Australian Constitutional Crisis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Sir John Kerr, governor-general of Australia, dismissed the democratically elected prime minister, Gough Whitlam. The head of the Liberal Party opposition, Malcolm Fraser, was installed as interim prime minister in anticipation of new elections designed to break a political deadlock. The event was the center episode in an ongoing constitutional crisis and paved the way for eight years of political dominance by the Liberals.

Summary of Event

On the afternoon of November 11, 1975, Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio listeners were surprised to hear a rare live news broadcast concerning the ongoing constitutional crisis that had gripped their nation for the past several weeks. They were further startled to learn that their prime minister, Gough Whitlam, had been removed from office. The report went on to explain that the democratically elected leader of the state had been dismissed by Sir John Kerr, the governor-general of Australia, a post that had been widely recognized as a largely ceremonial one. Australia, constitutional crisis Political parties;Australia [kw]Australian Constitutional Crisis (Nov. 11, 1975) [kw]Constitutional Crisis, Australian (Nov. 11, 1975) [kw]Crisis, Australian Constitutional (Nov. 11, 1975) Australia, constitutional crisis Political parties;Australia [g]Australia/New Zealand;Nov. 11, 1975: Australian Constitutional Crisis[02130] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 11, 1975: Australian Constitutional Crisis[02130] Whitlam, Gough Fraser, Malcolm Kerr, Sir John Cairns, Jim Connor, Rex

The roots of such a seemingly grotesque violation of democratic principles lay both in the dynamics of contemporary Australian politics and in the vagaries of the nation’s constitution. Australia’s political structure was highly influenced by that of its “parent” state, the United Kingdom. The bicameral parliament itself was divided into two assemblies known as the House of Representatives and the Senate, then comprising 127 and 64 elected seats, respectively. Like their American counterparts, these two legislative bodies were equal in theory, but in practice the system borrowed elements of the British parliament in Westminster. There, the lower house (the House of Commons) held nearly absolute power, and the political party that controlled the majority number of seats likewise enjoyed the prerogative of forming a government.

In Australia, a similar tradition existed in which the leader of the most powerful party (or combination of parties) in the House of Representatives had the privilege of becoming prime minister, although members of the cabinet could be drawn from the Senate if so desired. This arrangement generally continued even if the opposition party held a majority of seats in the Senate. The opposition might complain, but after various demonstrations, they would generally pass any legislation sent to them by the House. One reason for senatorial compliance was the prime minister’s right to declare a “double dissolution” if the same bill was defeated twice within a three-month period in the Senate. In this event, new national elections would immediately be held for all seats in both houses.

It should also be noted that although power lay with Parliament, the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II acted as the head of state. Her theoretical authority in Australia was exercised by a governor-general who, although appointed by the queen, was actually selected for the job by the prime minister. The governor-general had a variety of duties, such as asking the leader of the House of Representatives to form a government, and although these duties are usually recognized as ceremonial functions, the office holds a great deal of potential clout.

In 1972, the socialist-leaning Australian Labor Party (ALP) won control of the House of Representatives after decades as the main opposition party, and its leader, Gough Whitlam, became prime minister. Labor failed to win the Senate, however, which was narrowly controlled by the more conservative Liberal Party-National Country Party (L-NCP) coalition. A challenge in May of 1974 through a double dissolution election left the Senate narrowly in L-NCP’s hands.

Serious trouble started in December of that year when the prime minister gave secret approval to an economic renewal plan concocted by Treasurer Jim Cairns and Minerals and Energy Secretary Rex Connor. The purpose of the plan was to borrow $4 billion for infrastructure improvements from Arab sources in the oil-rich Middle East, bypassing traditional (and some would say constitutional) channels. When news of the effort began to leak in July, Whitlam handled the storm poorly. He fired Cairns but defended Connor and stated that he had withdrawn the latter’s authority to negotiate a loan as of May 20, 1975.

Several months later, it came to light that Connor was still working to acquire a loan, and as a result of the ensuing firestorm he tendered his resignation on October 13. Two days after Connor’s departure, Malcolm Fraser, the new leader of the Liberal Party, announced that the L-NCP would begin “blocking supply” in the Senate. What he meant by this was that the upper house would pass no more new government appropriation bills. Even though Fraser himself had cautioned against such tactics in the past, he adopted the aggressive policy in an effort to force the unpopular Labor government to call new elections. Whitlam’s approval ratings were running at only 35 percent, but his loyal supporters made much out of the charge that Fraser had crossed an important Rubicon of Australian political tradition. The ALP adopted a “Shame, Fraser, Shame” campaign that struck home with many Australians.

As the government gradually ran out of money, opinion polls seemed to show a turn against the Liberals by early November. Whitlam decided to end the crisis by breaking the narrow L-NCP grip on the Senate. The upper house was due to hold elections for half of its seats (a “half-Senate election”) sometime before June of 1976. As prime minister, Whitlam had the authority to “advise” the governor-general to hold these elections early, and under most interpretations of Australia’s constitution, he had every right to expect the governor-general to act accordingly. Given that it was Whitlam himself who had selected the current governor-general, Sir John Kerr, there was even less reason to suggest anything might be amiss.

On November 11, Remembrance Day (observed in honor of Australian war dead), the prime minister telephoned Kerr and set up a 1:00 p.m. meeting intending to advise the governor-general to call half-Senate elections. When the actual meeting took place, Kerr instead handed him a letter that ended Whitlam’s “commission” as the governor-general’s “chief adviser.” Shortly thereafter, Kerr met with Fraser and appointed him interim prime minister, clearing the way for the supply blockage in the Senate to lift. The now-former leader made a public appearance on the steps of the Parliament House denouncing Fraser and indirectly threatening Kerr.

Parliament was promptly dissolved and a new election campaign quickly got under way. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the dismissal itself was the centerpiece of the ALP effort, but the Liberals instead launched a campaign they had been planning for more than a year. Their “Turn the Lights On” program emphasized economic renewal through a reduction in state spending, and this theme resonated with the voters. While it was not clear that the public approved of Kerr’s actions, they did hand the L-NCP a sweeping landslide victory that left the Senate in Liberal hands and delivered the House of Representatives a fifty-five-seat majority.

Significance

The 1975 election paved the way for eight years of Liberal rule. While serving as prime minister, Fraser dismantled a number of Labor’s social programs in an effort to improve the government’s financial position and to reduce inflation. Kerr may have been partially validated by the results of the postdismissal election, but he remained a favorite target of Labor supporters, took to drinking heavily, and spent much of the remainder of his life in a self-imposed exile abroad. For his part, Whitlam’s reputation was further damaged by yet another Middle Eastern money scandal, and he retired from public service altogether after a second electoral defeat in 1977.

The constitutional crisis of 1975 brought several weaknesses of the Australian political system into sharp focus. Questions arose over when and if the Senate had the right to block supply. Even more problematic was the fact that the elected head of government was removed from office by an appointed dignitary supposedly acting through the authority of a distant, foreign monarch. Perhaps Kerr should have shown more restraint, but a literalist reading of the constitution shows that he did have the power to act in such a manner. Opposition to such apparent anachronisms found expression in the 1990’s in a widespread but unsuccessful campaign to replace the constitutional monarchy in Australia with a republic. Australia, constitutional crisis Political parties;Australia

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hawker, Geoffrey, R. F. I. Smith, and Patrick Weller. Politics and Policy in Australia. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1979. Provides a basic overview of the Australian political system, including a case study and examples from the Whitlam years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kelly, Paul. November 1975: The Inside Story of Australia’s Greatest Political Crisis. St. Leonards, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 1995. Very thorough, step-by-step review of the key month of the crisis. Includes important primary documents in the appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Penniman, Howard, ed. Australia at the Polls: The National Elections of 1975. Washington, D.C.: American Institute for Public Policy Research, 1977. Considers the events of 1975 in a series of chapters by different scholars. Several chapters tackle the topic from the perspectives of the key political parties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saunders, Cheryl. It’s Your Constitution: Governing Australia Today. Sydney, N.S.W.: Federation Press, 2003. Very approachable, clear review of the Australian constitutional system. Good for general readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Solomon, David. Inside the Australian Parliament. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1978. Provides a good overview of the basic day-to-day mechanics by which the Parliament operates. Includes much discussion of the 1975 crisis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whitlam, Gough. Abiding Interests. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1997. Written by one the main characters in the event, the book includes consideration of the “coup” of 1975.

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