11 November 2020 marks the 45th anniversary of the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government in 1975. The dismissal of the Whitlam Government by Governor-General Sir John Kerr was perhaps the most dramatic and controversial event in Australia’s constitutional and political history. The events themselves are still contested: the performance and decisions of the Whitlam Government; the role and constitutional power of the Senate; the role of the Opposition; the decisions of key State players; the reserve powers of the Governor-General and the role of the Queen.
The release in July 2020 of the Palace Letters—correspondence between Governor-General Kerr and Buckingham Palace—and other archival material has provided fresh insight into these events.
The period of the Whitlam Government was tumultuous: the Government was elected on 2 December 1972 and returned at the 18 May 1974 double dissolution election. The dismissal was the culmination of three years of political conflict, with the pivotal crisis occurring between 16 October and 11 November 1975.
The stage for this conflict was a Parliament in which the Government did not hold the majority in the Senate. Although focus has been on the blocking of Supply by the Opposition in the Senate in 1974 and 1975, it was the rejection of Government bills that paved the way for the dissolution of both Houses of Parliament.
This Flagpost touches on a few key events of the Whitlam Government culminating in the dismissal. It does not explore the Whitlam legacy or legal reforms.
A few key events
From the its election in December 1972 the Labor government's legislative program met resistance in the Senate, where half of the membership had been elected in November 1970 and half in November 1967. In 1974 the Opposition in the Senate made the passage of money bills conditional on the Government calling an election. Whitlam secured a dissolution of both Houses in April 1974 after the Senate twice rejected bills intended to establish Medibank, ensure one vote one value in elections for the House of Representatives, and introduce senators for the Territories.
Six bills were considered by the Government to have fulfilled the requirements of section 57 of the Constitution to be treated as double dissolution bills.
At the 18 May 1974 election the Government was re-elected with a majority of seats in the House, but not a majority of Senators. The Medibank and electoral bills were then passed at the first—and to date only—joint sitting of both Houses of the Parliament held on 6–7 August 1974.
After heated debate about the Khemlani loans scandal and the state of the economy, the Liberal Party used its numbers in the Senate to defer Supply.
On 16 October 1975 the Opposition announced that it would not support the passage of Supply unless the Prime Minister agreed to the calling of a new election for the House. Whitlam refused, declaring that it was unconstitutional for the Senate to decide who should hold government.
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. This deadlock between the Government and Opposition continued until 11 November 1975.
On 10 November 1975 Governor-General Sir John Kerr obtained formal advice from the Chief Justice of the High Court, Garfield Barwick, confirming his right to dismiss the Government. On 11 November 1975, the Governor-General sacked Whitlam for refusing to resign or to advise an election after failing to obtain Supply.
Governor-General Kerr immediately commissioned Opposition leader Malcolm Fraser to form a caretaker government to secure Supply pending a general election. Acting on the advice of caretaker Prime Minister Fraser, who did not have majority support in the House, the Governor-General dissolved both Houses of Parliament.
In the ensuing double dissolution election on 13 December 1975 the Coalition, led by Fraser, won a landslide victory, winning majorities in both Houses of Parliament. As Opposition Leader, Whitlam contested the 1977 election and was defeated. He stood down from the ALP leadership and resigned from Parliament in July 1978.
Whitlam and Fraser formed what seemed an unlikely friendship in their later years.
Much has been written on the dismissal: a number of books and numerous articles which analyse different aspects of the events.
The National Archives of Australia provides access to records, including Cabinet documents, for the period of the Whitlam Government.
Whitlam's account of these controversial events is given in The Truth of the Matter and in Abiding Interests. In 1985, on the tenth anniversary of the dismissal, he published The Whitlam Government 1972–1975.
Malcolm Fraser published his account in Malcolm Fraser: the political memoirs. Sir John Kerr provided his account in Matters for judgment: an autobiography. An account of the events of 11 November 1975 was also written by the Official Secretary to the Governor-General, Sir David Smith.
Most of the key players in the dismissal have since died: Sir John Kerr in March 1991, Gough Whitlam in October 2014 and Malcolm Fraser in March 2015. However, as shown by the release of the Palace-Kerr letters, interest in this turbulent event still remains.