The Governor-General has dissolved the Senate and the House of Representatives simultaneously in accordance with section 57 of the Constitution on seven occasions—in 1914, 1951, 1974, 1975, 1983, 1987, and 2016.
In only one case (1951) was the deadlock resolved by the Government being returned with a majority in both Houses. The legislation was reintroduced and passed by both Houses.
In two cases (1914 and 1983) the Government lost office. The legislation was not reintroduced.
In two cases (1974, 1987) the Government was returned but did not gain a majority in the Senate, and the disagreement between the Houses continued. The 1974 case resulted in a joint sitting (see page 489) at which the bills concerned were passed. In 1987 the bill concerned was ultimately not proceeded with.
In one case (2016) the Government was returned but did not gain a majority in the Senate. However, the disagreement between the Houses was resolved. The legislation was reintroduced and passed by both Houses after the House agreed to Senate amendments.
Unique circumstances applied in 1975. The bills providing the technical grounds for the double dissolution were not those of the caretaker Government seeking the dissolution, but those of the Government dismissed by the Governor-General. The bills were not reintroduced.
The details of each case are outlined in the following pages.
The 1914 double dissolution
Following the general election of 1913 the Cook Liberal Ministry was sworn in on 24 June 1913 with a majority in the House of Representatives of one but was in a minority in the Senate.
On 31 October 1913 the Government introduced into the House the Government Preference Prohibition Bill 1913. The bill was passed by the House on 18 November 1913 after a division had been called at every stage and the closure moved to end every debate. The bill was introduced into the Senate on 20 November and the second reading of the bill was negatived on 11 December. Parliament was prorogued on 19 December. A motion seeking leave to reintroduce the bill was moved in the House on 6 May 1914, the bill was reintroduced on 13May and again passed by the House on 28 May. During the proceedings on the bill in the House the Speaker exercised his casting vote on six occasions. The bill was again introduced into the Senate on 28 May and negatived on the first reading.
On 4 June 1914 Prime Minister Cook wrote to the Governor-General (Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson) recommending the simultaneous dissolution of both Houses, as the provisions of section 57 of the Constitution had been completely complied with in respect of the bill, and adding:
The almost equal numbers of the two parties in the House of Representatives, and the small number supporting the Government in the Senate, render it impossible to manage efficiently the public business.
In a lengthy background memorandum Mr Cook also told the Governor-General that the Labor majority in the Senate ‘has for two successive sessions made the parliamentary machine unworkable’. In conclusion Mr Cook advised the Governor-General that it:
… appears that the expressed views of those who took part in the framing of the Constitution support the conclusion drawn from the language and the scheme of the Constitution itself, namely, that the discretion of the Governor-General to grant or to refuse a dissolution of both Houses, under section 57, is a discretion which can only be exercised by him in accordance with the advice of his Ministers representing a majority in the House of Representatives.
The Governor-General replied on the same day:
Referring to the Prime Minister’s memorandum of this date, the Governor-General desires to inform the Prime Minister that, having considered the parliamentary situation, he has decided to accede to the Prime Minister’s request, and will grant an immediate simultaneous dissolution of the Senate and the House of Representatives, on condition that he receives a definite assurance that the financial position is such that adequate provision exists for carrying on the Public Service in all its branches during the period of time covered by the elections.
Mr Cook replied to the Governor-General guaranteeing that a supply bill would be introduced and passed before an election was held.
On 29 June 1914 the Governor-General prorogued Parliament and on 30 July 1914 the Governor-General, on the advice of the Government, issued a proclamation referring to the provisions of section 57, citing the bill in question and dissolving both Houses simultaneously.
Elections were held on 5 September 1914 and the Government of Prime Minister Cook was defeated, the Labor Party being elected to government with a majority in both Houses. The bill in question was not reintroduced.
An interesting facet of the 1914 double dissolution was that with Prime Minister Cook’s consent, the Governor-General sought advice from the Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Samuel Griffith, who held the view that:
An occasion for the exercise of the power of double dissolution under Section 57 formally exists … whenever the event specified in that Section has occurred, but it does not follow that the power can be regarded as an ordinary one which may properly be exercised whenever the occasion formally exists. It should, on the contrary, be regarded as an extraordinary power, to be exercised only in cases in which the Governor-General is personally satisfied, after independent consideration of the case, either that the proposed law as to which the Houses have differed in opinion is one of such public importance that it should be referred to the electors of the Commonwealth for immediate decision by means of a complete renewal of both Houses, or that there exists such a state of practical deadlock in legislation as can only be ended in that way. As to the existence of either condition he must form his own judgment. Although he cannot act except upon the advice of his Ministers, he is not bound to follow their advice but is in the position of an independent arbiter.
A formal address from the Senate to the Governor-General, seeking the reasons advanced by Mr Cook for the double dissolution, was agreed to by the Senate on 17June 1914 but was rejected by the Governor-General in the following terms:
I am advised by [my Advisers] that the request … is one the compliance with which would not only be contrary to the usual practice, but would involve a breach of the confidential relations which should always exist in this as in all other matters between the representative of the Crown and his Constitutional Ministers. I am advised further that to accede to the request … would imply a recognition of a right in the Senate to make the Ministers of State for the Commonwealth directly responsible to that Chamber … and that such a recognition would not be in accordance with the accepted principles of responsible government.
The 1951 double dissolution
Following the general election on 10 December 1949 a Liberal–Country Party coalition led by Prime Minister Menzies was returned to power with a majority in the House of Representatives but it was in a minority in the Senate.
On 16 March 1950 the Commonwealth Bank Bill 1950 was introduced into the House of Representatives. The bill passed the House on 4 May 1950 and was introduced into the Senate on 10 May. On 21 June the Senate passed the bill with amendments. On 22 June the House disagreed to the Senate amendments, and sent a message to the Senate asking the Senate to reconsider. The Senate insisted on the amendments and the House resolved that ‘The House insists on disagreeing to the amendments insisted on by the Senate’. The Senate received the message from the House to this effect on 23 June. On 10 October the opposition majority in the Senate took control of business in order that the message could be considered in committee of the whole. The Senate again insisted on its amendments. The message was received by the House on 11 October but was not considered.
On 4 October 1950 the Commonwealth Bank Bill 1950 [No. 2], identical to the earlier Commonwealth Bank Bill, was introduced into the House of Representatives. On 11 October the bill was declared an urgent bill and passed by the House. The bill was introduced into the Senate on 12 October and following its second reading on 14 March 1951 was referred to a select committee.
On 16 March Prime Minister Menzies wrote to Governor-General McKell advising him to dissolve simultaneously both Houses and sending him supporting opinions from the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General. In his letter to the Governor-General, MrMenzies set out the stages of proceedings on the Commonwealth Bank Bill in both Houses and stated:
… there is clear evidence that the design and intention of the Senate in relation to this Bill has been to seek every opportunity for delay, upon the principle that protracted postponement may be in some political circumstances almost as efficacious, though not so dangerous, as straight-out rejection. Since failure to pass is, in section 57, distinguished from rejection or unacceptable amendment, it must refer, among other things, to such a delay in passing the Bill or such a delaying intention as would amount to an expression of unwillingness to pass it. Clear evidence emerges from the whole of the history of the legislation in the Senate.
Mr Menzies then referred in detail to events in the Senate, analysing these events in terms of ‘delay’ and ‘failure to pass’ (see page 57 of the second edition).
In addition to stating that grounds existed for a double dissolution in respect of the Commonwealth Bank Bill, Mr Menzies also referred to disagreements between the Houses on the Social Services Consolidation Bill, the Communist Party Dissolution Bill and the National Service Bill, none of which had gone through the constitutional requirements to be the reason for a double dissolution. Mr Menzies said that in considerations surrounding the 1914 double dissolution ‘some importance appears to have been attached to the unworkable condition of the Parliament as a whole’ and stated that ‘the present position in the Commonwealth Parliament is such that good government, secure administration, and the reasonably speedy enactment of a legislative program are being made extremely difficult, if not actually impossible’.
In his foreword to the published double dissolution documents, Mr Menzies wrote on 24 May 1956:
In the course of our discussion, I had made it clear to His Excellency that, in my view, he was not bound to follow my advice in respect of the existence of the conditions of fact set out in section 57, but that he had to be himself satisfied that those conditions of fact were established.
In the concluding paragraph of his advice tendered to the Governor-General, Mr Menzies stated:
I am, of course, at Your Excellency’s service to discuss with you the matters referred to above and also any other aspects of the problem which seem to Your Excellency to merit examination. But my advice to you is, as I have said, that you should forthwith dissolve the Senate and the House of Representatives simultaneously so that the conflicts which have arisen may be authoritatively resolved.
In an opinion submitted to the Governor-General by Mr Menzies, the Solicitor-General stated that he believed that the three month interval before the second passage of the bill through the House of Representatives commenced when the Senate passed the bill with amendments to which the House would not agree.
When the Senate considered the Commonwealth Bank Bill for the second time and referred it to a select committee it did not actually reject the bill. Therefore to comply with the constitutional requirements for a double dissolution it had to be established that the Senate had ‘failed to pass’ the bill. The Senate Opposition argued that a double dissolution was not justified on the grounds that:
the reference of the bill to a select committee was a normal procedural form and should not be regarded as a ‘failure to pass’, and
the required interval of three months had not in fact transpired.
In an opinion submitted to the Governor-General by Mr Menzies, the Attorney-General stated:
The words 'fail to pass' in the section are designed to preclude the Senate, upon being proffered a Bill with an opportunity to pass it with or without amendments or to reject it, from declining to take either course, and instead deciding to procrastinate.
In the present circumstances the Senate has had a second opportunity of choosing whether to pass with or without amendments or to reject the proposed law. It has declined to take either course and, unquestionably, has decided to procrastinate. In my opinion, this completely satisfies the words ‘fail to pass’ as properly understood in the section and, in my opinion, the power of the Governor-General to dissolve both Houses has arisen.
The Solicitor-General made the following points in his opinion on this matter:
The addition of the words 'fail to pass' is intended to bring the section into operation if the Senate, not approving a Bill, adopts procedures designed to avert the taking of either of these definitive decisions on it. The expression 'fails to pass' is clearly not the same as the neutral expression 'does not pass', which would perhaps imply mere lapse of time. 'Failure to pass' seems to me to involve a suggestion of some breach of duty, some degree of fault, and to import, as a minimum, that the Senate avoids a decision on the Bill.
In a recent opinion, Sir Robert Garran enumerated as follows, and in terms which in general I respectfully adopt, the matters to be taken into account in ascertaining the fact of failure or non-failure to pass:
‘Mainly, I think, the ordinary practice and procedure of Parliament in dealing with Bills; including facts arising out of the unwritten law relating to the system of responsible government: the way in which the Government arranges the order of business and conducts the passage of Government measures through both Houses, and the various ways in which the Opposition seeks to oppose. It will be material to know what opportunities the Government has given for proceeding with the Bill, and what steps the Senate has taken to delay or defer consideration.
There are many ways in which the passage of a Bill may be prevented or delayed: e.g.
- It may be ordered to be read (say) this day six months.
- It may be referred to a Select Committee.
- The debate may be repeatedly adjourned.
- The Bill may be ‘filibustered’ by unreasonably long discussion, in the House or in Committee.
The first of these would leave no room for doubt. To resolve that a Bill be read this day six months is a time-honoured way of shelving it.
The second would be fair ground for suspicion. But all the circumstances would need to be looked at.
The third, if it became systematically employed against the Government, would lead to a strong inference.
But just at what point of time failure to pass could be established, might be hard to determine …
In the fourth case too, the point at which reasonable discussion is exceeded, and obstruction, as differentiated from honest opposition, begins, would be very hard to determine. But sooner or later, a 'filibuster' can be distinguished from a debate …
Section 57 cannot of course be regarded as nullifying the express provision in section 53 that except as provided in that section the Senate should have equal power with the House of Representatives in respect to all proposed laws. But it is equally clear that on the fair construction of section 57 a disagreement between the Houses can be shown just as emphatically by failure to pass a Bill as by its rejection or amendment. Perhaps the principle involved can be expressed by saying that the adoption of Parliamentary procedures for the purpose of avoiding the formal registering of the Senate’s clear disagreement with a Bill may constitute a ‘failure to pass’ it within the meaning of the section.
Mr Menzies made it clear in his memorandum to the Governor-General that he considered that the Senate had adopted parliamentary procedures for the purpose of avoiding the formal registering of the Senate’s clear disagreement with the bill.
On 17 March the Governor-General wrote to Mr Menzies:
I have given most careful consideration to the documents referred to and have decided to adopt the advice tendered in your memorandum.
On 19 March, on the advice of the Government, the Governor-General issued a proclamation referring to the provisions of section 57, citing the Commonwealth Bank Bill and dissolving the Senate and the House of Representatives.
A general election was held on 28 April 1951 and the Menzies Government was returned with a majority in both Houses, enabling the Government to effect the passage of the Commonwealth Bank Bill which was assented to on 16 July 1951.
The 1974 double dissolution
On 2 December 1972 there was a general election and the Whitlam ALP Government was elected with a majority in the House of Representatives, but in the Senate the Government held only 26 of the 60 seats. During the course of the 28th Parliament six bills were considered by the Government to have fulfilled the constitutional requirements to be treated as double dissolution bills:
Commonwealth Electoral Bill (No. 2) 1973;
Senate (Representation of Territories) Bill 1973;
Representation Bill 1973;
Health Insurance Commission Bill 1973;
Health Insurance Bill 1973;
Petroleum and Minerals Authority Bill 1973.
The catalyst for the 1974 double dissolution, however, was not so much the defeat in the Senate of government legislation but the Senate’s threat to prevent passage of appropriation bills.
On 21 March 1974 Prime Minister Whitlam announced in the House that the Government had decided to invite the Governor-General to communicate with the State Governors proposing that the next election for half the Senate should be held on 18 May 1974.
On 2 April 1974 Appropriation Bills (Nos 4 and 5) 1973–74 were introduced into the House of Representatives, and on 10 April passed by the House and sent to the Senate. On 4 April Prime Minister Whitlam had informed the House that if the Senate rejected any ‘money’ bill he would advise the Governor-General to dissolve both Houses. Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 1973–74 was introduced into the Senate on 10 April and debate on the second reading adjourned. A motion was then moved ‘That the resumption of the debate be an order of the day for a later hour of the day’, to which the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Withers) moved an amendment to add the following words to the motion:
… but not before the Government agrees to submit itself to the judgment of the people at the same time as the forthcoming Senate election …
The debate was interrupted to enable the Leader of the Government in the Senate (Senator Murphy) to announce that Prime Minister Whitlam had advised the Governor-General to grant a simultaneous dissolution of both Houses and that the Governor-General had agreed to do so on the condition that the necessary provisions were made for carrying on the Public Service. Senator Withers thereupon withdrew his amendment and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) was passed by the Senate, together with Appropriation Bills (Nos 3 and 5) 1973–74, and Supply Bills (Nos 1 and 2) 1974–75 received from the House that day.
In his advice to the Governor-General, Mr Whitlam listed the progress on the six bills which he considered satisfied the requirements of section 57 of the Constitution. He also gave other examples of what he regarded as the Senate’s obstruction of the government program, stating that 21 out of the 254 bills put before Parliament in the first session had been rejected, stood aside or deferred by the Senate. Mr Whitlam provided the Governor-General with a joint opinion from the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General which concluded that section 57 was applicable to more than one proposed law. An opinion from the Attorney-General that the six bills had satisfied the requirements of section 57 accompanied the Prime Minister’s advice to the Governor-General.
In his letter to the Prime Minister, accepting his advice, the Governor-General stated:
As it is clear to me that grounds for granting a double dissolution are provided by the Parliamentary history of the six Bills listed above, it is not necessary for me to reach any judgment on the wider case you have presented that the policies of the Government have been obstructed by the Senate. It seems to me that this is a matter for judgment by the electors.
On 11 April 1974 the Governor-General, on the advice of the Government, issued a proclamation referring to the provisions of section 57, citing the six bills which satisfied its provisions and dissolving the Senate and the House of Representatives. The elections were held on 18 May 1974 and the Whitlam Government was returned with a majority of five seats in the House. In the Senate, the election resulted in the Government holding 29 seats, the Liberal-Country Party coalition also holding 29, the Liberal Movement one, and one seat being held by an independent Senator.
The new Parliament met on 9 July 1974 and on 10 July the six double dissolution bills were introduced into the House and declared urgent bills. The Commonwealth Electoral Bill (No.2), the Senate (Representation of Territories) Bill and the Representation Bill were passed by the House that day. The Health Insurance Commission Bill, the Health Insurance Bill and the Petroleum and Minerals Authority Bill were passed by the House on 11 July. All six bills were negatived by the Senate at the second reading between 16 July and 24 July 1974.
The Government considered that these six bills had then fulfilled the constitutional requirements to be submitted to a joint sitting of the Houses (for a description of further proceedings and developments see page 489).
The 1975 double dissolution
The double dissolution of 11 November 1975 differed from earlier double dissolutions. Liberal Prime Minister Fraser who advised the Governor-General to grant a double dissolution had been Prime Minister only for a matter of hours and was not supported by a majority in the House. The bills which had satisfied the requirements of section 57 and which provided the technical grounds for the double dissolution had been introduced by the ALP Government, which had been dismissed from office earlier that day.
From July 1974, when the 29th Parliament commenced, to November 1975, 21 bills were regarded as fulfilling the requirements of section 57, having been twice rejected by the Senate. In addition there was Senate opposition to a considerable number of other government bills.
As with the 1974 double dissolution, the critical event leading up to the double dissolution concerned the passage of bills appropriating revenue for the ordinary annual services of the Government, namely, Appropriation Bills (Nos 1 and 2) 1975–76. It was on these bills that the Houses were in actual deadlock but they were not the bills in respect of which the double dissolution was granted. The deadlock in fact was broken when the Senate finally passed the appropriation bills on 11 November prior to the announcement of the proposed double dissolution (see page 480). These bills had been introduced into the House on 19 August 1975 and passed on 8 October. The bills were introduced into the Senate on 14 October. On 16 October the Senate agreed to the following amendment to the motion for the second reading in respect of each of the bills:
… this Bill be not further proceeded with until the Government agrees to submit itself to the judgment of the people, the Senate being of the opinion that the Prime Minister and his Government no longer have the trust and confidence of the Australian people …
A similar resolution had been agreed to by the Senate on the Loan Bill 1975 on the previous day. Meanwhile the House agreed to a motion which in part read:
Considering that the actions of the Senate and of the Leader of the Opposition will, if pursued, have the most serious consequences for Parliamentary democracy in Australia, will seriously damage the Government’s efforts to counter the effect of world-wide inflation and unemployment, and will thereby cause great hardship for the Australian people:
- This House declares that it has full confidence in the Australian Labor Party Government;
- This House affirms that the Constitution and the conventions of the Constitution vest in this House the control of the supply of moneys to the elected Government and that the threatened action of the Senate constitutes a gross violation of the roles of the respective Houses of the Parliament in relation to the appropriation of moneys;
- This House asserts the basic principle that a Government that continues to have a majority in the House of Representatives has a right to expect that it will be able to govern;
- This House condemns the threatened action of the Leader of the Opposition and of the non-government parties in the Senate as being reprehensible and as constituting a grave threat to the principles of responsible government and of Parliamentary democracy in Australia, and
- This House calls upon the Senate to pass without delay the Loan Bill 1975, the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 1975–76 and the Appropriation Bill (No. 2) 1975–76.
Following the passage of this resolution on 16 October 1975, and receipt of Senate messages communicating its resolutions on the appropriation and loan bills, a series of further messages concerning the bills were exchanged between the Houses:
on 21 October the House asserted that the Senate’s action on the appropriation bills was not contemplated within the terms of the Constitution and was contrary to established constitutional convention. On the same day in considering the Senate’s resolution in relation to the loan bill the House resolved that the action of the Senate in delaying the passage of the bill for the reasons given in the Senate’s resolution was contrary to the accepted means of financing a major portion of the defence budget and requested the Senate to pass the bill without delay;
on 22 October the Senate asserted that its action in delaying the bills was a lawful and proper exercise within the terms of the Constitution and added several statements to support this view;
on 28 October the House, in dealing with the Senate’s message, denounced the Senate’s action as a ‘blatant attempt by the Senate to violate section 28 of the Constitution for political purposes by itself endeavouring to force an early election for the House of Representatives’ and resolved that it would uphold the established right of the Government with a majority in the House of Representatives to be the Government of the nation;
on 5 November the Senate rejected the House’s claims and the House, when dealing with the Senate’s reply, declared that the Constitution and its conventions vest in the House the control of the supply of moneys to the elected Government and that the action of the Senate constituted a gross violation of the roles of the respective Houses in relation to the appropriation of moneys. The House further declared its concern that the unprecedented and obstructive stand taken by the Senate in continuing to defer the passage of the bills was undermining public confidence in the parliamentary system of government.
While these messages were being exchanged between the Houses, the House on 22October introduced and passed the appropriation bills and loans bill a second time, and on 29 October introduced and passed the appropriation bills a third time. In response to each of these bills the Senate again resolved not to proceed until the Government had agreed to submit itself to the judgment of the people.
The Government was not only faced with the problem of continuing conflict with the Senate in respect of its legislative program. By early November, the moneys provided by the supply bills to maintain the public services of the country for the first five months of the financial year, pending the passage of the main appropriation bills, were becoming depleted and there were indications that there would be insufficient moneys to meet the necessary commitments of the Government at some time prior to 30 November.
A motion of want of confidence in the Government had been moved on 29 October and defeated and on 6 November, four sitting days later, Leader of the Opposition Fraser gave notice of a motion of censure of the Government based on the consequences of the appropriation bills failing to pass both Houses.
The next sitting day, 11 November, produced a sudden and dramatic climax of events. The Government allowed precedence to the motion of censure to which Prime Minister Whitlam moved an amendment censuring Leader of the Opposition Fraser.
During the lunch suspension Mr Whitlam went to Government House for a prearranged meeting with Governor-General Kerr. Mr Whitlam intended to advise His Excellency to approve an election for half the Senate, which was due in any case before 30 June 1976. During the course of the meeting the Governor-General terminated Mr Whitlam’s commission as Prime Minister. The following is the text of the letter of dismissal:
11 November 1975
Dear Mr Whitlam,
In accordance with section 64 of the Constitution I hereby determine your appointment as my Chief Adviser and Head of the Government. It follows that I also hereby determine the appointments of all of the Ministers in your Government.
You have previously told me that you would never resign or advise an election of the House of Representatives or a double dissolution and that the only way in which such an election could be obtained would be by my dismissal of you and your ministerial colleagues. As it appeared likely that you would today persist in this attitude I decided that, if you did, I would determine your commission and state my reasons for doing so. You have persisted in your attitude and I have accordingly acted as indicated. I attach a statement of my reasons which I intend to publish immediately.
It is with a great deal of regret that I have taken this step both in respect of yourself and your colleagues.
I propose to send for the Leader of the Opposition and to commission him to form a new caretaker government until an election can be held.
(signed John R. Kerr)
The Honourable E. G. Whitlam, Q.C., M.P.
At 2.34 that afternoon Mr Fraser announced to the House that the Governor-General had commissioned him to form a Government. The Governor-General informed the Speaker by letter that he had that day determined the appointment of Mr Whitlam and had commissioned and administered the oath of office to Mr Fraser as Prime Minister. In accepting the commission Prime Minister Fraser made the following undertakings in a letter to the Governor-General:
… I confirm that I have given you an assurance that I shall immediately seek to secure the passage of the Appropriation Bills which are at present before the Senate, thus ensuring Supply for the carrying on of the Public Service in all its branches. I further confirm that, upon the granting of Supply, I shall immediately recommend to Your Excellency the dissolution of both Houses of this Parliament.
My Government will act as a caretaker government and will make no appointments or dismissals or initiate new policies before a general election is held.
A few minutes before Mr Fraser made his announcement in the House, the Senate had passed the main appropriation bills. Following Mr Fraser’s announcement, the House agreed to the following motion by Mr Whitlam:
That this House expresses its want of confidence in the Prime Minister and requests Mr Speaker forthwith to advise His Excellency the Governor-General to call the honourable Member for Werriwa [Mr Whitlam] to form a Government.
In speaking to his motion Mr Whitlam stated:
There is no longer a deadlock on the Budget between the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Budget Bills have been passed. Accordingly, the Government which twice has been elected by the people is able to govern. Furthermore, as has been demonstrated this afternoon, the parties which the Prime Minister leads do not have a majority in the House of Representatives. The party I lead has a majority in the House of Representatives. It has never been defeated in the year and a half since the last election and in those circumstances it is appropriate, I believe, that you, Mr Speaker, should forthwith advise the Governor-General—waiting upon him forthwith to advise him—that the party I lead has the confidence of the House of Representatives, and you should apprise His Excellency of the view of the House that I have the confidence of the House and should be called to form His Excellency’s Government.
At 3.15 pm the Speaker suspended the sitting and sought an appointment with the Governor-General to convey to him the terms of the House’s resolution. An appointment was made for the Speaker to see the Governor-General at 4.45 pm. At 4.30 pm the Governor-General dissolved both Houses and at 4.45 pm the double dissolution proclamation, in accordance with practice, was read by the Governor-General’s Official Secretary on the steps of Parliament House. The sittings of the Houses did not resume. The double dissolution proclamation was signed before the Speaker was able to see the Governor-General and present the House’s resolution to him.
The double dissolution proclamation referred to the provisions of section 57, cited 21 bills accepted as satisfying the provisions of section 57 and dissolved the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Governor-General made public on the day of the dissolution his reasons for dismissing Prime Minister Whitlam—the terms of the statement and of advice to the Governor-General by the Chief Justice of the High Court are incorporated in full at pages 58–61 of the first edition and pages 65–68 of the second edition.
On the following day Mr Scholes, as Speaker, wrote to the Queen expressing his serious concern that:
… the failure of the Governor-General to withdraw Mr Fraser’s commission and his decision to delay seeing me as Speaker of the House of Representatives until after the dissolution of the Parliament had been proclaimed were acts contrary to the proper exercise of the Royal prerogative and constituted an act of contempt for the House of Representatives. It is improper that your representative should continue to impose a Prime Minister on Australia in whom the House of Representatives has expressed its lack of confidence and who has not on any substantial resolution been able to command a majority of votes on the floor of the House of Representatives.
It is my belief that to maintain in office a Prime Minister imposed on the nation by Royal prerogative rather than through parliamentary endorsement constitutes a danger to our parliamentary system and will damage the standing of your representative in Australia and even yourself.
I would ask that you act in order to restore Mr Whitlam to office as Prime Minister in accordance with the expressed resolution of the House of Representatives …
On 17 November the Queen’s Private Secretary, at the command of Her Majesty, replied that:
… the Australian Constitution firmly places the prerogative powers of the Crown in the hands of the Governor-General as the representative of The Queen of Australia. The only person competent to commission an Australian Prime Minister is the Governor-General, and The Queen has no part in the decisions which the Governor-General must take in accordance with the Constitution. Her Majesty, as Queen of Australia, is watching events in Canberra with close interest and attention, but it would not be proper for her to intervene in person in matters which are so clearly placed within the jurisdiction of the Governor-General by the Constitution Act.
The election was held on 13 December 1975 and the Liberal–Country Party coalition gained a majority of seats in both Houses. None of the bills which formed the technical grounds for double dissolution was reintroduced by the new Government.
(A full time-table of events of the 1975 parliamentary crisis is given at pages 62–4 of the first edition.)
Significance of the constitutional crisis of 1975
The political upheavals of 1975 add up to the most significant constitutional developments in this country since federation. They resulted in a fundamental redistribution of power between the two Houses of the national parliament and between Parliament and the executive. Owing to the result of the election [13 December 1975] the more important effects of the change are unlikely to become obvious for a while yet, but it would be unrealistic to hope that they will remain quiescent for more than a few years at most.
The foregoing comment from Professor Colin Howard, Hearn Professor of Law, University of Melbourne, reflected the view of a wide spectrum of academic and political thought in Australia.
The significant departure from perceived constitutional conventions which occurred in 1975 caused some reflection on the intention of the framers of the Constitution. Quick and Garran, who were intimately involved in the development of the Constitution, referred to the possible differences which could emerge over time between the Houses and commented on the way in which it was foreseen that the concept of responsible government and majority rule (as seen in the House) and State representation (as provided for in the Senate) would operate in the Federal Parliament.
First, the role of the Crown in relation to the Cabinet was set out:
Whilst the Constitution, in sec. 61, recognizes the ancient principle of the Government of England that the Executive power is vested in the Crown, it adds as a graft to that principle the modern political institution, known as responsible government, which shortly expressed means that the discretionary powers of the Crown are exercised by the wearer of the Crown or by its Representative according to the advice of ministers, having the confidence of that branch of the legislature which immediately represents the people. The practical result is that the Executive power is placed in the hands of a Parliamentary Committee, called the Cabinet, and the real head of the Executive is not the Queen but the Chairman of the Cabinet, or in other words the Prime Minister. (Dicey, Law of the Const. p. 9.) There is therefore a great and fundamental difference between the traditional ideal of the British Constitution, as embodied in sec. 61, giving full expression to the picture of Royal authority painted by Blackstone (Comm. I. p. 249) and by Hearn (Gov. of Eng. p. 17), and the modern practice of the Constitution as crystallized in the polite language of sec. 62, ‘there shall be a Federal Executive Council to advise the Governor-General in the Government of the Commonwealth’.
Then, the reason was quoted for the establishment and maintenance of the relationship between the Crown and the Ministry, as set out with some clarity by Sir Samuel Griffith, later to be the first Chief Justice of the Australian High Court:
There are perhaps few political or historical subjects with respect to which so much misconception has arisen in Australia as that of Responsible Government. It is, of course, an elementary principle that the person at whose volition an act is done is the proper person to be held responsible for it. So long as acts of State are done at the volition of the head of the State he alone is responsible for them. But, if he owns no superior who can call him to account, the only remedy against intolerable acts is revolution. The system called Responsible Government is based on the notion that the head of the State can himself do no wrong, that he does not do any act of State of his own motion, but follows the advice of his ministers, on whom the responsibility for acts done, in order to give effect to their volition, naturally falls. They are therefore called Responsible Ministers. If they do wrong, they can be punished or dismissed from office without effecting any change in the Headship of the State. Revolution is therefore no longer a necessary possibility; for a change of Ministers effects peacefully the desired result. The system is in practice so intimately connected with Parliamentary Government and Party Government that the terms are often used as convertible. The present form of development of Responsible Government is that, when the branch of the Legislature which more immediately represents the people disapproves of the actions of Ministers, or ceases to have confidence in them, the head of the State dismisses them, or accepts their resignation, and appoints new ones. The effect is that the actual government of the State is conducted by officers who enjoy the confidence of the people. In practice they are themselves members of the Legislature … The ‘sanction’ of this unwritten law is found in the power of the Parliament to withhold the necessary supplies for carrying on the business of the Government until the Ministers appointed by the Head of the State command their confidence. In practice, also, the Ministers work together as one body, and are appointed on the recommendation of one of them, called the Prime Minister. And, usually, an expression of want of confidence in one is accepted as a censure of all. This is not, however, the invariable rule; and it is evidently an accidental and not a fundamental feature of Responsible Government.
In continuing the description of the relationship of the Crown’s representative with the Cabinet, Quick and Garran states:
In the formation of a Cabinet the first step is the choice and appointment of its President or spokesman, the Prime Minister; he is chosen and appointed by the Crown or by its representative. In the choice of a Prime Minister, however, the discretion of the Crown is fettered; it can only select one who can command the confidence of a majority of the popular House. The other members of the Cabinet are chosen by the Prime Minister and appointed by the Crown on his recommendation.
Tensions in the system of Cabinet government in a State-represented federal system
At the time of federation Quick and Garran discerned problems in the constitutional provisions relating to the powers of the two Houses. They recorded the following difficulties foreseen by some eminent federalists:
The Cabinet depends for its existence on its possession of the confidence of that House directly elected by the people, which has the principal control over the finances of the country. It is not so dependent on the favour and support of the second Chamber, but at the same time a Cabinet in antagonism with the second Chamber will be likely to suffer serious difficulty, if not obstruction, in the conduct of public business.
This brings us to a review of some of the objections which have been raised to the application of the Cabinet system of Executive Government to a federation. These objections have been formulated with great ability and sustained with force and earnestness by several Australian federalists of eminence, among whom may be mentioned the names of Sir Samuel Griffith, Sir Richard C. Baker, Sir John Cockburn, Mr. Justice Inglis Clark, and Mr. G.W. Hackett, who have taken the view that the Cabinet system of Executive is incompatible with a true Federation. (See 'The Executive in a Federation', by Sir Richard C. Baker, K.C.M.G., p. 1.)
In support of this contention it is argued that, in a Federation, it is a fundamental rule that no new law shall be passed and no old law shall be altered without the consent of (1) a majority of the people speaking by their representatives in one House, and (2) a majority of the States speaking by their representatives in the other house; that the same principle of State approval as well as popular approval should apply to Executive action, as well as to legislative action; that the State should not be forced to support Executive policy and Executive acts merely because ministers enjoyed the confidence of the popular Chamber; that the State House would be justified in withdrawing its support from a ministry of whose policy and executive acts it disapproved; that the State House could, as effectually as the primary Chamber, enforce its want of confidence by refusing to provide the necessary supplies. The Senate of the French Republic, it is pointed out, has established a precedent showing how an Upper House can enforce its opinions and cause a change of ministry. On these grounds it is contended that the introduction of the Cabinet system of Responsible Government into a Federation, in which the relations of two branches of the legislature, having equal and co-ordinate authority, are quite different from those existing in a single autonomous State, is repugnant to the spirit and intention of a scheme of Federal Government. In the end it is predicted that either Responsible Government will kill the Federation and change it into a unified State, or the Federation will kill Responsible Government and substitute a new form of Executive more compatible with the Federal theory …
… the system of Responsible Government as known to the British Constitution has been practically embedded in the Federal Constitution, in such a manner that it cannot be disturbed without an amendment of the instrument. There can be no doubt that it will tend in the direction of the nationalization of the people of the Commonwealth, and will promote the concentration of Executive control in the House of Representatives. At the same time it ought not to impair the equal and co-ordinate authority of the Senate in all matters of legislation, except the origination and amendment of Bills imposing taxation and Bills appropriating revenue or money for the ordinary annual services of the Government.
Impact of the ‘supply’ provisions
The power of the Senate to reject appropriation and supply bills—that is, bills which are required by the Government to carry on its day-to-day business—is a power which remains as a potential threat to the tenure of a Government despite its retention of majority support in the House, and it may be seen to be in conflict with the concept of responsible government.
The rejection of bills other than appropriation and supply bills would seem to present no insuperable hurdle to constitutional democratic government. Certainly it may hinder a Government’s legislative program. However, if such hindrance is considered unreasonable or improper this will be reflected in public opinion which will, in turn, eventually influence Senate action on the legislation. This process may take some time to work out; meanwhile the Government has the task of convincing the people of the correctness of its policies.
On the other hand a rejection of supply by the Senate resulting in the fall of a Government strikes at the root of the concept of representative government. The House of Representatives was designed and has always been recognised as the House of government—the people’s House. Its method of election is broadly on the ‘one vote one value’ system. In theory, each vote has equal weight—in effect each enfranchised member of the community has an equal say in electing the party he or she favours to govern. Voters presumably believe that they are electing a Government to serve for a normal term and the possibility of a shorter period of government procured by the intervention of the Senate is contrary to such expectation.
One of the features of the Westminster system of government is the existence of a clear line of representation from the people through the Parliament to the Executive Government. This in turn results in a clear line of responsibility in reverse order from the Executive to the Parliament to the people. Once this clear line of responsibility is interfered with (as with the intervention of the Senate which is not an equitably representative body in the sense that the House is) the powerful concept of representative and responsible government is weakened. Since 1975 proposals have been made for constitutional change to limit the powers of the Senate in this area.
The 1983 double dissolution
In the 32nd Parliament the Liberal–National Party Government led by Prime Minister Fraser did not have a majority in the Senate. During the course of the Parliament the Senate twice rejected or failed to pass 13 proposed laws in a manner which the Government considered brought them directly within the provisions of section 57.
In September 1981 the Senate requested amendments to nine sales tax amendment bills which sought to impose sales tax on certain items previously exempted and which were introduced as part of the 1981 Budget measures. The House considered the Senate requests but declined to make the amendments on 14 October 1981. The Senate resolved on 20 October 1981 to press its requests, and the House was so advised. The Government considered that this action constituted ‘failure to pass’ the bills. The Speaker made a statement on the constitutional issues involved, noting that the right of the Senate to repeat and thereby press or insist on a request for an amendment had never been accepted by the House. The House then agreed to a resolution inter alia endorsing the statement of the Speaker in relation to the constitutional questions raised by the Senate message and declining to consider the message in so far as it purported to press amendments contained in the earlier message.
On 7 May the order of the day was discharged from the Notice Paper and on 16 February 1982 the bills were again introduced in the House. They were passed by the House on 17 February and transmitted to the Senate which, on 10 March, negatived the motion for the second readings.
The Government also introduced three bills to implement decisions for the limited reintroduction of tertiary tuition fees. By May 1982 the Senate had twice rejected or failed to pass the Canberra College of Advanced Education Bill, the States Grants (Tertiary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill (No. 2) and the Australian National University Amendment Bill (No. 3). A Social Services Amendment Bill (No. 3) 1981 dealing with the eligibility of spouses of persons involved in industrial action to certain benefits was also passed by the House but the motion for the second reading was later negatived by the Senate. It was again introduced in the House, passed and transmitted to the Senate, but the motion for the second reading was, on 24 March 1982, again negatived by the Senate.
On 3 February 1983 the Prime Minister advised the Governor-General that the Senate had twice rejected or failed to pass the 13 bills and recommended that the Governor-General dissolve simultaneously the Senate and the House. The advice referred to the progress of the bills, and further details were provided in an attachment. The Prime Minister stated that the bills in question were of importance to the Government’s budgetary, education and welfare policies. He also said there was a second consideration which had led him to recommend a dissolution—he referred to economic problems facing the country, and said that it was of paramount importance, in facing difficult economic circumstances, for the Government to know that it had the full confidence of the people and that the people had full confidence in the Government’s ability to point the way towards recovery.
On considering this advice the Governor-General sought further information from the Prime Minister. Later on 3 February the Prime Minister wrote to the Governor-General referring to his earlier letter and a telephone conversation that he had had with the Governor-General. This letter advised that the Prime Minister regarded a double dissolution as critical to the workings of the Government and the Parliament. He said that there was a need for the Government to have decisive control over both Houses, noted that some significant legislation had not been passed by the Senate, and said that some measures had not even been put to the Parliament because the Government knew that they would not achieve passage through the Senate.
The Governor-General replied on the same day, stating that he had satisfied himself that there existed measures which had been twice rejected or not passed by the Senate and which otherwise met ‘the description of measures such as are referred to in Section 57’. He further stated:
Such precedents as exist, together with the writings on Section 57 of the Constitution, suggest that in circumstances such as the present, I should, in considering your advice, pay regard to the importance of the measures in question and to the workability of Parliament.
I note that your letter states that the thirteen proposed Laws are ‘of importance to the Government’s budgetary, education and welfare policies’. I also note that in the case of each of these measures a considerable time has passed since they were rejected or not passed for a second time in the Senate. I have considered their nature …
As to the importance of these measures, viewed in the context of the extraordinary nature of a double dissolution, I am not myself in any position, from their mere subject matter and text, to form a view about the particular importance of any of them.
It was in those circumstances that I spoke with you by telephone early this afternoon about the workability of Parliament, seeking further advice from you on that score; this was a matter to which you had already referred, in a prospective sense, in your original letter.
As a result of your second letter to me, in which you speak of difficulties of the immediate past and describe a double dissolution as critical to the workings of the Government and of the Parliament, I am now satisfied that in accordance with your advice I should dissolve the Senate and the House of Representatives simultaneously. I note your assurance as to the availability of funds to enable the work of the administration to be carried on through the election period.
On 4 February, on the advice of the Government, the Governor-General issued a proclamation referring to the provisions of section 57, citing the 13 bills and dissolving the Senate and the House of Representatives. A general election was held on 5 March 1983, the Government of Prime Minister Fraser was defeated and the bills in question were not reintroduced.
The 1987 double dissolution
In the 34th Parliament the ALP Government of Prime Minister Hawke did not enjoy a majority in the Senate. In November 1986 the House passed the Australia Card Bill which provided for a basic national system of personal identification. In the Senate the motion for the second reading of the bill was defeated on 10 December 1986. On 25 March 1987 the House again passed the bill, but on 2 April the motion for the second reading was again defeated in the Senate.
On 27 May the Prime Minister informed the Governor-General that all conditions justifying a double dissolution had been satisfied in respect of the bill, and he advised the Governor-General to dissolve simultaneously the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Prime Minister’s letter also referred to the importance of the bill in the Government’s legislative program. It alleged that the Senate had obstructed other measures, and expressed the view that the situation which had arisen was critical to the workings of the Government and Parliament.
Later on the same day the Governor-General replied, confirming his acceptance of the Prime Minister’s advice, saying that he was satisfied that the circumstances such as were specified in section 57 existed in relation to the bill and noting the assurance that funds would be available to ensure that the work of the administration could continue through the election period. On 5 June, on the advice of the Government, the Governor-General issued a proclamation referring to the provisions of section 57, citing the Australia Card Bill and dissolving the Senate and the House of Representatives. A general election was held on 11 July, and the Government of Prime Minister Hawke was returned but it still lacked a majority in the Senate.
The Australia Card Bill was again passed by the House of Representatives on 16 September. While the second reading was being debated in the Senate, however, the Opposition released details of advice it had received on the matter. The advice was that the effective operation of the bill, if passed, would be dependent upon certain action to be taken by regulation. Disallowance of the regulations by the Senate would, it was argued, make the Act wholly ineffective. During debate in the Senate on the motion for the second reading and on amendments to refer the bill to a committee of inquiry, a government amendment was defeated which proposed to add, ‘but the Senate affirms that it will, consequent upon the passage of the Australia Card Bill at a joint sitting of the Houses, secure the effective operation of the legislation by not disallowing regulations made pursuant to sub-section 32(1) providing for the "first relevant day" and the "second relevant day"’. The bill was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on 23 September 1987.
On 8 October 1987 the Senate resolved, on the motion of the Minister with primary responsibility for the Australia Card legislation, that the committee report the bill on or before the next sitting without further considering the bill or matters referred in relation to it, and that on receipt of the report the bill be laid aside without further question being put. The Government had decided not to proceed further with the bill, which was laid aside when reported by the committee on 9 October.
The 2016 double dissolution
In the 44th Parliament the Liberal–Nationals coalition led by Prime Minister Abbott, and later Prime Minister Turnbull, was elected with a majority in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate, where the balance of power was held by minor parties and independents.
When the autumn sittings of the two Houses were adjourned on 17 March 2016, there already existed a double dissolution ‘trigger’ in the form of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 which had been passed by the House on 15 July 2014, negatived at the second reading by the Senate on 2 March 2015, again passed by the House on 19 March 2015, and again negatived at the second reading by the Senate on 17 August 2015.
There were also two other bills which the Government was keen to have passed, which had been passed by the House and rejected once by the Senate and passed again by the House with an interval of three months, and which were before the Senate. On 12 December 2013 the House had passed the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 and the Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013, whose purpose was to fulfil the Government’s election commitment to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). In the Senate the second readings of the bills had been negatived on 17 August 2015. The bills had again been passed by the House on 4 February 2016, and introduced to the Senate the same day and the second reading moved. Debate had not resumed when the Senate adjourned on 17 March.
Before adjourning on 17 March the Senate agreed to a resolution requiring the concurrence of an absolute majority of Senators to enable a meeting of the Senate before its next scheduled meeting on 10 May (Budget day). Because of the six-month limitation imposed by section 57, the latest date on which a double dissolution could occur in the 44th Parliament was 11 May.
On 21 March 2016 Prime Minister Turnbull advised the Governor-General to prorogue the Parliament on Friday 15 April and to summon the Parliament to sit on Monday 18 April for a new session of Parliament. The Prime Minister’s advice noted that the reason for recalling the Parliament was to enable it to give full and timely consideration to two important parcels of industrial legislation (that is, the bills detailed above). The Governor-General accepted this advice, and in his speech opening the new session outlined the parliamentary history of the bills in question and stated that he had, on the advice of his Ministers, recalled Members and Senators so that these bills could be considered again, and their fate decided without further delay.
As the ABCC bills had lapsed in the Senate following the prorogation, on the opening of the new session on 18 April the House requested the Senate by message to resume consideration of the bills. Later that day the Senate resumed consideration of the bills and again negatived the second readings, thus fulfilling the requirements of section 57 in relation to these bills. On 19 April both Houses adjourned to 2 May. On 2 May supply bills were introduced to provide government funding for the prospective election period, passing the House the same day and the Senate on 3 May. On 3 May in the House the Budget was introduced, with the reply by the Leader of the Opposition occurring on 5 May.
On Sunday 8 May the Prime Minister advised the Governor-General to exercise his power under section 57 of the Constitution to dissolve both Houses simultaneously with effect from 9.00 am on Monday 9 May to enable an election for both Houses to take place on Saturday 2 July 2016. The Prime Minister advised that all conditions for a double dissolution had been met with respect to the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013, the Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013, and the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014, and referred to an accompanying letter from the Attorney-General which contained fuller details of the parliamentary history of the bills and confirmed that the constitutional requirements for a double dissolution on the basis of the bills were satisfied. The Prime Minister noted that the bills represented important elements of the Government’s economic plan for jobs and growth and of its reform agenda and outlined the background and purpose of the bills. The Prime Minister’s letter also advised the proposed electoral timetable and assured the Governor-General that there was sufficient supply for the ordinary services of government, following the passage of the supply bills.
The Governor-General replied later that day, confirming his acceptance of the Prime Minister’s advice and stating that, in accepting the advice, he noted the Prime Minister’s assurances over supply. On the same day (8 May) the Governor-General issued a proclamation referring to the provisions of section 57 of the Constitution, citing the three bills, and dissolving the House of Representatives and the Senate at 9.00 am on Monday 9 May 2016.
A general election was held on 2 July 2016 and the Turnbull government was returned with a smaller majority of one seat in the House and again without a majority in the Senate, and there was an increase in the number of minor party and independent Senators. However, when the three double dissolution bills were reintroduced in the new Parliament, the Government was able to negotiate with the new Senate crossbench and achieve the passage of the bills with amendments that were accepted by the House.