The Dismissal of the Whitlam Government is now 40 years old and in this tediously stable democracy of ours it remains the most exciting thing to have occurred since the indignity of the Rum Rebellion in 1808. And so it came to pass that in these recent weeks our stuffiest old historians and columnists revisited their favourite subject and the results have been predictably beige.
There are no new facts left to discover about the Dismissal. The exciting new revelations by Paul Kelly or Jenny Hocking about the colour of Lady Kerr’s wallpaper were ignored by more sensible historians as the pointless trivialities that they are. All there really is left to discuss is the hopelessly subjective question: Who was in the right and who was in the wrong. And in this bloggers opinion the views expressed by paid commentators on this matter are without exception, wrong.
Contrary to popular opinion the three main actors in the Dismissal all acted in a broadly conventional way. Both Whitlam and Fraser behaved in a typically partisan and uncompromising fashion, the kind of which we’ve come to expect from Prime Ministers and Opposition Leaders. On the rare occasion one our major party leaders put down their weapons and engage in a bit of bipartisanship, like, say, Malcolm Turnbull attempting to martial support for Kevin Rudd’s Emissions Trading Scheme, they are eviscerated by their own side.
What made 1975 exceptional was that Fraser was an atypically powerful opposition leader. He commanded an absolute majority in one of our parliamentary chambers from opposition. Only Brendan Nelson in 2007/08 could claim the same but unlike Nelson, Fraser was facing a Prime Minister with depleted political capital. If Nelson had attempted to be an obstructionist opposition leader he would have presented an unassailably popular Prime Minister with a double dissolution trigger. Whitlam on the other hand could not afford to take his case to the Australian people.
It is difficult to imagine a modern opposition leader in command of a senate majority pitted against an unpopular and scandal ridden government using those numbers in any way other than to frustrate the Prime Minister. Think of John Howard circa 1995, Beazley circa 1999, Abbott in 2012 and Shorten in 2014. Each and every one of these men would have blockaded the legislature and in lieu of a Prime Minister being prepared to call an early election there would probably have had to have been a vice regal intervention, which brings us to the third main player in The Dismissal.
With regard to the actions of Sir John Kerr it is beyond dispute that he behaved imperfectly, but not, I would contend, improperly. The reason that Westminster democracies have an executive power, divorced from the legislature, is to resolve complications that prevent the parliament functioning properly. And one such situation is plainly in occurrence when two diametrically opposed forces wrest control of a legislative chamber each and refuse to compromise in any significant way.
To be sure, the governor general ought to pursue a satisfactory resolution while acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister but if the Prime Minister demonstrates no capacity or intent to resolve the paralysis it is wholly appropriate for the governor general to withdraw their commission, indeed it is their duty to do so. Where Kerr erred however was in his decision to conceal his intentions from Whitlam. It was well within Kerr’s remit to issue Whitlam with an ultimatum but to ambush the Prime Minister was a failure of judgement.
The received wisdom that is offered to account for Kerr’s subterfuge is that Kerr feared that if he issued Whitlam an ultimatum, the Prime Minister would sack him and appoint a weaker governor general. It makes no difference, this was not Kerr’s decision to make. He served at the pleasure of the Prime Minister it was not for him to deceive Whitlam whatever his motives. If Whitlam made a habit of removing governors general for doing their job it was the role of the palace to intervene, not Kerr.
Nevertheless Kerr is perhaps the greatest Australian victim of what is sometimes metaphorically referred to as “ivory tower criticism.” Kerr’s errors of judgement were not altogether unreasonably behaviour in the context in which they were made. Constitutional crises are by their nature difficult to resolve. Whatever his faults, Kerr resolved the crisis quickly and efficiently. The business of government resumed shortly thereafter, no blood was spilled. Despite Paul Kelly’s pompous histrionics about the constitution being “pushed to its limit,” the Dismissal demonstrated the strength of the constitution to resolve parliamentary deadlocks , affirmed in a gloriously robust way. It did not, as Paul Keating contends, constitute a “completely undemocratic act”, but a resounding victory for the institution of constitutional democracy.
There was a clear villain in the constitutional crisis however and that was the Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. So often is the fact that Fraser commanded a majority in the Senate raised, far too seldom are the circumstances by which he came by this majority explained.
In 1975 Labor Senator Bert Milliner tragically and suddenly passed away. It therefore fell to the Queensland government, effectively Premier Bjelke-Petersen to appoint a senator to fill the vacancy. Rather than appoint Whitlam’s recommendation of Mal Colston in accordance with convention, Bjelke-Petersen appointed nominal Labor member but Whitlam critic Albert Field. Field had publicly declared his intention to vote against supply and the consequence of Sir Joh’s manipulations was to appoint an opposition senator to fill the vacancy created by the death of a government senator.
Throughout the constitutional crisis of 1975 many players acted imperfectly, but none acted grossly unethically except Premier Bjelke-Petersen. With a legacy of corruption, racism and gerrymandering to his name, Sir Joh emerges from the Dismissal in the worst light imaginable. He was an opportunist and a cheat, embodying all the suspicions and misgivings ordinary people have about politicians. There is no redeeming Bjelke-Petersen, he was the pantomime villain historians so desperately want and that the Australian people never deserved.