From 13 October – 11 November 2015, the @MoAD_Canberra Twitter feed went back in time to mark the 40th anniversary of the Dismissal of the Whitlam government, live tweeting (+40 years) the events of the Dismissal through famous voices including Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and a host of others who were involved or were witnesses to this dramatic day in Australian history. The campaign was based on a narrative written by award-winning writer Paul Daley.
When that’s how the writers, historians and the journalists have described you pretty much since colonial days, you can be forgiven some introspection and self-evaluation.
And then, naturally, your other attributes will come to mind. Such as adaptability, resilience and endurance.
Your achievements — like workers’ rights, women’s suffrage, a social security safety net — were internationally celebrated even before Federation in 1901.
Little wonder, then, that Australians just assume that your spirit, your ideal, is enduring – that you are somehow ethereal and polymorphous, inscrutable and untouchable. But the truth is that you continue to face constant challenges just as you’ve been threatened repeatedly in the past – at the Rum rebellion and Eureka, with the 1894 miners’ strike and from Menzies’ failed attempt to ban the Communist Party, for example.
It’s been a close run thing at times. You’ve been pushed, pulled, stretched. Occasionally even broken. But never permanently. You’ve endured in so many Australian state, territory and federal institutions, your example replicated in schools, associations and community organisations across the continent because, despite all your imperfections, there’s no better way that’s apparent.
When the federal legislature shifted from Melbourne to Canberra, democracy was there too.
You were fundamental to Federal Parliament: first, temporarily, in Melbourne, for the first 26 years of Federation, and then since 1927 in Canberra. Your name is evoked and your ideal endlessly referenced whenever the legislators meet in the “new house” up on Kurrajong Hill that opened in 1988. But home remains the original “wedding cake” Parliament House that adorns Camp Hill at the bottom of Federation Mall – itself part of the land axis that anchors the elaborate, democratically symbolic design of the nation’s capital.
If the essence of Australian democracy is afforded a permanent home in the national consciousness it is probably here in the Old Parliament House, amid the cracked and worn green and red leather of the House of Representatives and Senate chambers, amongst the statue of George V and the ghosts of members past that inhabit King’s Hall, and in the coat of arms’ kangaroo and emu standing sentinel above the stone steps that lead to so much of our civic history. That essence and that ideal define this modest white building, one of the nation’s most recognised, now that it is a dedicated shrine to Australian democracy.
Those steps are indelibly etched on the national memory as the main stage for “the Dismissal” – one of the final acts in the constitutional crisis that enveloped the country and took democracy to the brink in 1975. The words of the Governor-General’s secretary David Smith and the response of the recently-sacked prime minister, Gough Whitlam, still echo out there, just as they did when you witnessed them spoken four decades ago.
“God save the Queen.”
“Well may we say God save the Queen…”
You looked down upon the crowd milling on the steps and spreading back towards the lake. And from up there, you could see the sparks of a peoples’ revolution on that tinderbox Remembrance Day afternoon. The flames of revolt might easily have concluded a series of events that undermined the authority of parliament and the peoples’ will as expressed at the ballot box. But something – Whitlam’s deference to protocol, a call for calm from the nation’s leaders, an entrenched doctrine of separated powers, the prospect of another vote at a scheduled election, doused any real revolutionary spark.
For years afterwards journalist Alan “the Red Fox” Reid parsed that the “death warrant” of Whitlam’s government was signed at The Lodge late on 13 December 1974. That was when (meeting as the executive council without its chairman, the new Governor-General Sir John Kerr, who was at the ballet in Sydney) Whitlam, Treasurer Jim Cairns and Attorney General Lionel Murphy approved Minerals and Energy Minister Rex Connor’s unorthodox request to privately raise $4000 million on behalf of the government to finance a range of natural resource and energy programs.
But the descent of the Whitlam Government, barely 18 months old, might well have begun earlier still.
Here is a date – 11 November 1974 – that is freighted with prescience. Not least after being fated with the first meeting between Whitlam’s rambunctious Minerals and Energy Minister Rex Connor – a man known to comrades as “the Strangler” and described by a Cabinet colleague as possessing economic insight “in inverse proportion to the size of his dreams” – and a Pakistani loans dealer, Tirath Khemlani, who attracted a range of diverse adjectives including, with seamless interchangeably, “colourful” and “shady”.
Bill Hayden, who walked these hallways with the air of a future prime minister and a honed political instinct too often absent in his enigmatic boss Whitlam, thought Connor “a man for crashing through barriers - even ones erected for safety purposes”. Khemlani, elusive when Connor needed him, omnipresent when he did so the least, was indeed a fatal accident in the offing.
But there is another critical date too: 2 April 1974 gave rise to an epically boozy evening of subterfuge in Parliament House – a building whose memory holds decades of nighttime get-togethers over Scotch in tea-cups, the bustle of MPs summonsed to the chambers by the division bells and the voices, always the voices - arguing, shouting, conspiring, laughing.
It was the “night of the long prawns”.
You’d wondered since 1963, when the schedule for standard, three-yearly, half-Senate elections had lost synchronicity with those for the House of Representatives, when a wily leader would seek to capitalise on this anomaly in some way.
Whitlam’s Labor government, elected on 5 December 1972, faced repeated obstruction in the 28th Parliament’s Senate (where it had a minority) from Billy Snedden’s Liberal-National Country Party Coalition. Five of the 10 Senate seats in every state would be put to the vote. But if a sixth in just one state could somehow be made vacant at the time the writs closed on 2 April, Whitlam would have a better chance of taking control of the upper house at the forthcoming half-Senate election.
Whitlam, his upper house leader Murphy and fellow Labor Senator Justin O’Byrne saw their opportunity and seized him. At least, they tried to seize him.
His name was Vincent Clare Gair – a rotund, 73-year-old Labor rat. Gair’s unflappably amiable disposition had earned him the rather deceptive moniker, “Friar Tuck”. His acute political cunning had resulted in the attainment of the Queensland Labor premiership, the leadership of both the Queensland Labor Party and the Democratic Labor Party, and a long stint as a senator for his home state. Gair, all but friendless and bitter after his recent dumping as DLP leader, was seething with resentment that the party whose Queensland branch he had been instrumental in forming and which he’d led in the Senate, could so unceremoniously dispatch him.
Hansard records Parliament’s every official utterance. But that which Hansard can’t hear, what is said informally - the gossip, the barbs, and the stuff of conspiracy, behind veiled hands, in whispers, in the chambers’ outer extremities - is left to your walls and the firmament around here.
In March 1974 O’Byrne, appealing equally to Gair’s Gaelic roots, his venality and his lust for retribution, said with gentle Irish intonation: “Why do not you and Mrs Gair go on a little holiday?”
On 13 March Gair, promising to keep it a secret until he could resign from the upper house on the eve of the service of the writs for the forthcoming half-Senate election, was appointed as Ambassador to Ireland. On 21 March Whitlam announced an election for 18 May, saying that the writs would be a matter for Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck and the state and territory leaders.
The plot relied on Gair resigning when the Senate reconvened on 2 April. Rumours of Gair’s ambassadorship were sweeping through these corridors like wildfire but the senator, true to his word, remained mute. Finally a reporter rang Gair’s wife. She confirmed his ambassadorial appointment and, so, the story broke on the morning of 2 April. Urged on by National Country Party Leader Doug Anthony, the Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen (bête noire of the Whitlam Government) arranged to issue the writs for five Queensland Senate seats (rather than Whitlam’s anticipated six) before Gair tendered his resignation to the president of the upper house.
National Country Party senators Ian Wood (a teetotaler unafraid to employ the diversions of alcohol on others) and Ron Maunsell, distracted Gair - who was infamously fond of strong drink during his parliamentary and ambassadorial days - with beer, whiskey and Queensland prawns. You watched Gair come in and out of the Senate for several votes in the Senate on 2 April, only to be ushered away by Maunsell and Wood. And you also saw him slowly, unsteadily, negotiate his way out of the house and into a car pool vehicle at 3am on 3 April.
The fickleness of detail fouled Whitlam’s cunning plan to snatch an extra Queensland Senate seat and thereby break the upper house deadlock that had frustrated his first term government.
Gair, however, rejoiced with the luck of the Irish. He had a bird in the hand (the ambassadorship) and two in the bush (having taken Labor - the party he’d long ago deserted - for a ride, and as “Mr Ambassador”, he could also salvage some professional vindication, less than six months after he was dumped as DLP leader). The DLP expelled him for accepting the ambassador-ship and Gair, evidently regarding this a small price to pay, on his way out the door told his former DLP-ers: “I’ve carried you bastards for years. Now you can go to buggery.”
Whitlam and Murphy blamed each other for failing to secure Gair’s resignation before the writs were issued for the half-Senate election.
Opposition leader Billy Snedden, with inflated hyperbole, characterised Whitlam’s failed (though constitutionally acceptable) connivance for another Senate seat in the “Gair affair” as “…the most shameful act by any government in Australia’s history”. It both strengthened and served as a personal justification of his resolve to force the government to a House of Representatives election through further obstruction of Whitlam’s legislative agenda – this time by blocking the supply bills that finance Commonwealth public spending. Whitlam decided to crash through. He staked the future of his 18-month-old government on the prospect of a joint sitting to pass a raft of legislation, including the supply bills, which Snedden’s Coalition had blocked.
He called Snedden’s bluff. On 10 April 1974 Whitlam asked Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck to dissolve both houses of federal Parliament for a double dissolution election for all seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senate immediately passed the supply bills.
For the first time in Australia a federal Labor government won a second consecutive term of office (albeit barely 18 months after election in 1972). Whitlam’s lower house majority narrowed. But the Senate was more finely balanced in this new 29th Parliament – with 29 seats each to Labor and the Coalition, and a seat each to Independents. Gair’s obstructive DLP was obliterated.
Whitlam’s other blocked legislation from the 28th Parliament passed in a joint sitting of the Senate and House of representatives on 6 and 7 August 1974.
Whitlam had a new mandate to govern. But he still lacked a Senate majority. His 29th Parliament would be no less frustrated that his previous one.
Despite the government retaining a majority in the lower house and picking up three extra Senate seats at the 1974 election, Snedden – urged on by Liberal Senate Leader Reg “The Toecutter” Withers, and other hardline Coalition obstructionists – insisted that Whitlam did “not have a mandate from the people” and that the Opposition would continue to block government legislation in the Senate if it behaved “in a way which we thought was opposite to the best interests and the expressed will of the Australian people”.
For the people, by the people…
Withers even managed to interpret the 1974 double dissolution election result perversely, inversely, thus: “I had a mandate … to get rid of the government.”
And he would use it.
Snedden survived a leadership challenge in November, 1974.
But around these corridors and in the joint party room, the whispers about his leadership continued with new intensity. He was a marked man.
Rising unemployment and wages. Marching inflation. High public spending. A slowing economy. Financial recklessness. Deep Cabinet divisions. A new, more self-important Governor-General. An imminent change in Liberal leadership. Appalling political judgment combined with personal scandal, prime ministerial weariness, waning public popularity and hubris.
Such were the ominous atmospherics of the 29th Parliament for the Whitlam Government - and Australian democracy - as 1974 rolled into ’75.
Those years transitioned with Whitlam embarking on what remains, perhaps, the most roundly condemned overseas trip ever taken by an Australian prime minister: a five-week tour of Europe and North Asia from 14 December 1974. Cairns, as acting prime minister, led the government response when Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin on Christmas Day. Whitlam returned somewhat reluctantly, and was jeered when he flew into Alice Springs on 28 December en route to Darwin. On 30 December he left Australia to resume his European tour.
Images of Whitlam sightseeing in Europe contrasted sharply with those of the desolation and hardship in Darwin and did much to crystallise public perceptions about prime ministerial arrogance and detachment.
The Labor Party “sun and fun” National Conference of February 1975 did little to give an impression of a government in control: beachwear and Hawaiian shirts were de rigueur, even for the leader, just returned from his overseas jaunt; Cairns declared a “kind of love” for his staffer Juni Morosi, while Connor waited by a telex machine in his hotel room for confirmation from Khemlani of the loans he had sought - despite the minister’s authority to seek them having been withdrawn by the executive council.
Further evidence of Whitlam’s waning political judgment came in February 1975 with the immediate appointment of Labor’s upper house leader, Lionel Murphy, to the High Court of Australia. Given the razor’s edge balance of the Senate and its constant threat to impede the government’s legislative agenda, the timing of Murphy’s appointment was at best imprudent. Indeed, conservative New South Wales Premier Tom Lewis defied the convention whereby casual vacancies are filled by a nominee from the same party as the previous incumbent, and appointed a little known former mayor of Albury, Cleaver Bunton.
Bunton, however, proved resolutely independent, foreshadowing that he would support the government, especially in relation to Budget supply bills.
But the most ominous sign for the Whitlam Government came with the election as Liberal leader on 21 March of the taciturn Victorian grazier, Malcolm Fraser.
On winning the leadership Fraser, tall and imposing, and possessed of an unflappable confidence that was sometimes mistaken as diffidence, said: “The question of supply - let me deal with it this way. I generally believe if a government is elected to power in the lower House and has the numbers and can maintain the numbers in the lower House, it is entitled to expect that it will govern for the three-year term unless quite extraordinary events intervene… Having said that… if we do make up our minds at some stage that the Government is so reprehensible that an Opposition must use whatever power is available to it, then I'd want to find a situation in which Mr. Whitlam woke up one morning finding the decision had been made and finding that he had been caught with his pants well and truly down.”
Fraser’s indelicate metaphor foreshadowing his intent to spring a trap on Whitlam held a rapier-like prescience.
As 1975 progressed Labor’s ill-discipline began coupling with a series of financial irregularities, ministerial scalpings and scandals that gifted Fraser the evidence that he would use to justify his eventual verdict that the Whitlam Government was, indeed, “reprehensible”.
On 28 June the Government lost the Bass by-election to the Liberals with a 17 per cent swing. Bass became vacant with the resignation from politics of Whitlam’s long-time deputy and ally, Lance Barnard. To Whitlam’s displeasure, Caucus replaced Barnard with Jim Cairns after the 1974 election. Barnard was now taking up his post as Ambassador to Sweden (an acknowledgment from Whitlam of Barnard’s loyalty and the humiliation he’d experienced after being replaced.)
Whitlam felt there was no man to whom he owed so much and that no leader had ever had a better deputy or friend.
Two days later Labor Senator Bertie Milliner, an affable former printer and unionist, was dead. Milliner was a Queenslander. Premier Bjelke-Petersen, like NSW premier Lewis, blithely defied convention and ignored Labor’s preferred replacement for the Senate vacancy, and instead nominated one Albert Patrick Field. Field was supposedly a Labor member, albeit one who had loathed the Whitlam administration and made it clear to Bjelke-Petersen that he’d be a willing part of the Queensland government’s efforts to obstruct and ultimately oust federal Labor. Whitlam regarded Field to be “an individual of the utmost obscurity – as police reports say, ‘nothing more is known of this person’”.
Labor challenged Field’s appointment in the High Court. Consequently Field would never sit in the Senate. But while the case was being heard Withers (on instruction from Fraser) refused to provide Labor with a pair – another old convention in this building whereby the opposing party will arrange for one of its members to abstain from voting in divisions when a Senate opponent is unavoidably absent. It was part of a gentlemanly understanding that has been a part of Australian parliamentary procedure since before federation. The willingness of Fraser’s opposition to discard with such a tradition of parliamentary democracy indicated the stakes and the potency of the Opposition’s determination.
Field’s appointment snatched a Senate number from Labor and gave Fraser the capacity to block supply.
From the moment of his election as Liberal leader, Fraser – imperious, personally guarded, stubborn, uneasily intimidated - carried himself through this building with unshakable self-belief and the determined jaw of a man destined. And now, with Bass reflecting a shift in public sentiment away from Whitlam and the balance of Senate power tilted finely in his favour, the eyes of King’s Hall noted the added jauntiness in Fraser’s step.
Whitlam, a stickler for parliamentary and constitutional protocol, composed but angry, was arguing that the Senate had become tainted because the opposition enjoyed an upper house advantage that it did not win at election or by convention. Some months hence the conservative – and later, Liberal – South Australian Senator, Steele Hall, would articulate Whitlam’s precise sentiment about the Liberals’ “sleazy road to power … over a dead man’s corpse”. Hall referred, of course, to Milliner.
Come 2 July Whitlam found himself having to dismiss Jim Cairns as Treasurer. Cairns, an enigmatic former policeman cum academic economist, a committed socialist and a stalwart of the Labor Left, had only recently enjoyed his finest moment in public life while acting prime minister during Whitlam’s overseas absence in the aftermath of the Top End cyclone. That was undone by his relationship with Morosi; in the shadow of this building they’d walked hand-in-hand in the rose gardens, their antics the source of constant ribald chatter in the members’ and non-members’ bar.
Just back in January Cairns - as Treasurer and as acting prime minister – had withdrawn Connor’s authority to negotiate loans with Khemlani who he had determined, with the help of Treasury and Reserve Bank of Australia officials, was of questionable character. Hayden summed up Connor’s resolve best, however, saying he pursued “the faintest whiff of borrowable funds uncorked by the least credible financial carpetbagger who happened across his path, even when he did not have the authority to do so”.
So it was ironic that Whitlam — who had lost patience with Cairns, especially in relation to Morosi — now had to sack his treasurer for misleading parliament over a 2.5% fee that Cairns had inadvertently agreed to pay the would-be broker of other loans worth some $750 million to government authorities.
The executive council had reinstated – and then subsequently withdrawn – Connor’s loan-seeking authority, finally on 20 May. After some of the details of Connor’s loan-raising activity broke in the media, on 9 July Whitlam convened a special sitting of Parliament. It was an attempt to inoculate the government against further fallout by detailing to the Parliament everything to do with the loans affair. Connor had insisted to Whitlam that “all communications of substance” between he and Khemlani had been tabled and that no negotiations continued after the executive council had withdrawn authority on 20 May. He assured Parliament that his loan-raising had been above board and consistent with parliamentary convention.
As if to further define himself in the parliamentary eye as a fearless, crash through visionary, Connor evoked the words of American poet Sam Walter Foss:
Give me men to match my mountains,
Give me men to match my plains,
Men with freedom in their vision,
And creation in their brains.
Such inspiring words would not, however, camouflage the truth for long, for journalists were already scouring the planet for evidence of Connor’s lily-gilding. When October arrived, the Sydney Morning Herald raised the prospect, come what may, that Fraser would use the Senate to force an election, with the revelation that National Party leader Doug Anthony had warned his MPs to prepare for an election on 13 December.
One of the journalists on Khemlani’s trail was Peter Game, a reporter for the Herald, a Melbourne afternoon newspaper. While on assignment in Hong Kong on a story unrelated to the “loans affair”, he was told by a local commodities dealer that Khemlani was still trying to raise loans for the Federal Government despite public assurances from Connor that this was not the case. He began chasing Khemlani, who evaded him. Game eventually tracked down Khemlani’s daughter, Shamti. He told her she ought to convince her father to go on the record, because in Australia he was being portrayed as “a shyster”.
“Back in Melbourne I wrote to Khemlani through Shamti. On September 4 he rang from Singapore and we agreed to meet at the Sydney Hilton the next day. I spent all day persuading him to talk. At one stage Khemlani asked me what impact his story of the loans affair would have — I told him it would be significant. Finally, Khemlani agreed to talk. He did not ask for money and nor was he paid anything. We met the following week in London where, over the next month, I recorded 19 hours of interviews in his West End basement office,” Game said.
“I photographed him at his telex machine. This was the first picture of the man the rest of the press had been hunting. I filed my reports, in which Khemlani said he still had the go-ahead to raise the loans. Next morning I had a call from the Herald editor, John Fitzgerald, saying that Minerals and Energy Minister Rex Connor was suing us and would I come home ASAP with the documents. Khemlani was already on his way to Australia. He rang me … and told me: ‘I will stand by you, Peter. You can have my documents. They show Mr Connor is wrong’.”
The die was cast.
On 14 October Connor — having discussed his predicament in a Caucus meeting where his future was put to the vote — resigned from the ministry and parliament. Whitlam was fond of Connor and he defended his conduct as a minister but insisted that his resignation was necessary because he, Whitlam, had misled parliament after acting on Connor’s advice.
Fraser then had – to his own satisfaction at least – the “quite extraordinary and reprehensible circumstances” that he would require to justify blocking supply in order to force the government to another election.
From here the tale gathers pace and intrigue.
Demeanours change from threatening to combative. More than is usual, members and senators – especially the Coalition senators – began huddling in King’s Hall under the gaze of King George, the Federation fathers, former speakers and presidents and past prime ministers. Fraser, the journalists were speculating, was going to come good with the Opposition’s threat – first raised soon after Labor’s 1972 election win – to use the Senate to force an election.
At 2.56 on the afternoon of 15 October Fraser declared the Whitlam administration to be the “worst government in our nation’s history”, and he committed to that which he had long threatened, with the words: “The Opposition now has no choice … We must use the power vested in us by the Constitution and delay the passage of the Government’s money bills through the Senate, until the Parliament goes to the people.”
Whitlam responded: “I state again the basic rule of our parliamentary system: Governments are made and unmade in the House of Representatives – the people’s house. The Senate cannot, does not, and must never determine who the Government shall be.”
Publicly, Fraser’s confidence belied the division and doubt in the Liberal party room where a number of the House of Representatives members and senators harboured serious misgivings about Fraser’s strategy and tactics.
Whitlam sensed this, telling Parliament: “He will have to tell his colleagues to do the unspeakable, the unprecedented, the reprehensible, of rejecting a Budget. If a Budget is rejected there is very likely to be an election of one sort or another. It would of course be quite improper for me to foretell the advice which I would tender to the Governor-General in those reprehensible and extraordinary circumstances.”
A few hours before Whitlam said this, behind the locked doors of the Liberal Party Room, at least six conservative members and senators had expressed to Fraser their reservations about using upper house supply as a weapon to force an election. Fraser only managed to partly appease the doubters with a compromise of sorts that the Budget money bills would be delayed rather than blocked.
For its part the National Party was rock solid. Nationals leader, Doug Anthony, was utterly confident that there were no waverers in his ranks.
Senator Neville Bonner was deeply uncomfortable with the compromise he and the dissenting Liberals reached with Fraser. This distinguished, grey-haired Jagera elder – the first Indigenous person elected to Federal parliament – couldn’t camouflage his anguish. He believed Fraser wrong and was of the view that a government had the right to supply in the Senate. He foresaw that a long, nation-damaging – and potentially democracy-compromising deadlock – would stem from the obstinacy of two strong, confident and righteous leaders, both of whom enjoyed majority party backing.
Bonner regarded the key issue not to be “the rights and wrongs” of each leader’s strategy, but rather what might happen if neither eventually capitulated. He was acutely conscious that 11 November was the point of no return – the day after which an election couldn’t easily be held during 1975. Bonner anxiously foresaw a chaotic, potentially catastrophic impact on community cohesion if the Senate indefinitely withheld supply – of the non-payment of pensions and social security benefits, whereby government services across the country would grind to halt.
So anxious was he that afternoon that he broke ranks and told the Queensland Times: “I think this government has been a failure. It has lied and deceived the public. It does not deserve to stay in power, but I still feel it is a dangerous precedent for a Senate to force a general election.”
Bonner and the other half dozen or so Liberal waverers were cognisant it would take just two of them to break any deadlock. And although he had not yet told Fraser, Bonner had decided that he was ultimately willing to cross the floor if that is what it would take to avert a crippling national crisis.
And so began a day of parliamentary combat over Fraser’s delaying tactic. In the House of Representatives at 10.24am on 16 October Whitlam successfully moved a confidence motion in his government. It noted that the house had already passed the Budget “supply” legislation (Appropriation Bills 1 and 2) but that Fraser, the day before, had “announced the intention of the Opposition to delay those bills (in the Senate) with the object of forcing an election of this house”. Whitlam’s motion also stipulated, variously, that the house: affirm that the threatened action of the Senate constitutes a gross violation of the roles of the respective Houses of Parliament in relation to the appropriation of money; asserts the basic principle that a Government that has a lower house majority has a right to govern, and that the upper house immediately pass the Appropriation Bills.
Fraser unsuccessfully sought to amend the motion by adding: “ …this House regrets the failure of the Prime Minister to apply the same standards to himself as he has demanded from his ministers [here, of course, he was talking about Connor and Cairns] in that, having misled the Parliament and the people, he has refused to resign and subject his Government to the will of the Australian people”.
Whitlam’s words – “…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…” – were, naturally, freighted with special significance for Democracy.
The same day, the Senate again rejected the supply bills, after adding the amendment: “…this bill not be further proceeded with until this 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 confidence of the Australian people because of…” just about anything reprehensible that could be leveled at Whitlam, including “incompetence, evasion, deceit and duplicity … and the continued mismanagement of the Australian economy”.
“It is this unrepresentative Senate, this tainted Senate which Mr Fraser intends to use as a weapon to strike down the democratically elected Government,” Whitlam said.
To which Withers “The Toecutter” Liberal Senate leader - a comfortably proportioned, 49-year-old Western Australian barrister who skillfully disguised his penchant for the enforcement of party discipline behind a perpetual amenability – countered: “We are merely adopting the Constitutional method of giving people a choice.”
That evening at a Government House state banquet for the Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, dignitaries, including Kerr and Whitlam, were gathered in the study.
Whitlam smiled at Kerr and said: “It could be a question of whether I get to the Queen first for your recall or you get in first with my dismissal.”
Kerr’s fear that Whitlam would ask the Queen to dismiss him became a compelling motivation for the Governor-General’s ultimate course of action.
Both men laughed.
And so the deadlock continued, just as it began on that day, to play out in Parliament as both leaders variously interpreted sections 53 and 57 of the Australian Constitution - the bedrock of parliamentary democracy – that determines the Senate’s power to block supply. Fraser was adamant the Senate had a constitutional right to deny a government supply. But Whitlam insisted, consistent with convention, that governments were made in the peoples’ chamber and the Senate has no right to effectively blackmail the House of Representatives into an election.
Coinciding presciently with the Senate’s delay was the public circulation of an opinion from the shadow attorney-general, Bob Ellicott, that examined the prerogative of the Governor-General to go beyond the convention of monarchic figurehead to unilaterally intervene to break such a deadlock. Whitlam knew Ellicott well; he had been Solicitor-General of Australia before entering Parliament as a Liberal in 1974, and a stalwart of the Sydney Bar where he had forged close ties with the Governor-General, John Kerr, and the Chief Justice of the High Court, Garfield Barwick.
Ellicott’s advice, predictably partisan, was that Kerr not only had the power to dismiss Whitlam but that he should do so if Whitlam couldn’t outline how he’d win supply. Ellicott said Whitlam was treating Kerr as if he had no discretion at all but to follow prime ministerial advice, when in fact the Governor-General could and should dismiss a ministry that was unable to secure supply.
On 17 October, Kerr received a copy of the Ellicott opinion after it was left for him at Canberra’s Commonwealth Club.
Ellicott advised that Kerr “…should ask the Prime Minister if the Government is prepared to advise him to dissolve the House of Representatives and the Senate or the House of Representatives alone” as a means of assuring that the disagreement between the two Houses was resolved. If the Prime Minister refused to do either, but instead recommended a half-Senate election, “Then it is open to the Governor-General to dismiss his present Ministers and seek others who are prepared to give him the only proper advice open. This he should proceed to do.”
While Ellicott’s legal opinion might have emboldened Fraser, Kerr said to Whitlam during a phone call on 21 October about of the shadow attorney-general’s advice: “It’s bullshit isn’t it?” (Kerr asked for the government’s law officers’ opinion on the Ellicott advice. Whitlam asked his attorney-general, Kep Enderby, to draft for Kerr a rebuttal to the Ellicott advice; the task was delegated to the solicitor-general Maurice Byers and the paper was not given to the Governor-General until 6 November which meant Kerr spent a critical fortnight, under immense pressure from the opposition to sack Whitlam, without the benefit of a government legal opinion.)
Did Kerr really think the Ellicott advice was “bullshit” as he’s assured Whitlam? Certainly the words further added to the confidence that Whitlam was feeling about Kerr – that is, that the Governor-General rejected the notion of the reserve powers to sack a government or otherwise act against the advice of his ministers. Unknown to Whitlam, however, was that since 12 October, well before the crisis reached its zenith in the Senate, Kerr had been confiding in and seeking advice from his friend, High Court Justice Anthony Mason relating to “probabilities, options and timing”.
As the crisis mounted with the delay of the money bills in the Senate, Kerr was obtaining complete copies of the daily Hansard so he could closely follow the parliamentary debate.
By 17 October, the day he received the Ellicott advice and with the money bills only recently delayed in the Senate, Kerr was thinking: “The real question at this time is whether I should act before the money runs out and whilst the Senate is still only deferring.”
Kerr had, clearly, determined by now that he did, indeed, have the reserve power to act.
On 19 October Kerr rang Whitlam at Kirribilli House. The weekend press had been saturated with stories that reported Fraser’s mounting public pressure on Kerr to intervene. Kerr asked Whitlam for permission to seek advice from the Chief Justice, Garfield Barwick. Whitlam did not want Kerr to consult Barwick, whom he considered a political rival and unlikely to advise in his interests; he also made the point to Kerr that he did not want the Chief Justice consulted on a matter upon which the High Court might ultimately have to rule.
On 21 October Whitlam told Parliament that Fraser was using the Ellicott advice to pressure Kerr into action.
“We now have the extraordinary spectacle of the Opposition, apparently recognising that it has failed to blackmail me into an election for the House of Representatives, seeking to bring reprehensible pressure to bear on the Governor-General, the representative of the Queen of Australia, to achieve that very thing,” Whitlam said.
That same day, however, Whitlam agreed to Kerr’s request to meet Fraser. The opposition leader and the Governor-General met over drinks at Admiralty House in Sydney. Kerr, citing press reports about Liberal Senate waverers (including Bonner and South Australian senator Don Jessop) on Fraser’s tactic of delaying supply, sought clarification of Fraser’s intentions. Fraser made it clear that the Opposition supported the Ellicott thesis and was resolute in its determination to stall supply. He also assured Kerr that his senators were all in line.
“The press often doesn’t get it right,” Fraser said.
Critically, Kerr asked Fraser why the Opposition had chosen to defer the money bills rather than block them entirely.
“He said that supply had been deferred so that, should it come to a dissolution, he would be able to guarantee supply by passing the Appropriation Bills immediately – deferral was not a sign of weakness due to … problems with some senators…” Kerr said.
All the while Parliament continued sitting, as Whitlam insisted it would do until the Senate passed the supply bills. The Opposition continued to defer them. The stalemate continued. Checkmate came ever, inevitably, closer.
Kerr was eager to find compromise. But neither Fraser nor Whitlam would agree to his proposals, which included the deferral of a half-Senate election until mid-1976 so that the Opposition might retain medium-term control of the upper house, in return for the passage of the supply bills.
On Tuesday the 4th of November Kerr presented the Melbourne Cup. For the second consecutive year the Bart Cummings-trained gelding, Think Big, won the race under jockey Harry White.
“I’m presenting it, of course, under circumstances where the horse is the same, the jockey is the same and, thank goodness, the Governor-General is the same,” Kerr said.
Throughout October and into late spring in November, Kerr had been confiding in, and taking advice from, his old friend, High Court Justice Anthony Mason – “a running conversation ‘to discuss’ probable future events and discretionary alternatives open to me … to fortify myself for the action I was to take”.
The 6th of November played out frantically and with a great sense of urgency, with meetings between Fraser and Kerr, Kerr and Bill Hayden, and strategy meetings between the Labor leadership team, senior public servants and party officials to determine the timing of any imminent election.
Whitlam told Kerr that he now intended to hold a half-Senate election about which he would formally advise him the following Tuesday, 11 November.
In his meeting with Kerr the same day, Fraser said that if Kerr did not act against the Whitlam Government to break the deadlock then the Opposition would have no alternative but to criticise him for his inaction in Parliament.
Hayden and Kerr met in the study at Government House, Yarralumla, that afternoon.
“I called on him at Government House. He was only able to make the most cursory references to the running problem as Fraser had arrived too and he had to … divert his attention to Fraser.”
Kerr spoke to Hayden distractedly about Whitlam’s election fighting prowess, saying the prime minister was like a “a lion with his back to the wall … he can win … if not this time next time around”.
Deeply suspicious that Kerr had decided to force an election, Hayden rushed back to Parliament House where he told Whitlam: “My old copper’s instincts tell me he’s going to sack us.”
To which Whitlam responded: “No comrade – he wouldn’t have the guts to do it.”
Whitlam press secretary Eric Walsh would later recall: “Hayden for some reason had been in Kerr’s company and he was convinced that Kerr was prepared to act … not in Whitlam’s interest. And he came and reported that to Gough, but nobody, nobody, took it seriously.”
Fraser, meanwhile, emerged buoyant from his meeting with Kerr. He returned to Parliament House where he announced to his party with characteristic confidence – while offering little further illumination – that the crisis would be over inside a week.
Hayden was right. Kerr had, indeed, decided on this day that he could not find a political compromise and that he would break convention and invoke his reserve powers as interpreted by Ellicott and others – including Barwick and Mason – in whom he had been confiding and accepting advice.
Kerr determined on this day it was “clear … that no compromise could be found … I had to accept what they did in the Senate and what their leader, Mr Fraser, told me they would continue to do”.
Kerr had even already begun drafting a letter of dismissal to Whitlam.
On Sunday 9 November Kerr told his wife, Lady Ann, that he was going to dismiss the Whitlam Government, after which he called High Court Justice Mason. They agreed to meet later that day.
Kerr told Mason: “…I had decided to dismiss the government, commission Fraser as a caretaker prime minister and get Parliament dissolved on Tuesday the 11th if the crisis was not resolved by then.“
Kerr also spoke to High Court Chief Justice, Sir Garfield Barwick, on the Sunday and arranged a meeting with him (in defiance of Whitlam’s advice that he not do so) for the following day, Monday 10 November.
That Monday Kerr twice met Barwick, including over lunch at Admiralty House. Barwick agreed to furnish Kerr with Constitutional advice. It read, in part: “…a Prime Minister who cannot ensure supply to the Crown … must either advise a general election … or resign. If, being unable to secure supply, he refuses to take either course, Your Excellency has constitutional authority to withdraw his Commission as Prime Minister.”
While Kerr lunched with Barwick, Whitlam spoke to the National Press Club in Melbourne where he lauded the capacity of parliamentary democracy as both an instrument for social change and a guarantee of civic order.
“Imperfect as it is, it is the best system for liberty with order and the best system for change with order so far devised. What is now threatened is both the principle of change and the principle of order embodied in that system,” Whitlam said.
In his press club speech Whitlam spoke of his scheduled meeting with Fraser in Canberra early the next day, at which, he said, “something will happen”. Whitlam planned to put forward the compromise, first proposed by Kerr in October, of a delayed half-Senate election for mid-1976 in return for the Senate passage of supply. If Fraser refused then Whitlam would advise the Governor-General of a half-Senate election for 13 December ahead of which, he was confident (especially given the number of wavering Coalition Senators) that the Senate would pass the supply bills just as it had once the 1974 double dissolution election had been called.
In late October and early November public opinion shifted towards Whitlam amid growing community anger at Fraser’s tactics. This weighed ever more heavily upon some Liberal senators.
Neville Bonner was among those ready to cross the floor and vote for supply.
Throughout the crisis Fraser had invited any Liberal with concerns about delaying supply to go and see him to talk it through. Bonner was among those who did just that – but at no point did he tell Fraser just how close he was to crossing the floor and voting on supply with the government.
Armed with advice from the Chief Justice that confirmed the decision he had already taken (in consultation with Mason), Kerr travelled down to Canberra on the afternoon of 10 November.
Meanwhile, that night Whitlam and Fraser attended the black tie Lord Mayor’s Ball at Melbourne Town Hall (businessman Ron Walker, later the Liberal Party’s federal treasurer, was Lord Mayor of Melbourne at the time). The event finished late. Fraser and Whitlam were due to meet in Canberra at 9am sharp the next day, Tuesday 11 November.
The RAAF flight scheduled to take Fraser and his Liberal colleagues (including his deputy Phil Lynch) back to Canberra, was cancelled due to the budgetary constraints that stemmed, ironically, from the Senate’s delay of the supply bills. The Liberals would have been stranded in Melbourne except for Whitlam’s gracious offer of passage to Canberra on his RAAF flight.
Given the animosity surrounding the Senate deadlock and the constitutional crisis, the Liberals were taken by Whitlam’s generosity and the flight proceeded with surprising calm and amity in the cabin.
After landing at Fairbairn Airport in Canberra, Lynch was heard to ask Fraser, sotto voce: “Do you think he knows?”
The hour or two preceding daybreak is often the only quiet, still time in this place. Even if the sittings have stretched beyond midnight, calm usually only permeates this brief pre-dawn window when the bars have long emptied out, the attendants have all gone and the politicians (save for one or two who still insist on sleeping on office divans) have escaped to their lodgings across the capital.
In late spring birdsong breaks the silence about 5am, just minutes before a soft coral blush begins to silhouette the eastern side of the gentle mountain amphitheatre that rings Canberra. It’s as still outside the house as it is inside except, sometimes, for the distant click-clack on the parquetry of a guard in the members’ wing and a creaking door in the basement.
The calm this morning is consistent with an expectation, here and across the nation, that this will be a day that diffuses a crisis, when the parliament that serves democracy will recalibrate and resume with greater equanimity, when the election will be called, the supply bills passed, the cheques written and the crisis ended well in time for the nation to wind down for Christmas.
The papers have arrived, bundled in piles. Soon when the attendants arrive they’ll be distributed to their intended readers here, the members and senators who’ll start filing in through the various entrances soon after dawn breaks on a day that will be sunny, warm and windless. And the papers are mostly predicting calm.
Melbourne’s Sun reports that Fraser has left the way open to break the Senate deadlock and pass the supply bills if Kerr so requests. The Age carries a photograph of Whitlam and Fraser shaking hands at last night’s Lord Mayoral Ball, captioned: “The handshake, originally a gesture to ensure that weapons were not being carried. But the war is of words and a brief truce was called last night when Mr Whitlam and Mr Fraser…”. The Canberra Times implies that behind the scenes negotiations could lead to a solution at the forthcoming meeting between Whitlam and Fraser, while the Australian goes with the strong likelihood Whitlam will call an early Senate election.
The Bulletin cover story – headlined Fraser: Man in a muddle – proffers that: “Something seems to have gone awry with the Opposition Leader’s grand plan to throw out the ‘reprehensible, immoral and corrupt’ men on the Treasury benches.”
In an edition that will soon be pulped, Fraser is musing broadly thus: “The past three years have been bad for Australian politics because the Prime Minister has failed to set the proper standards of morality for himself and his colleagues. I’d like to have a government which people can trust.”
And this: “I’d like to see Hawke in Parliament. Just to see how he’d go as a member without his power base.”
Fraser will find out all too soon to his own considerable detriment.
Only Malcolm Mackerras in the Canberra Times presciently points to the possibility of Whitlam’s dismissal and, indeed, urges it as Kerr’s only proper course.
No. This morning the country is being conditioned for and anticipates compromise, settlement and maybe even rapprochement – a testimony, as Whitlam said yesterday, to the imperfect capacity of parliamentary democracy to maintain civic order.
From here, up on the portico above the front steps, you see them come and go. The journalists are arriving early, waiting for the leaders and their lieutenants to alight out the front and mount the steps to the doors, which the attendants hold open, and then round the borders of King’s Hall to their offices. Fraser is at ease as he takes the steps, the corners of his mouth curling into what passes for his smile. He is uncharacteristically warm and not at all evasive of the media as he sometimes is. He is announcing that he is here this morning to arrange the election that his opposition is still utterly determined to achieve. Whitlam arrives slightly later in his black limousine, and brushes quickly by the reporters, determinedly giving them little but a quip about journalists being out of bed exceptionally early this fine Remembrance Day morning.
Just before heading to the meeting in the Prime Minister’s office Fraser telephones Commonwealth Electoral Commissioner Frank Ley to ask what is the last day on which an election could reasonably be called for 1975. Ley advises him that an election could probably not be held beyond Saturday 13 December and that it must be called today or at the latest tomorrow. Ley immediately telephones the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, John Menadue, and tells him of Fraser’s inquiry. Ley asks Menadue to notify Whitlam, who doesn’t interpret Fraser’s call to Ley as any sign of skullduggery.
The clocks are reading 9.05 as Fraser, Lynch and Doug Anthony enter the meeting with Whitlam, his deputy Frank Crean and Fred Daly, Labor’s leader in the lower house. Despite all of the tensions, the mood is surprisingly genial as Whitlam makes his compromise offer (as first suggested by Kerr last month) – to delay the half-Senate election by six months in return for supply. This would leave Whitlam in command of election timing but, in the Coalition’s interests, deny Labor short-term control of the Senate.
Regardless of his reading of Whitlam’s behaviour this morning as stubborn and arrogant, Anthony indicates his preparedness to consider the prime minister’s proposal. Whitlam is surprised, however, at the apparent disinterest of Fraser and Lynch – of their reluctance to even discuss or apparently countenance – the proposal. This meeting is, after all, being held at Fraser’s request, but Daly and Crean are now wondering why it was even convened. Why doesn’t Gough just go straight to the Governor-General and announce the half-Senate election for 13 December?
Daly and Crean are, rightly, suspicious where Whitlam is not. For there is the Vice Regal notice in today’s papers outlining two expressly forbidden meetings between Kerr and Barwick yesterday. There is Fraser’s presumptuous phone call to Ley. And now, at the end of this 30-minute meeting, Fraser is making an altogether odd request: that Whitlam not relay to the media his compromise offer of a delayed half-Senate election or of Fraser’s rejection of it. Despite the comrades’ misgivings, Whitlam readily agrees to Fraser’s request.
Fraser says: “You know Prime Minister, there are people who think that the Governor-General has got an independent duty and obligation to make up his own mind.”
Another ominous sign!
Whitlam has misinterpreted this, however, as a reference to election timing rather than the Governor-General’s reserve power.
And so Whitlam responds blithely: “Rubbish.”
Fraser says he will consult his senior colleagues about Whitlam’s compromise offer and get back to him, but that there will not likely be any softening of his intransigent position. Whitlam says that if Fraser rejects the offer, he will definitely call an immediate half-Senate election. Fraser knows that if Whitlam does so his Coalition will fracture under enormous pressure and more than likely immediately pass supply through the upper house.
Hands shake all around. The Opposition leaders leave the prime ministerial suite. Crean, who is perplexed at Fraser’s insistence that the details of Whitlam’s compromise proposal not be announced, lingers for a moment and asks Whitlam; “Are you sure the G-G’s right?”
Whitlam replies: “Of course. What can happen? He understands the Constitution and he knows his duty – to accept the advice of the elected Government.”
Daly, walking out of the prime minister’s suite now, smells a rat. He is thinking: “The Opposition has something up its sleeve – the Governor-General”.
Whitlam calls Labor national secretary David Coombe to advise that another election campaign is about to begin. Coombe books the Sydney Opera House for Labor’s campaign launch on 24 November.
In the Parliament House rose gardens, meanwhile, Cairns and Morosi – in sharp contrast to the gathering tension and chaos in here – are posing for photographs together to publicise her book. Whitlam is commenting disparagingly about Cairns’ behaviour.
Fraser, having returned to his own office, is on the phone to Kerr at Government House, telling him that he has been unable to reach a compromise with Whitlam on how to break the supply deadlock. Which is why Whitlam is having trouble reaching Kerr on the phone. Fraser rings Whitlam and tells him that he is unwilling to accept his compromise.
It is just after 10 am now as Whitlam, frustrated at his inability to reach Kerr, rings him again, this time on his private line at Yarralumla. Whitlam says he wants to see Kerr straight away to formally advise him of the 13 December half-Senate election. Kerr apologises, and explains that he can’t receive the prime minister immediately because he has to prepare for the Remembrance Day ceremony at the Australian War Memorial at 11 o’clock. Kerr asks if Whitlam can come to Government house at 1pm. Whitlam says “yes” and asks Kerr if he would object to his informing caucus about the election decision. Kerr does not object. Whitlam tells Menadue that he is reassured by his conversation with Kerr.
Whitlam enters the Caucus meeting, which is focusing on the comparatively peripheral issue of funding for Gosford’s Old Sydney Town tourist centre.
“This is like the Bishops of Constantinople discussing the colour of their raiments while the Barbarians were laying siege to the city,” Whitlam says.
He announces the election, to cheers of joy – and a relief that Caucus chairman Tony Lamb believes borders on “euphoria”.
Fraser, meanwhile, has just taken a call from Kerr who wants some assurances: if commissioned as caretaker PM can Fraser guarantee supply? Will he immediately recommend an election for both houses? Will he agree not to introduce significant new policies pre-election? While caretaker PM, will he desist from mounting inquiries into policies and activities of the Whitlam Government? Fraser, without hesitation, gives Kerr these undertakings and goes immediately to a joint party room meeting. He doesn’t mention Whitlam’s compromise offer. Or his phone calls with Kerr. He is brief. Uncharacteristically emotional. Deliberately oblique.
“Developments”, he says, are “occurring”, and there will be a resolution within 24 hours. The meeting observes two minutes of Remembrance Day silence at 11.11.11.
“Trust me,” Fraser implores his conservatives. They have no option, of course, although some of the Liberal waverers like Neville Bonner have already resolved they will vote for supply at the next opportunity.
Phil Lynch has emerged from the joint party meeting.
He says: “We believe that events will work themselves out. We believe the present course is sound for reasons which will become apparent to you later.”
The word has spread from inside the Caucus room, down the corridor, through King’s Hall and into the press gallery, like wildfire: Whitlam will break the impasse with a half-Senate election for 13 December.
In King’s Hall Alan Reid is smoking and speculating that Kerr might actually reject Whitlam’s advice. But he considers this unlikely. The ABC’s Ken Begg, meanwhile, is reporting that he’s heard from an undisclosed source that the country should be ready for a dramatic announcement in an hour or two. But he has no hint as to what that might be.
You’ve got a perfect vantage from up here of the War Memorial where Kerr, replete with medals, is honouring our war dead. Being ethereal also has the benefit of vantage, not least of the road that girdles the lake and intersects with Dunrossil Drive, the bucolic pine tree-lined path that terminates at majestic Government House.
The Governor-General and Lady Kerr are preparing to host a lunch for three young servicemen under consideration for a vacant aide-de-camp position. Ahead of the lunch Kerr is in his study, assiduously attending to his paperwork. Several critical documents are at hand: first, a five-page statement by the Governor-General justifying the decision he is about to action; second; a letter of dismissal for Gough Whitlam; third, a letter, ready to be signed by Fraser, accepting Kerr’s offer to act as caretaker prime minister, and a proclamation dissolving both houses of Parliament for an election of the full House of Representatives and Senate.
Back at Parliament Peter George, a young journalist from the Canberra Times,has arrived from his office across the bridge in Braddon for a meeting with a senior government senator. He observes that the place is unusually abuzz with noise and frenetic activity. The senator he has come to meet postpones apologetically, saying obliquely that there is too much going on behind the scenes today. George has a friend in Hayden’s office who says that something big is happening but nobody is too sure precisely what it is.
George, like many others, is under the impression that the Opposition in the Senate is poised to back down on supply. He returns to his newspaper’s head office across the lake.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives, which convened at 11.45am, continues to debate Fraser’s censure of Whitlam over the loans affair and the PM’s refusal to call a double dissolution. Whitlam has amended the motion to censure Fraser.
Whitlam begins: “Through the actions of this Leader of the Opposition, this nation has been plunged into an unprecedented constitutional crisis. Through the actions of this Leader of the Opposition, a Budget passed again and again in this House has been blocked in the Senate…”
At 12.30 Sir John, his wife and the three aides-de-camp are enjoying pre-lunch drinks in the drawing room opposite his study. Sir John is having a gin and tonic.
At 12.35, as Fraser stands up from his chair at the despatch box, turns and swiftly exits the House without acknowledging the prime minister. Whitlam is puzzled and nonplussed. Why is Fraser leaving at such a critical moment when it is up to him to defend a motion that he has himself moved?
Fraser’s principal private secretary Dale Budd has been asked to let Government house know when the Opposition Leader is on his way to Yarralumla.
Budd rings Government House and tells one of Kerr’s staff: “He’s on his way.”
“Has Mr Whitlam left yet?” he is asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll find out.”
Budd runs quickly around to the PM’s private entrance. His car is still there. He runs back to his office and says into the phone: “No he hasn’t, Mr Whitlam hasn’t left yet.”
Because Government House wants Whitlam to arrive first, Budd tries but fails to contact Fraser’s driver by radio so that he can tell him to wait. Government House tells Budd, it’s all right - “We’ll handle it”.
Kerr and his wife are still entertaining their three guests when Fraser arrives.
On the way to his car Whitlam stops by his office. He tells his manager of Senate business, Doug McClelland, to bring the supply bills forward in the upper house as soon as possible after the lunch break. The clocks say 12.55pm. He leaves by the private entrance and gets into the car driven by Robert Miller for the short trip out to Government House.
Fraser, who had arrived too early – about 10 minutes before Whitlam and not as instructed by the Governor-General, slightly later and, therefore, after the prime minister – is asked to wait in a room next to the state entrance of Government house. Fraser’s driver has parked in one of three front-of-house spots that give his driver a clear view of the state entrance, so that he can easily see the Opposition Leader come and go. But an aide-de-camp decides Fraser’s car poses a potential hazard for Whitlam’s car – always followed at speed by a police security car – which would normally, according to custom, drop him at Yarralumla’s private entrance.
It is 1pm now as an aide-de-camp, Major Chris Stephens, meets and greets Whitlam, and ushers him along the corridor to the Governor-General’s study. Stephens knocks, steps inside and says: “Your Excellency, may I present the Honourable, the Prime Minister?”
Kerr is seated at his desk. Whitlam sits opposite and reaches into his pocket for the letter advising a half-Senate election.
Kerr says: “Before you say anything, Prime Minister, I want to say something to you. You have told me this morning … that your talks have failed to produce any change and that things therefore remain the same. I have decided to withdraw your commission.”
Kerr ignores the letter in Whitlam’s hand about the election and hands him one of his own advising the Prime Minister of his dismissal.
“The Chief Justice approves of this course of action,” Kerr says.
Whitlam: “So that’s why you had lunch with him yesterday. I advised you not to consult with him.”
“We will all have to live with this.”
“You certainly will.”
Whitlam and Kerr shake hands. They will never speak again. An aide-de-camp shows Whitlam out.
He gets into the car, instructs Miller to take him straight to The Lodge where he will eat a steak for lunch, and says to his driver: “The bastard’s done a game.”
Fraser is ushered into Kerr’s study. The Governor-General tells him he’s dismissed Whitlam and wants to commission him as caretaker prime minister on the terms they’d agreed over the phone a few hours earlier. Kerr hands Fraser a letter of acceptance and he signs it. Kerr swears Fraser in on the Bible.
One of the aides-de-camp goes back into the drawing room and, with barely contained excitement, tells Lady Kerr and her guests: “He sacked him – he sacked the prime minister!”
Over at The Lodge Whitlam eats his steak while his lieutenants – including Crean, Daly and Enderby – arrive to be told the news. Notably, none of his senators are here. As each man arrives, Whitlam says drolly: “We’ve been sacked.”
He hastily drafts a motion on his prime ministerial letterhead: “That this House declares that it has confidence in the Whitlam Govt and that this House informs HM the Queen that if the GG purports to commission the hon the member for Wannon as PM, the House does not have confidence in him or in any govt he forms. – written at The Lodge, 1.50pm 11 November, 1975.”
Back at Parliament House Alan Reid tells another journalist, Allan Fraser: “The GG’s sacked Gough.”
At 1.30 Kerr’s office informs Budd: “You are now working for the Prime Minister.” He begins to tell select Fraser staff that Whitlam has been sacked and their boss appointed as caretaker prime minister.
Back at the office of the Canberra Times in Braddon, Peter George’s phone rings. It’s his friend in Hayden’s office.
“The government’s gone.”
George asks: “What do you mean gone?”
“They’ve sacked Gough.”
“Sacked him? How?”
“I don’t know but they have. You’d better get over here.”
George immediately races back across the lake in a taxi. The driver says the government has fallen. This is how quickly the word of Whitlam’s demise is spreading.
Back inside, George finds the atmosphere electric – King’s Hall is packed like Sydney’s Central Station at peak hour, echoing with words of communal astonishment and anger.
Withers, the Liberal Senate leader, is summoned to Fraser’s office and told what has happened. Fraser asks him how long it will take to arrange a vote on the stalled appropriation bills.
Withers responds: “Just leave it to me.”
Back in King’s Hall, Alan Reid spots Doug McClelland and calls him over. But McClelland is hurrying to the chamber and Reid doesn’t get a chance to tell him Kerr has sacked his government. It is incomprehensible: the Labor senators don’t know what’s happened. Nobody has told them.
And so ten minutes later in the Senate, senior Labor man Ken Wriedt is saying to Withers: “Come on Reg let’s get this thing over and done with and the Bills passed.”
Withers, only now cognisant that Labor senators still, somehow, improbably, unbelievably, don’t seem know Whitlam has been sacked, responds: “Oh yes, I think we can do that.”
Labor Senator John Button signals to Wriedt. Button says: “There’s a story going around that the Government’s been sacked.”
Wriedt says: “Don’t be bloody ridiculous.”
Just as Wriedt sends a staffer to check out the rumour, the vote is called on for the supply bills. The Bills are passed. Fraser has won senate supply, just as he had assured Kerr that he would.
Those Liberal senators, such as Bonner, who had been prepared to cross the floor to pass the supply bills for the Labor government, are immensely relieved that in sacking Whitlam the Governor-General has taken the decision out of their hands. Bonner is not proud. But he is pleased because he believes the interest of the nation has been served with the eventual passage of the supply legislation.
Hayden is in his office working on notes for a parliamentary debate about the economy. His principal private secretary Gae Raby ambles in and says: “Guess what? You’ve been sacked. Malcolm Fraser is the Prime Minister.”
Similar conversations are happening all over the building as members shuffle papers and prepare to race for the chamber for the afternoon session.
Crowds – public servants, men in overalls, long-haired students, school kids, young mums with prams – have been gathering out the front of the house since about two o’clock. People are expressing dismay and disbelief. Anger is simmering. People want information about what has happened. Are the rumours actually true?
Inside, Fraser rises from seat on the opposition benches. It is 2.34pm.
“Mr Speaker,” he says, “This afternoon the Governor-General commissioned me to form a Government until elections can be held.”
The house is spontaneously erupting into howls of outrage and cat-calling that almost drowns out Fraser’s voice. Labor members shout: “Shame, shame.”
Fraser moves a motion to close the session. But Whitlam uses his 64 to 55 majority in the House to defeat the motion.
Then Whitlam moves a motion of no-confidence in the new prime minister and calls on the Governor-General to ask he, Whitlam, to form a government. Whitlam argues that because the Senate has passed the supply bills the elected government should be allowed to govern.
The Speaker Gordon Scholes is now seeking an urgent appointment with the Governor-General. Kerr’s official secretary says the Governor-General may not be able to see him. Scholes threatens to recall the house unless he is granted an appointment. Kerr reluctantly agrees to see him at 4.45pm.
The word is spreading across Australia.
In Canberra thousands of public servants walk off the job. Many flock, along with students from the Australian National University, to Parliament House. And you watch, from up here, as hordes of people walk across the bridges and the lawns to gather around the walls. There are chants “We want Gough” and “Shame, Fraser Shame.” The mood is one of anger. It is febrile and very tense. The actor Garry McDonald is out there. So, too, is Hawke, the head of the union movement. He is urging calm. But as the crowd continues to swell, it will evidently take little to spark violence. Revolution could be close. Democracy is on the precipice this afternoon.
Peter George comes across Reg Withers in the Senate corridor. Withers explains what has happened to George, who then heads outside and takes a place on the steps.
Laura Beacroft, a young administrative assistant in the parliamentary library, senses something out of the ordinary. The Library, usually busy on sitting days, is suddenly empty and silent.
She hears yelling, but thinks it’s coming from a debate in the house.
She thinks: “Maybe I’ll just go out to the front steps and just see what’s going on.”
She sees no one and, so, is becoming anxious as she walks towards the doors at the main entrance. Everyone else, it seems has returned to their offices or joined the human flood onto the steps and the lawns. As she exits the front doors she faces what looks like a wall of police, all with backs turned to her. The police face down the steps and towards the lawn that stretch between here and the lake.
“What are they facing out for? What’s going on?” she wonders. And then she peeks through a gap in the police line. And she sees thousands of men, all dressed in the standard garb of the public servant – black pants, white shirt, skinny ties – running towards the steps.
She thinks it resembles “a wave … starting to come at Parliament House, and I suppose the wave (is) about 100 metres from the road” and then she is wondering, “Why are they running towards Parliament House? What on earth has happened?”
One of the police grabs her by the collar, says: “What are you doing here?”
She says: “Well, I work here – what’s going on? Where has everybody gone?”
He says: “Well look, just get your things and go home, it’s too hard to explain, just get out of the building.”
She gets her things and leaves the building, all the while thinking that this is how a revolution might just start – with thousands of angry people running towards their Parliament.
Scholes arrives at Government House at 4.25 pm to tell the Governor-General that the House of Representatives does not have confidence in his appointed caretaker government. But he is kept waiting at the gates while David Smith, dressed in formal attire, proceeds to the steps of Parliament House to read the proclamation dissolving both Houses of Parliament.
The physically imposing Whitlam looms over the much smaller Smith as he reads the proclamation: “Whereas by Section 57 of the Constitution…”
The crowd, overwhelmingly sympathetic to Whitlam, boos and jeers Smith.
Some Coalition senators hang over the balcony above the steps and taunt the crowd below.
Back inside Doug Anthony is thinking: “Well this is history in the making. I’m going down to listen to it.” And now he is standing just beside Whitlam. All the while more and more people are pouring into the forecourt and jamming up onto the steps. Anthony feels that the atmosphere is wild and potentially dangerous.
Peter George is standing just behind Whitlam to the right as the sacked prime minister speaks. Flash bulbs are popping and the cameras and sound men are crushing ever forward.
The crowd hushes as Whitlam begins to speak: “Well may we say ‘God save the Queen’, because nothing will save the Governor-General!”
“The Proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor-General's Official Secretary was countersigned Malcolm Fraser, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr's cur. They won't silence the outskirts of Parliament House, even if the inside has been silenced for a few weeks … Maintain your rage and enthusiasm for the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day.”
Now some people are abusing Anthony. The seed of fear is growing in him and he thinks to himself, “Right, time for me to get out of here.” Several people, including young women, spit at him. He and others conservatives are booed as they come up the stairs and enter King’s Hall.
And Doug Anthony is pondering how dreadful it will be if violence breaks out, if somebody – God forbid – is killed out there.
Whitlam has finished speaking now as more and more people jam into the forecourt and try to get closer to the steps where he lingers and which the police are reinforcing. There’s talk of invading, of taking the steps and smashing down the doors.
“We’ll take the bloody doors off the place,” someone yells. Others cheer.
A few people charge at the entrance. Police take them away.
It’s now nine o’clock in the evening of Remembrance Day 1975. A government has been sacked. Australian parliamentary democracy has been turned upside down and you are looking down on it all from your perch above the steps. Peter George observes that suddenly the atmosphere outside this, the spiritual home of Australian democracy, has changed; the anger is suddenly more palpable as night sets in along with the true ramifications of what has happened today.
There’s yet more talk of “taking the bloody doors” and the young reporter, George, thinks that the mood – which had, at times this afternoon, bordered on festive, feels suddenly, onerously, “revolutionary”.
Then George hears someone says, “Mate, it’s after nine. The pubs’ll be closing soon,” and the crowd begins to slowly dissipate.
It is as if the electricity suddenly deserts the crowd – like somebody has pulled out the power plug.
And Peter George, who thought he was witnessing the beginnings of an insurrection, now thinks to himself: “The revolution has experienced a still birth. How very Australian is this?”
Sir David Smith reflects
Sir David Smith, the Official Secretary to the Governor-General from 1973-1990, read the proclamation of Dismissal to the public on the front steps of Parliament House in 1975 – an iconic moment in Australian history. Listen below to his speech that relives the events of the Whitlam government Dismissal, 11 November 1975.
Sir David Smith at Old Parliament House, November 7 2004.