The Dismissal of Gough Whitlam

Essay by sungkwo April 2009

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On the 11th of November 1975, Australia faced perhaps the largest political crisis in the history of Australia. John Kerr the governor-general sacked Whitlam’s Labor government and called for a general election placing Malcolm Fraser, leader of the Liberal/Country Party opposition in as caretaker prime minister until the election was over. Even to this day this issue has sparked much debate.

In the December of 1972 Whitlam’s Labor Party came into government after twenty-three years in opposition. Almost immediately Labor set out to achieve its reform agenda. Many of those reforms were long overdue such as an end to conscription, free university education and a series of laws banning racial and sexual discrimination. Labor’s critics believed its lack of experience and budgeting skills made it unfit to govern.

Some fundamental mistakes of the Whitlam government caused many people to agree with this claim. Two Labor ministers, Rex Connor and Jim Cairns had borrowed money from the Middle East to but back Australian resources (known as ‘The Loans Affair’) & lied to parliament about their money sources, forcing them to resign.

The Labor government now came across as dishonest. Labor also faced economic problems like a hike in world oil prices which led to high inflation and unemployment. Though the Labor government was not responsible for these issues they were blamed for having no answer to the problems.

Malcolm Fraser, leader of the Liberal opposition believed these reasons showed Labors inability to govern. Knowing from opinion polls his party would win Fraser wished to call a general election for the House of Representatives, so he aid his party would not vote on money bills until a general election was called. Whitlam wanted a half-senate election to end the deadlock in the senate.

John Kerr was asked by Fraser to step in and use his reserve powers to call a double dissolution (where both houses of parliament are dissolved and are up for re-election). John Kerr, the governor-general appointed by Whitlam had little confidence in the Whitlam’s Labor government’s ability to guarantee the supply of money to keep the country running. Rather than seek the advice of Whitlam he decided to commit an action not sanctioned by the prime minister and went to Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick. He then arranged a secret bargain with Fraser offering to place him as caretaker prime minister if he passed the supply bills through the senate. Fraser was then secretly sworn in. The Labor senate with no knowledge of what happened then passed the bills. It was later announced that double dissolution had been called and Fraser was placed as caretaker prime minister. This action enraged the Labor Party and its supporters who believed the act was unconstitutional. The House of Representatives then passed a vote of ‘no confidence’ under Fraser, refusing to pass any bills until Whitlam was placed as caretaker prime minister.

The Coalition later won a landslide victory in the election which followed the sacking. However, it will never be known whether people had voted on the constitutional side of the affair or the performance to the Whitlam government tainted by the sacking. Labor supports felt they had lost power in a revolution, fighting the next election with the slogans ‘Maintain the Rage’ and ‘Shame, Fraser, Shame’