On Tuesday November 11th, 1975, the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, dismissed Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister and appointed Malcolm Fraser as a caretaker Prime Minister.
Cartoon by Jeff, Sun News-Pictorial, November 12, 1975. Published with permission. Visit: Geoff Hook.
A Double Dissolution election was held on December 13th, 1975, at which the Whitlam Government was soundly defeated.
The dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government was the culmination of a series of dramatic events which began in October, 1975 with the refusal by the Senate to pass the government’s budget bills.
Out of the Wilderness
The Labor Government had been elected on 2 December 1972 after 23 years of Liberal/Country Party coalition rule. The ALP slogan, “It’s Time”, seemed to capture the mood of the nation, although the ALP’s margin of victory was relatively slim.
Whitlam was the first of the new-style Labor leaders. He had been elected to Federal Parliament in 1952, became Deputy Leader in 1960 and Leader in 1967. He had experienced early success in a number of by-elections and had won 17 seats at the 1969 election to take Labor close to victory.
Whitlam took office determined to implement a wide-ranging program of reforms. Such was his devotion to his “program” that Whitlam and his deputy, Lance Barnard, ran a two-man government between December 5-19, 1972, after which the full ministry took office.
Following an attempt by Whitlam to appoint the former leader of the Democratic Labor Party, Senator Vince Gair, as Ambassador to Ireland, the Opposition Leader, Bill Snedden, threatened to force an election by blocking Supply in the Senate. Whitlam responded by calling a double dissolution election for May 18, 1974, at which the government was returned.
Despite this, the Senate continued to frustrate the government, resulting in the first and only Joint Sitting of the Parliament, allowed for under Section 57 of the Constitution.
Manipulating Casual Senate Vacancies
Following the appointment of the government’s Senate leader and Attorney-General, Lionel Murphy, to the High Court bench in February 1975, the Liberal government of New South Wales, under Premier Tom Lewis, refused to follow convention and appoint a Labor replacement for Murphy in the Senate. The independent Mayor of Albury, Cleaver Bunton, was appointed instead.
Following the death of Queensland Labor Senator Bert Milliner, the Country Party Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, also refused to appoint a Labor replacement, opting instead to appoint Albert Patrick Field.
Overseas Loans Affair
During 1975, the Government also endured the “Overseas Loans Affair”, the story of efforts by the Minister for Minerals and Energy, Rex Connor, Treasurer Dr. Jim Cairns, and others, to raise an overseas loan of $4 billion. The loan was to be used to fund a number of natural resources and energy projects, including the construction of a natural gas pipeline, the electrification of interstate railways and a uranium enrichment plant.
The loan was sought not from the traditional American and European sources, but from the Middle East, which was awash with “petrodollars”, following the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973 and 1974. A Pakistani broker, Tirath Khemlani, was used by Connor to secure the loan. In the end, no loan was ever obtained, no commissions were paid, but the government was made to look reckless and foolish.
A special one-day sitting of the House of Representatives was held on 9 July 1975, during which Whitlam tabled the loans documents and sought to defend the government’s position.
During an emotional defence of his behaviour, Rex Connor proclaimed the Whitlam Government’s defence of Australia’s mineral resources and called upon the words of an old Australian poem:
Give me men to match my mountains,
Give me men to match my plains,
Men with freedom in their vision,
And creation in their brains.
Wracked by economic difficulties and the political impact of the Loans Affair scandal, the Whitlam Government was vulnerable throughout 1975. Whitlam had been forced to sack Dr. Jim Cairns from the government and a by-election in Lance Barnard’s former seat of Bass in June 1975 saw a massive swing against the government and the election of the Liberal Party’s Kevin Newman in a seat that had been held by the ALP for 60 years.
Rex Connor’s authority to raise overseas loans was withdrawn in early 1975, but the minister continued to liaise with Khemlani. When the Melbourne “Herald” newspaper published documents supplied by Khemlani in October 1975, Connor was forced to resign from the Cabinet. He was replaced by a young Paul Keating.
After the resignation of Rex Connor in October 1975, the Opposition Leader, Malcolm Fraser, announced that the Senate would defer passage of the Supply Bills until Whitlam called an election. Whitlam refused. There followed three weeks of constitutional crisis as the parties confronted each other in Parliament and the country.
Constitutional and Political Issues
The crisis raised a number of crucial questions about Australian democracy and centred on a disagreement between Whitlam and Fraser over the rights of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Whitlam asserted the primacy of the House of Representatives and his right to govern so long as he retained a majority there, whereas Fraser claimed that a government denied Supply by the Senate should resign. This was a fundamental dispute about how we choose Governments. The conflict also highlighted the importance of constitutional conventions in the Australian system.
Kerr and Barwick
The Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, took an active interest in the crisis, talking to both Fraser and Whitlam at various points during the period following October 15. At one point, Fraser offered to pass Supply, provided an election was called by the middle of 1976.
It is now known that Kerr sought the advice of Sir Garfield Barwick, the Chief Justice of the High Court. Barwick and Kerr met on Sunday 9 November and Barwick endorsed Kerr’s decision in writing the next day.
On November 11, 1975, Whitlam proposed calling an immediate half-Senate election, but the Governor-General rejected this advice and instead dismissed Whitlam from office. Later, Kerr issued a statement of reasons for the dismissal.
In the meantime, the Senate passed the Supply Bills, with the Labor senators unaware that their government had been dismissed. The House passed several motions of confidence in the Whitlam Government and instructed the Speaker, Gordon Scholes, to relay this to Kerr. The Governor-General refused to see the Speaker until after he had dissolved the Parliament. Scholes subsequently wrote to the Queen and received a letter in which the Queen indicated there was no place for her involvement in an Australian political conflict.
At the ensuing election, Fraser’s conservative coalition was resoundingly elected.
The dismissal remains a controversial subject in Australian history. It is central to any understanding of the current debate about becoming a republic. The constitutional and political effects of the Dismissal remain of importance to anyone interested in Australian politics.
The main players in the Dismissal have experienced different fates. Sir John Kerr’s Australia Day Address on 26 January 1976 belied the crisis about to beset him. After a drunken performance at the 1977 Melbourne Cup winner’s presentation, he was forced by public outrage to relinquish an appointment as Australian Ambassador to UNESCO. He lived in England for some years and died on 7 April 1991. Even in death, he remained controversial, the parliamentary condolences provoking a spirited intervention from Paul Keating.
Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister for seven and a quarter years, before losing an early election in 1983. Ostracised by many in the Liberal Party during the 1980s for failing to capitalise on his majorities in both houses of parliament, he was rehabilitated in the public mind during the 1990s. He campaigned against racism and media monopolies, supported an Australian republic and acted as Chairman of Care Australia.
Gough Whitlam retired from Parliament in 1978, following another massive election defeat in 1977. Ironically, he was appointed by the Hawke government as Ambassador to UNESCO in 1983.
Whitlam published an account of his years in office in 1985, calling it simply “The Whitlam Government”. Named a “living national treasure” in 1997, Abiding Interests was his last publication.
In 1996, when Whitlam turned 80, Prime Minister John Howard issued a congratulatory press release.
Whitlam’s wife, Margaret, died in 2012, at the age of 92.
Gough Whitlam died in 2014, at the age of 98.