Too Smart By HalfAustralian Politics and Society About Dangerous Ideas Economics Politics Society
Australian Politics and Society
The Colossus of Cabramatta – Part Three (The Dismissal)
Myth # 3 – “The dismissal was a constitutional crime, a grievous injustice, and a vicious attack on our entire democracy” (The ALPs old guard)
The old class warriors of the ALP love to trot this one out. Truth be told, the entire incident was probably the biggest non-event in our history. It went a little something like this: The Opposition, led by Malcolm Fraser, used their Senate majority to block the passage of supply to the executive.
In layman’s terms, they refused to make zero government dollars available. Both the Senate and the Lower House must approve anything that happens in government, regardless of whether it is a new Bill, or one that has been happening every year since 1901. No one working for Canberra wipes their arse with government toilet paper unless it has been rubber stamped by both houses. Not even single-ply. With the ALP in charge of the lower house, and the Coalition just barely in control of the Senate, parliament was caught in a stalemate, and the entire government came to a standstill.
The governor-general stepped in, sacked Whitlam, then installed Fraser as the “caretaker” prime minister. This seems like an outrage. Indeed, the ALP called upon its legions and the nation at large to “maintain the rage”. A representative of Her Majesty the Queen, in a modern democracy, single-handedly removing a sovereign national leader from power and installing another. It sounds like some horrible power play from imperial times, and a disgraceful attack on our democracy.
The reality is very different. Generally, this sort of stalemate ends in an election, so the matter can be resolved by the people (well it’s a nice theory anyway). Whitlam refused to hold an election. Fraser could just as easily have blocked anything else using his Senate majority, forcing Whitlam into the same situation. This is one of the crucial duties of the Upper House and a foundation of our entire system. It keeps the power from being held entirely by any one party, and forces over-reaching, uncompromising governments to take their policies to an election instead.
As it happened, Whitlam went to the 1975 election after being sacked, and brought hordes of swing voters with him. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of angry Australian citizens, disgusted by the idea that their man, their elected official, their prime minister, had been toppled by some symbolic puppet of the decaying British empire. And Gough still lost. In a landslide. Two years later, Fraser thumped him again.
Malcolm Fraser acted in very poor judgement, which he later admitted. His whole prime ministership was tainted by it. Sir John Kerr lived out his days as an outcast and a villain. Anyone with half a brain could have read between the constitutional lines and seen this was an enormous, shameless abuse of his jurisdiction.
But looking back, the weakest players in this whole ugly episode were the ALP. This was the 1970s for Christ’s sake. Any other left-wing party on the planet would have mounted a relentless counter-assault, sweeping both Fraser and Kerr into history’s gutter – right next to Richard Nixon. They probably would have gotten a republic out of it as well.
Instead, most ALP supporters “maintained the rage” for about five minutes, drove around for the next seven years with bumper stickers reading “SHAME FRASER SHAME”, and quietly grumbled about it between beers ever since.