Thirty years on, the rules of the Constitution which allowed for the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government remain unchanged. The different readings of the Constitution put forward by Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser in 1975, and of the conventions surrounding the operations of the Constitution, are still possible. Our Constitution remains ambiguous on the question of the Senate’s powers vis-a-vis the House of Representatives, and the propriety of the exercise of those powers. Whether or not it is appropriate for the Senate to exercise its power to block Supply, it retains that power and can use it to force an election. Yet the Constitution does not specify whether the Prime Minister is required to call an election under such circumstances. Therefore, a possibility remains that Parliament may again become deadlocked. Moreover, should such a situation arise, the Governor-General still holds reserve powers to break that deadlock.
Gough Whitlam remained at the helm of the Labor Party throughout the first term of the Fraser Government. He resigned from Parliament in 1978, following Labor’s defeat in the 1977 election.
“My chief interest in the events of October-November 1975 now lies in their relevance to Australia’s advance towards the Republic.”
In 1983, the new Labor Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, appointed him Ambassador to UNESCO. He remained in the position until 1986, thereafter continuing to campaign for Australia’s adherence to United Nations conventions on human rights, environment and heritage. Whitlam has also maintained close involvement with Australian and International cultural organisations, being former Chairman of the Australian National Gallery and a Member of Honour of the World Conservation Union.
Gough Whitlam has published a number of books exploring his period of Government and the events surrounding his dismissal in 1975:
- The Truth of the Matter (1979)
- The Whitlam Government 1972-1975 (1985)
- Abiding Interests (1997)
His views concerning the circumstances of the dismissal of his Government remain unchanged. Thirty years on Gough Whitlam still ‘maintains the rage’.
“All Kerr had to do was his duty—his duty to be open, frank and honourable in his dealings with the Prime Minister. That way there could have been no ambush; and without the ambush there could have been no coup.”
Malcolm Fraser remained Prime Minister until 1983 when Bob Hawke and the Labor Party were elected to Government. Following his resignation from Parliament, Fraser became closely involved with the affairs of the Commonwealth. He was one of the group of Eminent Persons central to negotiations to end apartheid and introduce full democracy to South Africa. He was Chairman of Care Australia, and was involved in securing the release of Australian hostages Steve Pratt and Peter Wallace from Serbian authorities following the war in Kosovo.
“The Republican Model, which was proposed at the last election, would have avoided some of the difficult factors that arose in the 1975 crisis.”
Feeling vindicated by his massive election win on December 13, 1975, Fraser sought to distance himself as much as possible from the drama of the dismissal. He has published no books on the subject. Fraser remains confident, however, that the action of forcing Gough Whitlam to the polls was both necessary and expedient.
Sir John Kerr
Of all those involved in the dismissal crisis, it was the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, who became the main target of public anger and hostility. From the moment the Whitlam Labor Government was dismissed, Kerr became deeply concerned with his personal safety and was rarely seen in public without security personnel. Over the years his health increasingly deteriorated. Many of his colleagues on both sides of politics believed that he was unable to cope with the aftermath of his decision.
“I was the umpire in the roughest political match in Australia’s history and understandably, if inexcusably, the losing side cried, ‘shoot the umpire…’”
Kerr remained Governor-General until his resignation in December 1977, after which time he left Australia to live in Europe. Whilst in Europe he wrote his only book on the subject of the dismissal, Matters For Judgment (1978). Returning to Australia six years later he lived out of the public gaze until his death in 1991. Until the end, he defended his role in the crisis.
“I had the power to dismiss him and he had the power to dismiss me.”