and mining resources.

The Governor-General, Sir Paul Hasluck, accepted my advice to dissolve both Houses and to hold elections on 18 May 1974. The Labor Party won the election with 66 members elected to the House of Representatives compared with 61 members elected from the Liberal and Country Parties. In the Senate, Labor won 29 seats, Liberal 23 seats, Country 6 seats, Liberal Movement 1 and Other 1. The new Parliament assembled on 9 July 1974. On 11 July (my 58th birthday) Sir John Kerr was installed as Governor-General. The House of Representatives again passed the six bills but the Senate again failed to pass them. On 30 July Kerr proclaimed the first Joint Sitting of both Houses to deliberate on all six bills. The President of the former Senate issued a writ in the High Court claiming that Kerr’s proclamation was invalid and that a Joint Sitting could deliberate on only one bill. The High Court unanimously held that a Joint Sitting could deliberate and vote on any number of bills and, with Chief Justice Barwick alone dissenting, held that the proclamation was not invalid. At the Joint Sitting on 6 and 7 August, the first occasion that Parliament was televised to the nation, all the bills were enacted. As a result the House of Representatives became the first legislative body in Australia to be elected on the principle of one vote, one value, the Northern Territory and ACT secured representation in the Senate and Medibank was established.

The establishment of Medibank cannot be mentioned without acknowledging the current crisis in our hospitals caused by the dilution of the universality enshrined in Medibank and Medicare and the buck-passing of responsibility and costs between State and Federal governments. The responsibilities of Federal parliamentarians are set out in paragraphs in the Constitution’s section 51. Paragraphs dating from 1901 cover quarantine, insurance, patents and external affairs, paragraphs dating from 1946 cover pharmaceutical, sickness and hospital benefits and medical and dental services. When parliamentarians realise that there are deficiencies or shortcomings in the services which their electors wish or expect, they have to consider what changes or improvements should be made and how they can be made. The Commonwealth should assume expenditure responsibility commensurate with its revenues.

Speaking on the Commonwealth Electoral Bill (No. 2) 1973 at the Joint Sitting I said:

It affirms the Government’s belief that every person’s vote is of equal value no matter where that person lives. It affirms our belief that all men and women should be equal in making the law as they are before the law. It gives to those who sit in this Parliament at this historic Joint Sitting of this Parliament the opportunity to stand up and be counted. To say whether they believe in these democratic principles and, above all, in the supreme principle of one vote one value. For its content and its implications, for its real value and its symbolic importance, for its contribution to the cause of democracy in a world where democracy seems daily more frail…

My longest campaign has been the campaign for equal representation. Furthermore, we should adopt the United States practice of having all Federal and State elections on the same fixed dates. We should aim to have fixed four year terms for all houses of Parliament in Australia.

A distinguishing feature of my Government was the use of the Constitution as an instrument of reform. No Governments have had so many of their acts and actions challenged during and after their terms of office. No other Governments have had all their acts and actions upheld. Too few politicians realise what is possible under the Constitution and in turn too many politicians abdicate responsibility accorded to them by the constitution.

The Whitlam Institute, led by the new director Jacqueline Woodman, marketed by Pru Anderson, archived by Ian Duncan and administered by Suzanne Ramirez have done a tremendous job in compiling and coordinating this exhibition to mark the 30th anniversary of the Joint Sitting. I commend it to you all.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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