Video by Tom Compagnoni
Australian politics has not seen anything like it before and there’s been nothing close to it since.
On the afternoon of the 11th of November, 1975, there was a bloodless coup of the first order -- Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed by Governor-General, Sir John Kerr.
The Queen’s representative in Australia had claimed he acted alone, but it was later revealed he’d been in secret talks with the Liberal Leader Malcolm Fraser, the Chief Justice of the High Court Sir Garfield Barwick and High Court justice Sir Anthony Mason.
Whitlam sought to save his government, but when that failed he captured the steps of old parliament house, booming the famous line, “Well may we say ‘God save the Queen’ -- because nothing will save the Governor-General."
Why was the Whitlam Government sacked? Perhaps it all started earlier with some controversial Labor reforms and decisions, including the “overseas loans affair”, but the bid to remove Labor from power truly got underway when the Coalition refused to let the Government’s budget bills pass the Senate. The wheels of Government were not moving. Supply was blocked.
It was a constitutional crisis.
Fraser wanted an early election, Whitlam refused. After a three week impasse, the Governor-General moved.
The new Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called a double dissolution election, but despite widespread shock and anger at the sacking, Labor was not returned in a Coalition landslide.
The main participants aren’t with us anymore, but the Dismissal remains a watershed moment for many Australians, for a myriad of reasons. It opened eyes to the political process and shaped attitudes. It defined political careers and can be counted, for some, as the prime reason for getting involved in politics.
But such were the passions and recriminations surrounding the Whitlam dismissal, the main effect has been the cross-party determination not to let it happen again.
Balance of power parties and cross bench senators and MPs have, over the years, committed to not blocking supply and have vowed to support a democratically elected government.
The ALP changed too. The first Labor Government after Whitlam, led by Bob Hawke in 1983, was regarded as a conservative reaction to the Whitlam Government.
Even today, 40 years later, Governments are loathe to pull the double dissolution early election trigger.