Today in History: April 20



Today in History: April 19



Australian politics explainer: Gough Whitlam’s dismissal as prime minister



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Gough Whitlam speaks to reporters after being dismissed as prime minister.
National Archives of Australia

Anne Twomey, University of Sydney

The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key moments in Australian political history, looking at what happened, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today. The Conversation


The dismissal of the Whitlam government provided one of the biggest political shocks in Australian history. It put on open display vice-regal powers that most did not know existed, and tested Australians’ understanding of their own Constitution and political system.

What happened?

On October 16, 1975, the Senate resolved that it would not pass supply until the Whitlam government agreed to call a general election. This meant the Commonwealth would soon run out of money to pay public servants, provide pensions, pay its contractors, and provide services. The Whitlam government decided to tough it out in the hope the Coalition opposition would collapse.

Because the Christmas holidays were approaching, the last day to initiate a pre-Christmas election was November 13, 1975. If that deadline was missed, there would potentially be months of economic chaos with no money to run the government and pay salaries or pensions until February.

On the morning of November 11, Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser told Gough Whitlam the Opposition would pass supply if Whitlam agreed to hold an election for both houses in May or June 1976. Whitlam refused.

Instead, Whitlam went to the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, to seek a half-Senate election in December. This would not have been likely to resolve the impasse, because any new Senate would not have taken office until July 1 the following year (apart from the territory senators).

When Whitlam declined to request a general election, Kerr exercised his reserve powers by dismissing Whitlam and his government from office. He then appointed Fraser as prime minister on the condition that he secure the passage of supply, advise the dissolution of both houses of parliament, and call an election in December.

Kerr also stipulated that Fraser’s government must only be a caretaker government that would not make any major appointments or undertake any inquiries or investigations into the Whitlam government. The Senate passed supply, and both houses were immediately dissolved.

It was then left to voters in the election to decide who should govern. The Whitlam government was comprehensively defeated, and the Fraser government was elected to office.

Footage from the day of the Dismissal.

What was its impact?

The reaction was relief for some, and outrage for others. The public and the media, being unfamiliar with constitutional history and the role and powers of vice-regal representatives, saw the Dismissal as unprecedented and shocking.

A martyrdom narrative was constructed – that it was only ever Labor leaders who were dismissed (Whitlam and former NSW premier Jack Lang in 1932), and it was always done by the conservative establishment through undemocratic upper houses. Conspiracy theories flourished, with fingers being pointed at the CIA, the Queen, and the banks, amongst others.

That Kerr had sought advice from the High Court’s chief justice, Sir Garfield Barwick, albeit after Kerr had already made up his mind to dismiss Whitlam, was seen as adding to a conspiracy, because Barwick had previously been a Liberal minister.

Collective amnesia was applied to the fact that such things had happened before. Chief justices had advised governors-general and governors on almost every constitutional controversy since Federation.

Labor had blocked supply in state upper houses before, resulting in the governor, after consulting the chief justice, requiring the resignation of the conservative premier – even when he held a majority in the lower house. It had long been the case that if supply could not be obtained, the only options were resignation, an election, or dismissal (sometimes disguised as a forced resignation).

In 1975, the Speaker asked the Queen to intervene and restore the Whitlam government. In response, the Queen’s private secretary pointed out that the power to appoint and remove the prime minister and dissolve parliament was held by the governor-general, so she could not act.

Many people were influenced by the events of 1975 to support a republic, due to their objection to an unelected representative of the Queen dismissing an elected government that had majority support in the lower house.

Others saw 1975 as revealing the importance of the Senate’s power to block supply, and the need for the reserve powers of the governor-general to resolve a crisis.

All the major participants in the 1975 dismissal were damaged by it. Whitlam was never able to form a government again. Kerr was publicly vilified and led much of his later life outside Australia.

Although he became prime minister, Fraser found his government’s legitimacy undermined by the way it had obtained office, resulting in it being more timid and ineffective than it might otherwise have been.

A lunchtime rally outside Parliament House protests the dismissal of the Whitlam government.
National Archive of Australia

What are its contemporary implications?

One salutary consequence has been that both governments and oppositions have been more wary about taking matters to extremes, preferring to let conflicts be resolved in the ordinary course by elections.

The Dismissal soured politicians’ taste for brinkmanship. It revealed the likely consequence of a loss of political legitimacy.

Another somewhat ironic consequence is that while the Dismissal fuelled the republican movement, it has also undermined it. The republican model with most public support in Australia is that of a head of state directly elected by the people.

To avert the prospect of a directly elected head of state undermining the indirectly elected prime minister and destabilising the system of government, many consider it would be necessary to remove or codify the powers of the head of state. Yet the ghosts of 1975 have stymied attempts to do so, frustrating any consensus towards a republic.

Harking back to Whitlam’s famous words on the steps of Parliament House, nothing might have saved the governor-general – but the Dismissal appears to have saved the Queen, at least for now.

Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Today in History: April 18



Australian politics explainer: the Labor Party split



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B.A. Santamaria (left) played a significant role in the Labor split and the formation of the Democratic Labor Party.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Paul Strangio, Monash University

The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key moments in Australian political history, looking at what happened, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today. The Conversation


The Labor split started in earnest in October 1954, when federal leader H.V. Evatt denounced the “disloyal” activities of a militant anti-communist faction operating predominantly in the party’s Victorian branch. Tumult followed.

In March 1955, rival Victorian Labor delegations competed for admission to the party’s federal conference in Hobart, further crystallising the split. A month later, the Victorian Labor government was sacrificed as anti-communist breakaways crossed the floor to support an opposition-initiated no-confidence motion.

In the federal sphere, Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies called an early poll to capitalise on Labor’s chaos. The result was an emphatic victory for the Coalition, which benefited from preferences from the Australia Labor Party (Anti-Communist), later renamed the Democratic Labor Party (DLP).

Influenced by distinctive local factors, the split also engulfed Queensland Labor in 1957. Premier Vince Gair was expelled from the party. This precipitated an election that delivered power to the Coalition in Queensland.

But the seeds of this political calamity predated Evatt’s combustible statement. For complex socioeconomic and other reasons, a majority of Irish Catholics had historically voted for Labor, and the schism during the first world war over conscription further strengthened this ethno-sectarian alignment. In turn, there had always been a tension between socialist impulses within the labour movement and Catholicism.

The risk of conflict escalated in the 1930s, as the small but resolute local Communist Party made inroads into the labour movement.

By the 1940s, communists controlled key trade unions. This prompted Labor state branch organisations to establish “industrial groups” to combat that influence. These groups proved effective, but became closely entwined – especially in Victoria – with the Catholic Social Studies Movement.

“The Movement” had been set up by the bishops and was directed by B. A. Santamaria to exploit the position of Catholics within the labour movement to fight atheistic communism.

Santamaria’s ambition for The Movement expanded from it stiffening anti-communist resolve in the trade unions to it becoming a trojan horse for transforming the Labor’s personnel and policies. Those dreams were fanciful, but Santamaria’s zealotry and Evatt’s intemperance were crucial to the split.

Trade union powerbrokers who were determined to subjugate Labor’s parliamentary wing – even at the price of political oblivion – were also responsible.

Labor leader Doc Evatt (right) meets British Prime Minister Clement Attlee in 1954.
W. Brindle, CC BY

What was its impact?

The split destroyed Labor governments in Victoria and Queensland. The party was relegated to opposition for a generation. It did not regain office in these states until 1982 and 1989 respectively.

Better sense prevailed within the ALP’s top counsels and Catholic hierarchy elsewhere, enabling Labor governments to ride out the storm in New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia.

Federally, however, the consequences were also devastating for the ALP. Becoming prime minister for the second time in 1949, Menzies’ hold on office was initially far from secure; the elections of 1951 and 1954 were close run. But the Labor split gifted him political dominance.

In contrast, despite remaining at the ALP’s helm until 1960, the brilliant but mercurial Evatt never recovered politically or psychologically.

Another legacy was the DLP, which at its zenith held the balance of power in the Senate and buttressed non-Labor governments, federal and state, through watertight preference flows.

The split dramatically realigned Catholic voting. Tribal Labor supporters were torn between their religious and political faiths. The upward social mobility of Catholics in post-war Australia was destined to diversify their voting behaviour, but in one stroke a sizeable chunk hived off to the DLP.

It has also been suggested that, over time, the DLP acted as a bridge for Catholics to transfer loyalty to the Liberal Party: a side of politics where they had been traditionally unwelcome.

The anti-communist Victorian state Labor executive was locked out of the party’s federal conference in Hobart.
National Library of Australia

What are its contemporary implications?

The effects of the split washed out of the political system during the 1970s.

Federal intervention in the Victorian Labor Party in 1970 to correct its post-split deformities was an important prerequisite for the party winning office federally in 1972, and a decade later in Victoria.

The first of these victories undermined the DLP’s fundamental rationale – to deny Labor power nationally. In 1974, it lost its representation in the Senate. A few years later it expired.

Viewed from today’s post-Cold War and secularised society, the conflicts at heart of the split appear curiously arcane. Yet the ghosts of those events linger.

In 1985, four trade unions – including the powerful and conservative Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association – that had affiliated with the DLP in the 1950s were controversially readmitted to the ALP. Their presence continues to influence Labor’s contemporary factional power balance.

The DLP – or its bastard child – resurrected in the 2000s and has since had members elected to the Senate and the Victorian Legislative Council.

We are also reminded of how much the presence in the modern Liberal Party of a high-profile conservative Catholic grouping recast religious political allegiances following the split. Among them is former prime minister Tony Abbott – an unashamed Santamaria protégé.

Paul Strangio, Associate Professor of Politics, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Today in History: April 17



Today in History: April 16



Australian politics explainer: how women gained the right to vote



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The Australian delegation to the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome, 1923.
National Library of Australia

James Keating, UNSW

The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key moments in Australian political history, looking at what happened, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today. The Conversation


Between 1894 and 1908 a wave of women’s enfranchisement swept across Australia. Beginning in South Australia in 1894 and ending 14 years later in Victoria, Australia’s six colonies allowed women to vote.

With the passage of the Commonwealth Franchise Act in 1902, Australia became just the second country in the world – after New Zealand in 1893 – to give women the vote. At the same time, the Commonwealth became the first country in which women could stand for parliament. It was this coincidence of voting and representation rights that made Australian women the “most fully enfranchised” in the world.

The development of voting rights for women was not a “gift”, as contemporary politicians and – later – historians framed it. Instead, it was the result of concerted activism led by a group of white, middle-class, urban women, with pockets of working-class support, and fortified by a Protestant temperance vision.

Suffragists from Perth to Sydney enlisted male political sponsors and drew on a common tactical arsenal to engender public support for their demands – which “squeaked through parliaments in a period of flux”.

Lady Mary Elizabeth Windeyer, first President of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales.
State Library of New South Wales

As several historians have shown, in the 1850s women contested the terms of the political citizenship conferred on male colonists after Britain conferred responsible government – the system whereby the colonies were given control of their domestic affairs through popularly elected parliaments.

However, feminism only came to the fore as a political force in the late 1880s. It was galvanised by the formation of local women’s groups, like literary and suffrage societies, as well as overseas imports like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and the dissemination of British and American propaganda. With these institutional supports, organised suffrage movements emerged in all six colonies.

The Australasian WCTU’s Manual of the Franchise Department neatly summarised the methods that defined the colonial campaigns. Its author, Catherine Wallace, sought to standardise the techniques that saw Victorian women amass 30,000 signatures on a “monster” suffrage petition that year.

She urged readers to form franchise departments, join suffrage leagues, write to the press, hold public debates, circulate petitions, and relay news across the union’s hierarchy of colonial and global suffrage leaders.

What was its impact?

Winning the vote was not an end in itself. The suffragists believed that gaining the vote meant women had an obligation to reform society.

They hoped to improve the lives of Australian women and embody the virtues of political citizenship for the benefit of disenfranchised women across the world. This was especially true for the “sisters” from whom they had drawn inspiration in the UK and the US.

A cartoon from Brisbane paper The Worker promoting women’s suffrage in 1900.
The Worker

However, as the suffragists quickly discovered, enfranchisement was not a panacea for women’s economic, political and social disadvantages. Soon after winning the vote, their activist coalitions collapsed as women pursued an array of conflicting agendas, from prohibition to workers’ rights.

One of the chief divisions that arose in the ensuing decades was over the need for separatist organising. Socialist and working-class women, like Kate Dwyer, the Golding sisters and Lillian Locke believed women’s political future was with the Labor Party.

By contrast, many of the movement’s leading figures – including Vida Goldstein, Catherine Helen Spence, and Rose Scott – remained outside the party system. They feared demands for loyalty would sideline any feminist agenda.

As their counterparts in New Zealand had already found, even when women reached consensus they faced stiff resistance when they attempted to “curb men’s sexual liberties”.

In particular, campaigns to raise the age of consent and repeal the infamous Contagious Diseases Acts led to a backlash against women exercising their political power.

What are its contemporary implications?

The struggle for voting rights did not end in 1908. As historians like Patricia Grimshaw have pointed out, the expansion of who was entitled to vote federally came at the expense of Indigenous peoples.

Whereas Indigenous Australians’ voting rights had been murky until Federation, the Commonwealth Franchise Act disqualified any “Aboriginal native of Australia Asia Africa or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand” from enrolling to vote.

Most suffragists did not display the fixation with racial integrity that led politicians to institute the White Australia policy. Yet, until a new generation of feminist leaders emerged after the first world war, neither did they challenge it.

Women’s enfranchisement is celebrated as part of Australia’s democratic mythology. However, many of the suffragists’ more radical ideas – like pacifism, equal pay, and even their vision of a world where women could use the power of the state to protect themselves and their children from violence – remain unrealised.

Nevertheless, Australian suffragists were notable for their desire to use new-found national citizenship as a platform to promote progressive causes. Examples include Catherine Spence’s pursuit of “pure democracy” (a form of proportional representation) in the US, and Vida Goldstein’s role in founding the International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance.

Historian Clare Wright argues the suffragists’ efforts offer Australia a founding myth distinct from the Anzac legend. However, much evidence suggests that women like Rose Scott resisted the appeal of nationalism altogether, and instead worked to realise their ambitions in the states.

Still, in their commitment to promoting peace, advocating for women’s rights, and fostering international understanding, the suffragists offer a model of Australia’s role in the world that remains as important as ever.

James Keating, PhD Candidate, School of Humanities and Languages, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Today in History: April 15



Today in History: April 14



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