1975: The year it all blew up Down Under
Australian governor general dismissed PM despite his majority in lower house

The Canadian Press | December 5, 2008
By Paul Loong

How much can a governor general do when parliament is locked in crisis?

A whole lot more than most people would think, if what happened in Australia 33 years ago is seen as a precedent.

But the vice-regal intervention Down Under brought toxic, long-lasting consequences. Political leaders would likely think twice before going down the path of what Australians simply called "the Dismissal."

On Nov. 11, 1975, Australian Gov. Gen. John Kerr dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and appointed Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister.

The politically explosive move plunged Australia into what many still regard as the country’s biggest constitutional crisis. It threw into doubt some unwritten but hitherto sacrosanct traditions of Westminster-style parliamentary democracies.

As the Queen’s appointed representative, a governor general carries out the duties of a head of state for a Commonwealth nation.

The governor general presides over the swearing-in of the prime minister, the chief justice and cabinet ministers. One of the governor general’s most important responsibilities is to ensure that the country always has a prime minister and a government in place.

But in practice, the job is usually understood to be a ceremonial one conducted on the "advice" of the sitting government. Thus the speech from the throne is delivered to parliament by the governor general but is actually written by the government.

In the Australian case, however, Kerr intervened directly in the political process invoking rarely used powers to bring down the government and dissolve Parliament.

Whitlam’s Labor government had a majority in the lower House of Representatives, but the Senate was controlled by the opposition Liberal-Country Party coalition — Fraser was the Liberal leader.

In October 1975, the opposition accused the government of financial irregularities and held up passage of budgetary legislation in the Senate, hoping to force the government to call an election.

The deadlock went on for weeks and Whitlam’s government faced the prospect of running out of money.

The crisis culminated in Kerr’s dramatic intervention after earlier attempts at proposing compromises. There were suggestions that Kerr acted to pre-empt any move by Whitlam to replace him as governor general.

Whitlam became the only Australian prime minister with a majority in the lower house to be removed from office.

The dismissal rocked Australia and the Commonwealth, and prompted a firestorm of criticism that it was an affront to democracy.

Whitlam ran for re-election largely on a campaign taking Fraser to task for benefiting from the dismissal. Fraser highlighted management of economic affairs.

When the election was held in December, Australian voters gave Fraser’s coalition a resounding majority in the lower house. Fraser also retained a six-seat majority in the Senate.

Fraser was prime minister for seven and a half years, one of the longest serving leaders in Australia.

Whitlam retired from parliament in 1978 after suffering another electoral defeat the previous year.

Kerr left office in 1977 but remained a controversial figure, frequently greeted by protesters in Australia. He was given a diplomatic appointment in Paris but vocal opposition stopped him from taking up the post.

Instead, he moved to England and lived there for years. He died in Sydney in 1991.

The century-old debate over whether Australia should have a president to replace the British monarch as its head of state has been a divisive issue.

A referendum was held in 1999. It overwhelmingly supported keeping the constitutional monarchy.

The debate has been revived with the November 2007 election of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a republican. His predecessor, John Howard, had been a staunch monarchist who republicans argue was instrumental in the failure of the 1999 referendum.