1975 and all that…
The release last week of Jenny Hocking’s second part of her two part biography of Australia’s 21st prime minister, Gough Whitlam has re-invigorated debate around the events of the dismissal of Whitlam’s government on 11 November 1975.
When one studies the abundance of historical material surrounding the dismissal, including newspapers, speeches, oral histories, radio and television coverage, documentaries and the dozens of published inside accounts, it is almost inevitable to view this extraordinary period of time as a piece of theatre—a drama played out on the national stage. This is not to trivialise the serious or complex nature of the dismissal but rather to highlight the drama of the time. Three men found themselves jostling for position on centre stage as the intense drama unfolded—Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Sir John Kerr. The roles they played polarised public opinion and etched their names onto the pages of Australia’s political and constitutional history.
For the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, our interest in the subject is twofold. Firstly, many of the events unfolded in (and outside) this historic building and secondly, the debate that surrounds the dismissal goes to the heart of our role celebrating and debating Australia’s democratic journey.
A complex issue such as the dismissal deserves much more space than this blog (and the detail of this theatre can be found at the museum’s online exhibition Dismissed!) however it is worth reflecting on the outcome of the dismissal–the federal election of 13 December 1975.
The 1975 election saw a turning point in the way election campaigns would be fought. The campaign kicked off only hours after the Governor-General dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and his government. The new caretaker government coalition of Liberal-National Country Parties was ready for its campaign. The Coalition had for some time been pushing for the opportunity to force an election in an effort to return to power. It is an interesting fact that by 2:00pm on November 11, one hour after Governor-General Sir John Kerr had dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, the Liberal Party machine was implementing their ‘Turn on the lights’ campaign, planned many months beforehand.
The Labor Party, however, was not as quick to react, anticipating that Fraser would back down from the deadlock in the Senate. He did not and when Kerr dismissed Whitlam, the Labor Party realised it could not campaign on its record. Instead, the Labor Party campaigned on the dismissal itself and the ‘attack on our democracy’—Whitlam’s ‘maintain the rage’ campaign.
A quick search of the word ‘democracy’ in the historical record of past election speeches (which can be found at the museum’s Election Speeches website) shows a large spike in the use of the word in the 1975 election. Democracy was used 17 times exclusively in Whitlam’s’ speech starting with the first sentence. It was the relentless, driving message from Whitlam about the assault on democracy by the Governor-General dismissing the government with no warning, referred to by Whitlam somewhat colourfully as ‘the coup’.
The Labor Party’s public rating did increase in polls held shortly after the Opposition blocked supply in the Senate. Public rallies held in capital cities immediately after the dismissal were enthusiastically attended and there was a degree of public outrage that Whitlam attempted to capitalise on. This was best represented in the Labor Party’s slogans of ‘Shame, Fraser Shame’ and ‘Right the Wrong. Reinstate Gough’.
However, shortly after the polls closed on December 13, it became clear that the Australian people, in the third federal election in just over three years, had returned the Coalition to Government.
And it was a rout. The numbers said it all. The Labor Party secured only 36 seats in the 127 seat House of Representatives losing 30 seats. In the Senate a swing of 6.4% against the Labor Party saw a comfortable majority for the new Fraser government in the upper house. In 2000 Malcolm Fraser reflected on the 1975 election outcome stating that ‘The actions that the Opposition took were strongly endorsed by the Australian people in the biggest shift in public opinion in Australia’s history. The people clearly wanted an opportunity to vote.’
The argument however always returns to the role of the Governor General and on occasion, the future of the Australian system of Government. Much of the current debate as a result of Hocking’s book is about the third man, identified in her publication as Sir Anthony Mason, and whether he should have counselled the Governor General and indeed what the Governor General should have done with that counsel.
This debate is the legacy of the dismissal. It highlights the ongoing questions about the role of the Australian Head of State in times of political turbulence. Without constitutional change, the Senate retains the power to block Supply and can use it to force an election. The Constitution does not specify whether the Prime Minister is required to call an election under such circumstances. Therefore, it remains that a Parliament may again become deadlocked and if such a situation arose, the Governor-General still has reserve powers to break the deadlock. Clearly, it will take another set of extraordinary circumstances and a particular mix of people for such a crisis to occur again.