Diane Purkiss

Diane Purkiss is a professor at Oxford University. Her book, The English Civil War: A People’s History, was published by HarperCollins.

September 4, 2019

On 11 November 1975, the elected government of Australia, led by Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister, was dismissed by the Queen’s representative, the Governor-General Sir John Kerr, because the two houses of parliament had become deadlocked.

Or more accurately, that was what Kerr claimed. The deadlock could have been resolved by the half Senate election proposed by Whitlam, to which Kerr had already agreed. Why, then, did Kerr go on to dismiss the government?

When the House of Representatives, Australia’s lower house and the equivalent of the House of Commons in Britain, met in the afternoon, the new caretaker Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, was defeated in a confidence vote. At the same time, the Senate finally passed the budget that it had blocked. The Speaker of the House of Representatives went to Government House to tell the Governor-General of the no confidence vote in Fraser. Kerr refused to see him or receive the motion of no confidence.

It was this, more than the initial dismissal of the government, that rejected the democratic role of the House of Representatives. Whitlam had joked in the past that if push came to shove it would be a race to see whether he or Kerr could get to the phone and call Buckingham Palace first. In talks with Kerr during the crisis, the Palace offered to delay Kerr’s recall (to Britain) to help the Governor-General sack Whitlam before Whitlam could sack him. The Palace didn’t counsel Kerr to consult with Whitlam, nor contact Whitlam. As the monarch’s representative in Australia, Kerr was using the monarchy’s reserve powers to dismiss the elected government, and appears to have been supported by the monarch’s advisers in doing so.

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There is an uncanny likeness between the situation in Australia in 1975 and the British situation in 2019. The Australian Labor Party had been out of government for 30 years, and when elected in 1972 succeeded in passing a radical programme of legislation which included free healthcare for all, the abolition of capital punishment, and free university education. It also substantially altered Australian foreign policy goals, in part in response to Britain’s decision to join the European Common Market. The Whitlam government approached China as a natural trading partner and to seek to grow its trade in the Pacific region.

All this seems sensible now, but it followed upon decades of conservative government by the Liberal Party and their leader Robert Gordon Menzies, whose position was sustained by relentless anti-Communist scare stories, leading to the involvement of Australian soldiers in the Vietnam War. During Menzies’ rule, Britain used Australia as a nuclear test site, while the United States sited critical bases at Pine Gap and North West Cape, without the consent of the Australian Parliament.

Whitlam’s efforts at reform were overshadowed by the oil crisis, petrol shortages, inflation, and surging unemployment. The Australian middle classes blamed Whitlam and his spending policies and he also came under relentless attack from the Australian press, owned by powerful media tycoons who had no reason to support his economic policies. Conservatives disliked and feared his foreign policy, believing that he was literally in league with Communists. As a result, his majority was slashed to wafer thinness in the general election of 1974, and was reduced even further in the Senate by the – illegitimate – appointment of a non-Labor replacement when an Australian Labor Party senator died.

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The declining economic situation meant that the leader of the Liberal opposition, Malcolm Fraser, could present himself as acting on behalf of the Australian people in bringing down an unpopular government, even if it was one elected only twelve months earlier. The Liberals also strove to undermine Whitlam’s authority by portraying him as a member of an urban elite that looked down on ordinary Australians, despite the fact that it was Fraser who came from what Australians call the squattocracy (graziers and landowners).

Whitlam was Australian’s Neil Kinnock, risking his own political career to try to reframe the Australian Labor Party’s appeal outside the traditional working classes. However, the public mood turned against him, and in the general election which followed his dismissal, Fraser’s claim to represent the “will of the people” was vindicated in a landslide victory.

However, few constitutional analysts would say that the result was uncontroversial. The role of the Governor-General in dismissing the Whitlam government has never been entirely forgotten in Australia, and the monarchy’s authority has yet to recover.

The Westminster system always depended on an unwritten code of behaviour which is  premised not on law but on gentlemanly honour. From time to time, members of every political class have decided not to behave like gentlemen. The most obvious example, much bandied about recently, is Charles I and his period of personal rule.

From 1628, Charles decided to govern without Parliament. He did this because he knew that any Parliament would be critical of his policy decisions and also of his close advisers. However, the justification he offered was that the monarch’s power derived from God rather than from Parliament.

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There is an uncomfortable analogy with the Boris Johnson’s insistence that his actions are justified because he – rather than Parliament – represents the will of the people. Like Johnson, Charles sought to set aside the sovereignty of Parliament in favour of another source of sovereignty that he could portray as allied with his own political goals. Providing he refrains from raising troops, invading the House to arrest dissidents, or attempting to increase the taxation of his subjects in condign fashion, England may still avoid the spectacle of a bloody Civil War culminating in the execution of an over-mighty executive.

Like Charles I, and like Malcolm Fraser, Johnson wants to see his power and authority coming from somewhere other than his ability to command a majority in the House of Commons. In premising his election campaign on the suggestion that MPs are the elite, overprivileged, the Prime Minister is not saying anything new; the parliaments of the 17th-century were elected solely by the prosperous, the top 5%. But they were supported by people who hadn’t been able to vote for them precisely because those people understood that the alternative was tyranny by one man and his supporters.

It’s very likely that both the electorate and MPs will not be forgiving indefinitely, just as Australia did not forgive Malcolm Fraser, discarding him in landslide numbers for Australian Labor Party leader Bob Hawke in 1983.

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The stable democracy that has ensured British prosperity for the past 300 years is predicated on an elaborate series of checks and balances, which are being systematically dismantled to force through a single policy that has itself been more divisive than any in living memory. At the very moment where those checks and balances are most needed, they are seen as an impediment because they exist to impede divisive actions.

The Prime Minister has made no bones about his attitude to the Commons, and his supporters in the popular press have sought to condemn a judiciary trying to maintain impartiality, along with a Speaker of the House trying to maintain the sovereignty of the Commons, solely and simply on the grounds that those people impede the drive to implement Brexit.

Some would say that the Australian constitution recovered from the constitutional crisis of 1975; in a referendum, the Australian people voted against abandoning the monarchy for an elected president – in part because many still adhered to the theory that the Governor-General and not the Prime Minister or the House of Representatives had correctly represented the will of the people in 1975, and they were especially reluctant to give the House of Representatives the power to choose the head of state.

But trust in politicians, never very strong, was further impaired by a rash of conspiracy theories that are still believed by many Australians.

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The best-known example is that Whitlam was overthrown by the CIA, just as Allende had been in Chile, because his novel approach to foreign policy threatened US domination of the Pacific. Some weak evidence has emerged to support this theory, but nothing conclusive has ever been adduced. Nonetheless, it is referenced in popular culture, including Midnight Oil’s song “The Power and the Passion”, and the myth helped the Labor Party sweep to its landslide victory in 1983.

Fraser’s reputation never fully recovered. Johnson would do well to learn that the lesson of history suggests that tearing a hole through the law never ultimately benefits the wise.

Sir Thomas More: “What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”

William Roper: “Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!”

Sir Thomas More: “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”

– Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons