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Whitlam, Fraser, Kerr and the story of 1975


Countdown to the dismissal

In October 1975 Australia’s federal Opposition led by Malcolm Fraser blocked the Labor Government’s budget in the Senate in an effort to force Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to an early election. Leading up to this dramatic and unprecedented event were eighteen turbulent months which witnessed a series of events that polarised public opinion. A struggle for control of the Senate raged amidst resignations, sackings, ministerial reshuffles and the appointment of a new Governor-General, Sir John Kerr.

The night of the long prawns

Following the ‘Night of the Long Prawns’ in April 1974, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was left red faced and Country Party offices reeked of prawn heads and stale beer. But former Queensland Democratic Labor Party Senator, Vince Gair, had a spring in his step and an Ambassadorship under his belt. Whitlam had lost the first battle for control of the Senate.

By enticing Vince Gair to retire from the Senate in exchange for an Ambassadorship to Ireland, Gough Whitlam had his own plan in mind. He intended to replace Gair with a Labor Senator at the next half-Senate election, thereby taking control of the Senate. But Whitlam overlooked a crucial area of detail. He failed to secure Gair’s resignation before announcing on April 2, 1974 the date for the half-Senate election. Without formal resignation, Gair’s seat could not be contested in the election. That same day the Opposition grabbed its opportunity to foil Whitlam’s scheme. Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen was tipped off and hastily prepared documents to announce the following day the Queensland seats to be contested. Gair’s seat was not included.

Meanwhile, the Opposition in Canberra made plans to keep Whitlam from securing Gair’s resignation. Country Party Senators lured Gair to an evening of beer and prawns in a remote part of Parliament House. A few hours before midnight on April 2, Whitlam got word of the Opposition’s ploy and sent staff to secure Gair’s resignation. But Vince Gair was nowhere to be found. Having spent most of his career undermining the efforts of the Labor Party, Gair was participating in the Opposition’s counter manoeuvre. With the Ambassadorship in hand, he waited until the following day before submitting his resignation—too late for Whitlam and the Labor Party.

I’ll take the bastard to the country”

On April 10, 1974, for the first time in Australia’s federal parliamentary history an elected Government went to the polls, following a threat by the Opposition to block Supply of government money.

Whitlam’s role in the Vince Gair fiasco infuriated Opposition Leader Bill Snedden who called Whitlam’s scheme

…the most shameful act by any government in Australia’s history.”

For Snedden, the precedent of dirty politics it established, strengthened his resolve to force an election by any means available to him. Using a majority in the Senate, Snedden threatened to deny funds to the Government to force Whitlam to the polls. Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Reg Withers, argued that:

Because of its maladministration, the Government should not be granted funds until it agrees to submit itself to the people.”

Frustrated by the Opposition’s interference, Leader of the Government in the Senate, Lionel Murphy, responded with the accusation that:

Some honourable Senators opposite think that they have some divine right to govern.”

But Whitlam recognised that the economy was on the verge of decline. This meant that the Government would have a much greater chance of winning an election then rather than when its term expired in late 1975. Whitlam embraced the election Snedden was forcing, intending to secure a further three year term of government. He advised the Governor-General to dissolve the House of Representatives and the Senate for an election.

Go ahead or think again?

An election for both the House of Representatives and the Senate was held on May 18, 1974. Both Snedden and Whitlam campaigned hard. Both believed they would win.

The election proved to be one of the closest in Australia’s history. It took ten days for the results to become clear. Whitlam became the first Labor Prime Minister to be re-elected—but a majority in the Senate still eluded him. In the House of Representatives, the Labor majority was reduced from nine to five seats. In the Senate it was much closer. Labor secured 29 Senate seats, as did the Coalition. Two conservative Independents won the remaining Senate seats, Liberal Movement Senator Steele Hall (SA), and Michael Townley (TAS), who was admitted to the Liberal Party shortly after the election. Vince Gair’s Party, the Democratic Labor Party, was completely annihilated.

The strategy of using an Opposition majority in the Senate to block Supply to force an election proved successful—its failure had been in the timing. By July 1974, the Labor Government was in the grip of global economic crises and destructive internal wrangling.

Enter the Queen’s man

Sir John Kerr was at first reluctant to accept the position of Governor-General, offered to him by Gough Whitlam in early September 1973. The belief that he might play a part on the national stage ultimately guaranteed Kerr’s acceptance of the post on February 27, 1974. Kerr was sworn in as Governor-General on July 11, 1974. Less than halfway through his first term of office, he would place himself at the centre of that stage.

John Kerr, born in Balmain the son of a boilermaker, began his career as a lawyer in 1938. He was a member of the Labor Party until the Labor Party-Democratic Labor Party split of 1955, after which he allowed his Party membership to lapse. From that point Kerr became increasingly involved with the legal establishment and cultivated his relationships with Liberal politicians. In 1966, the Liberal Government appointed Kerr Judge of the Supreme Court of the ACT and the Commonwealth Industrial Court. In 1972, Kerr was appointed NSW Chief Justice, and knighted the same year.

An unconventional alliance

In the midst of the battle for control of the Senate, NSW Labor Senator Lionel Murphy was appointed to a position on the High Court bench. Convention dictated that his replacement should come from the ranks of the Labor Party. But was convention followed?

As Murphy was a NSW Senator, the appointment of his replacement was a matter for the NSW State Parliament, then led by Liberal Premier Tom Lewis. Despite fears within the Labor Party, Gough Whitlam remained confident that Lewis and the NSW Parliament would appoint a Labor nominee. However, when Lewis broke with convention and proposed a non-Labor Senator to the post, both Whitlam and Leader of the Opposition Bill Snedden were appalled. In an unusual display of unity, both men argued that convention must be upheld. Snedden launched a hostile attack on Lewis’ actions, but his outrage forced only a partial retreat. With the support of the NSW Parliament, Lewis appointed an Independent, former Mayor of Albury, Cleaver Bunton.

Whitlam’s new opponent

Throughout the second half of 1974, Whitlam’s sharp tongue and quick wit increasingly undermined the standing of Opposition Leader Bill Snedden. Within the Liberal party, moves were afoot to replace him with a new leader.

Sections of the Liberal Party questioned Snedden’s ability to stand up to Whitlam in the House. These people believed that if the Coalition was to be returned to Government a change of leadership was essential. The man they had in mind was Malcolm Fraser:

…one of the things if I was Leader that I would certainly not want to do is to give the Prime Minister, Mr Whitlam, any indication when an election might occur. I’d want to keep that knowledge buttoned up and catch him one day with his pants well and truly down.”

Lobbying for Fraser began in earnest in October 1974. He was elected as Leader on March 21, 1975, by 37 votes to 27. Gough Whitlam had a new opponent.

An act of political lunacy”

David Combe, Secretary of the Labor Party, noted:

…It would seem to be an elementary lesson of politics that a Government does not contrive by-elections at a time when its political fortunes are low…”

Nevertheless, at a time when the Labor Government’s fortunes seemed lowest Whitlam approved the resignation of his former Deputy, Lance Barnard. The resulting by-election in Barnard’s seat of Bass in Tasmania provided an opportunity for the public to register their opinion—and a chance for the new Leader of the Opposition to test the political climate.

Whitlam’s decision to allow Barnard to take up the post of Ambassador to Sweden stunned senior Labor Party members and officials. They pleaded with Whitlam to see the danger to the Labor Party of a by-election at that time. But Whitlam proceeded. He was focussed on an opportunity for a Cabinet reshuffle, which would allow him to introduce younger members and cultivate a contemporary 70s image for the Labor Party.

The by-election, held on June 28, proved a disaster for the Labor Party. There was a 17% swing toward the Liberal Party. For Malcolm Fraser, just three months into his time as Leader, it was a decisive victory. For Whitlam, it was the first indication that the electorate was unhappy with his Government. Was the tide turning against Gough Whitlam?

Mr Whitlam will never get a vote from me…”

In mid-1975, the Government and Opposition were evenly balanced in the Senate, as long as the two Independents voted with Labor. But on June 30, Queensland Labor Senator Bert Milliner died suddenly and everything changed.

Queensland Country Party Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was vigilant for any opportunity to subvert the power of the federal Labor Government. He believed Whitlam was pursuing a centralist, socialist agenda that was destroying his State. Now Bjelke-Petersen had a chance to influence the balance of power in the Senate—attacking the Federal Government where it was weakest. Bjelke-Petersen used his influence in the Queensland Parliament to secure the appointment of a complete unknown to fill Milliner’s place. Albert Patrick Field stepped out of obscurity and into the limelight. Although he was a member of the Labor Party, Field was openly hostile toward Whitlam and his Government. This ensured his nomination by Bjelke-Petersen and his subsequent expulsion from the Labor Party.

Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser was subdued in his criticism of Bjelke-Petersen’s action. He knew Field’s appointment would give the Opposition an outright majority in the Senate. Field was forced to take leave of absence after his right to sit in the Senate was challenged by the Labor Party in the High Court. But even without Field in the Senate, the Government could only secure a maximum of 29 votes, while the Opposition was guaranteed 30. Before the year was out, this majority would determine the fate of the Whitlam Labor Government.

…funny money raised by funny men for funny purposes”

On the night of Friday December 13, 1974, a meeting took place at the Prime Minister’s Lodge in Canberra. Present at the meeting were Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, Treasurer Jim Cairns, Attorney-General Lionel Murphy, and Minerals and Energy Minister Rex Connor. By the end of the night the seeds of the ‘Loans Affair’ had been sown.

Rex Connor had plans to make Australia’s minerals and energy resources the cornerstone of the Australian economy. To finance his vision he needed four billion dollars. The meeting at the Lodge gave Connor authority to raise a loan. The loan was sought from the Middle East, awash with ‘petrodollars’, following massive increases in oil prices in 1973 and 1974. A London based broker, Tirath Khemlani, was used by Connor to arrange the loan in return for a substantial commission.

It was expected that the loan would come through in the short term. It did not. Try as he might, Connor was unable to contact Khemlani and in the end no loan was ever obtained, and no commission was paid. Approval to seek the loan was withdrawn on January 7, 1975, but renewed on January 28, 1975 for the lesser amount of two billion dollars. Connor’s authority was finally withdrawn on May 20, 1975. The same day in the House of Representatives, Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser began a sustained attack on the Government.

When Whitlam, Murphy, Connor and Cairns met at the Lodge they met as the Executive Council. Under the Australian Constitution, Executive Council meetings are held for the Governor-General to approve Government decisions. The Governor-General is not required to be at these meetings but it is convention that he be informed of them in advance. Yet the Governor-General Sir John Kerr had no prior notice of the meeting at the Lodge. Kerr was in Sydney at the Opera House. Unable to reach Kerr that evening, Whitlam spoke with him the morning after the meeting and Kerr approved the loan raising authority. When the furore surrounding the Loans Affair reached a climax, Malcolm Fraser argued that appropriate procedures had not been followed in authorising the loan. “The facts…raise the strong possibility that there was an illegal conspiracy to defraud and to deceive”. Whitlam responded by asserting that: “…no responsible person has…made any specific charges of impropriety, of illegal or corrupt conduct on the part of my Government”.

Then on October 10, 1975, Khemlani flew to Australia intending to secure his commission. He brought with him evidence of correspondence with Connor dated after Connor’s authority to negotiate had been withdrawn. The fate of Rex Connor was sealed. He resigned from Cabinet on October 13, 1975. But the damage had been done. The credibility of the Labor Government had been shaken, its position weakened, and the way paved for the Opposition’s final assault. Two days later the Opposition made a decisive move to oust the Whitlam Labor Government.