- by Paul Kelly
of the Unmaking of Gough to tie in with 1983 TV mini-series
Used paperback: .1983 edition in good condition
On Remembrance Day, 1975, the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr,
sacked the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. The Dismissal was the culmination of
almost three years of political conflict, as Whitlam's reforming Labor
government rammed home overdue legislative reforms in the face of implacable,
and increasingly bitter, conservative opposition. The focus of the Opposition's
scheming was the Senate, where its leaders blocked supply in order to force a
Whitlam, famous for his 'crash through or crash' style, refused to compromise
with his political enemies. After consulting secretly with the Opposition
Leader, Malcolm Fraser, and the Chief Justice, Sir Garfield Barwick, Kerr
abruptly informed the PM that he had withdrawn his commission. Half an hour
later, Kerr swore Fraser in as 'caretaker Prime Minister'. At an election a
month later, the conservatives were returned to office.
Controversy and recrimination followed. Many Australians, including Whitlam
himself, believed he had been the victim of a coup. This is Paul Kellys
view on the events.
About Paul Kelly
Paul Kelly is the author of six successful books. The
Unmaking of Gough (1976), later titled The Dismissal (1982), The
Hawke Ascendancy (1984), The End of Certainty (1992), November
1975 published in 1995 and a collection of articles Paradise Divided (2000).
The End of Certainty was described in The Times Literary Supplement as
"the most comprehensive account of Australian polity since that of Sir
Keith Hancock half a century ago".
He presented the 2001 five-part television documentary for the ABC on
Australian history and character '100 Years – The Australian Story' and
wrote a book with the same title. He has covered federal governments from
Whitlam to Howard. In 2003 he co-edited Hard Heads, Soft Hearts, a new
domestic reform agenda for Australia.
Paul Kelly was Graham Perkin Journalist of the Year (1990) and was a double
Walkley award winner for journalistic excellence in 2001. He has written widely
on international affairs in America, Europe and Asia and has interviewed a
number of world leaders including Tony Blair, Lee Kuan Yew, George W Bush and
A Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, he is currently
Adjunct Professor of Journalism at the University of Queensland and a
participant in the Australia-America Leadership Dialogue. In 2002 he was a
visiting fellow at the Kennedy School of Government and a visiting lecturer at
the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.
About The Dismissal:
The Opposition would not have been able to follow this course if the Senate elected in 1974 had remained intact. Although one of the two independents joined the Liberal Party, the other, Steele Hall, was opposed to blocking supply, and this would have been sufficient to prevent such a course being followed. The change in the composition of the Senate which made the constitutional crisis of 1975 possible was brought about by two appointments to fill vacancies in the Senate, which under the Australian Constitution are made by the State Parliaments. Since the introduction of proportional representation for Senate elections in 1949, there had been a convention that Senators who died or resigned should be replaced by a Senator of their own party, and all state governments had adhered to this convention.
In February 1975 the Premier of New South Wales, Tom Lewis, broke the convention by appointing an independent Senator, Cleaver
Bunton, to replace the Attorney-General, Senator Lionel Murphy, who had been appointed to the High Court of Australia. This appointment made no difference to the political situation, because it turned out that Bunton was opposed to blocking supply, but it provided a precedent for the Queensland National Party Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, when a Queensland ALP Senator, Bert Milliner, died on 30 June. Bjelke-Petersen refused to appoint the ALP's chosen replacement, Dr Mal
Colston, and asked Labor for three alternative nominations. Bjelke-Petersen said he had concerns over Colston's integrity, but Labor maintained that his real intention was to appoint a Senator who would support the blocking of supply and thus help bring down the Whitlam government. When Labor insisted on nominating
Colston, Bjelke-Petersen nominated Albert Field, president of the Federated Furnishing Trades Union and an ALP member of thirty-eight years standing. Bjelke-Petersen maintained that he was therefore not breaking the convention. Under ALP rules, however, Field ceased to be an ALP member as soon as he accepted nomination against an endorsed Labor candidate. Field said that he was opposed to Whitlam's behaviour in office and that he had approached Bjelke-Petersen asking to be nominated to the vacancy. Labor maintained that in these circumstances Field was in effect an
anti-Labor Senator and that Bjelke-Petersen had broken the convention.
Field was granted leave from the Senate when High Court cases were filed challenging his eligibility to sit. But the change to the composition of the Senate was in any case decisive, because with Milliner's vote gone, the Opposition could pass Senate motions 30 votes to 29. Rather than blocking supply, they moved to delay consideration of the budget. Whitlam was determined to face the Opposition down, and proposed to borrow money from the banks to keep the government running. He was confident that some of the more moderate Liberal Senators would back down when the situation worsened as appropriations ran out during November and December.
Fraser also knew that the Senators were wavering, and he urged the Governor-General Sir John Kerr, to act. Kerr had been a Whitlam appointment, but he had developed a grudge against the Prime Minister, who he felt had ignored him and snubbed his wife. Kerr was also concerned about the legality of Whitlam's proposals for borrowing money, as were the banks. Kerr contacted the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, the former Liberal Attorney-General Sir Garfield Barwick, who gave Kerr private advice that it was his duty to dismiss Whitlam. Kerr was also advised, by New South Wales Governor Sir Roden Cutler that he must warn Whitlam of the possibility of his dismissal.
So on 11 November 1975, without giving Whitlam more than a moment's warning, Kerr revoked Whitlam's commission and installed Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister until a federal election could be held. He then immediately accepted Fraser's advice to call a double dissolution election, in an ironic twist using as triggers the same bills that the Coalition had rejected in the Senate.
On hearing the proclamation dissolving Parliament, which ended with the traditional 'God Save the Queen', Whitlam delivered his famous impromptu address to the crowd that had gathered in front of the steps of Parliament House. During the speech he famously labelled Fraser as "Kerr's cur" and told the crowd: "Ladies and gentlemen, well may we say 'God Save the Queen', because nothing will save the Governor-General."
Although there were a number of public protests against Fraser during the campaign, the media (especially the Murdoch press, which had supported the ALP in 1972) had long since lost confidence in Whitlam, reporting a string of ministerial failures. This had a major influence on public opinion, signalled some months previously in the Bass by-election and the election resulted in a landslide win to the Coalition.