Tag Archives: Prime Minister
‘The time has come to say something of the forgotten class’: how Menzies transformed Australian political debate
The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key figures in Australian political history, examining how they changed the country and political debate. You can read the rest of the series here.
As Australia’s longest serving prime minister, the career of Robert Menzies remains a model of political success in this country.
Despite this, much of Menzies’s legacy has failed to live long past his time in office, let alone into the 21st century. He was, for instance, firmly in favour of White Australia, obsessed with Australia’s British roots and idolised the monarchy. He also believed the Communist Party ought to be outlawed, and oversaw a highly protected, regulated economy. In many ways, Menzies was the last bastion of an old Australia we would hardly recognise today.
However, there are two notable exceptions – ways in which Menzies did manage to transform Australian political debate in a lasting way: firstly, through his construction of a middle-class political constituency he called “the forgotten people”; secondly, as the founder of the Liberal Party and Coalition.
Rising through the ranks
Born in Jeparit, Victoria, in 1894, Menzies rapidly made his way into the elite of Melbourne society. After working as a barrister and later a youthful minister in two Victorian state governments, he was elected to the federal parliament with the United Australia Party in 1934.
Attorney-General Menzies then became prime minister after Joseph Lyons died in office in 1939, just as the second world war broke out.
His factional enemies in the UAP were not impressed by his wartime leadership and, after his closest allies were killed in a plane crash, Menzies was forced out of the leadership in 1941.
Within a year, Labor was in government, and the UAP was collapsing.
This was not the end of Menzies, though. In 1944, he led efforts to reunite various right-of-centre groups to form a new anti-Labor party — the Liberal Party of Australia. He then headed the party’s campaigns against the Labor government’s alleged “socialist” excesses, such as bank nationalisation and petrol rationing.
In 1949, he led the Liberals to a sweeping election victory. Though he had some electoral near misses, and part of his longevity was owed to a fortuitous split in the Labor party, Menzies remained Liberal leader and prime minister until his retirement in 1966.
‘The forgotten people’
In 1942, as he sought to resurrect his political career, Menzies gave one of Australia’s most famous political speeches, which envisaged a constituency he called “the forgotten people”:
But if we are to talk of classes, then the time has come to say something of the forgotten class – the middle class – those people who are constantly in danger of being ground between the upper and the nether millstones of the false class war; the middle class who, properly regarded, represent the backbone of this country.
These were middle-class, god-fearing citizens, neither rich enough to fend for themselves, nor poor enough to seek trade union representation, and thus lacking power. They would become Menzies’ core constituency, with the party tailoring its policies to helping them meet their modest aspirations for themselves and their families.
Where the UAP had been seen as tied to the upper class and big business, Menzies would seek to attach his party to this ignored middle class, a group more Australians could imagine themselves to be part of, even if they had never thought of themselves in those terms before.
This construct has remained at the centre of Liberal Party rhetoric, reincarnated as John Howard’s “battlers” and Scott Morrison’s “quiet Australians”.
Even Labor has, at times, sought to defer to this supposed “backbone of the nation”. In his first speech to the Press Club as Labor Leader, Anthony Albanese suggested the ALP had lost the 2019 federal election because, to many voters, it failed to be the party of aspiration; essentially, that they neglected Menzies’s forgotten people.
Of course, this is not to say there really is a quiet, unassuming, aspirational majority lurking out in the suburbs. Rather, Menzies’s forgotten people are a rhetorical construct that has grown a life of its own. Politicians believe in this constituency and defer to it, even if it is not, actually, a meaningful voting bloc.
A Liberal-National Coalition
Menzies was also the driving force in creating and holding together the Liberal Party — and indeed the long-term Liberal-National Coalition, an alliance that has historically shifted the focus of political debate.
Keeping liberals, conservatives and rural interests in one bloc has meant the battle for leadership in Australia became a contest between the Coalition and Labor. This was no easy feat. Indeed, until 1944, there had been numerous minor parties campaigning on the right of the political spectrum. Some were reluctant to join Menzies’s new party, given that it would be a “liberal”, rather than “conservative” party.
Free-traders and economic moderates frequently fell out over welfare and tarrifs; hard-line conservatives and social liberals had serious disagreements over censorship, multiculturalism and other social issues. However, Menzies managed to unite them under what Howard would later call the Liberal Party’s “broad church” by focusing on Labor’s “socialism” and the international threat of communism. This appeal similarly kept the Nationals as Coalition partners. Menzies said:
In 1949 we were swept into power at what was then an almost record level of majority. Now all that happened because we had something to believe in, not just something to oppose, something to believe in.
Consequently, the issues, problems and demands that divided the Coalition have not been fully discussed in the public arena, but rather suppressed within party room debates and compromises. This has, to an extent, enabled non-Labor alliances to dominate politics. More recently, the two-party system has begun to break down, with more and more voters availing themselves of minor parties and independents in order to place previously ignored issues on the political agenda.
Menzies’s legacy, then, is not so much his particular beliefs or policies, nor in the model of leadership he provides as Australia’s longest serving prime minister. Rather, his lasting contributions were the rhetorical and organisational structures he built. While the former have faded into obscurity, the notion of “the forgotten people” and the Liberal-National Coalition remain as important now as they were when Menzies retired from office in 1966.
Had he retired from public life at his low ebb in 1942, Australian politics might look very different today.
The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key figures in Australian political history, examining how they changed the country and political debate. You can read the rest of the series here.
Paul Keating was one of Australia’s most charismatic and controversial prime ministers.
Born in Bankstown, New South Wales, into an Irish-Catholic, working-class and Labor-voting family, he left school before he turned 15. Keating joined the Labor Party as a teenager, quickly honing the political skills that would serve him so well in later life. He entered parliament as MP for Blaxland in 1969 at just 25 years old, and briefly served as minister for Northern Australia in the ill-fated Whitlam government.
He subsequently served as a very high-profile treasurer in the Hawke government from 1983-1991, before defeating Bob Hawke in a leadership ballot in December 1991. In doing so Keating became Australia’s 24th prime minister, serving until John Howard defeated him in the 1996 election.
To Keating’s supporters, he is a visionary figure whose “big picture” ideas helped transform the Australian economy, while still pursuing socially inclusive policies. To his conservative critics, Keating left a legacy of government debt and rejected “mainstream” Australians in favour of politically correct “special interests”.
He was a skilled parliamentary performer, renowned for his excoriating put-downs and wit.
Keating played a major role in transforming Australian political debate. He highlighted the role of markets in restructuring the economy, engagement with Asia, Australian national identity and the economic benefits of social inclusion.
Keating is remembered most for his eloquent advocacy of so-called “economic rationalism” both as treasurer and later as prime minister.
Under Hawke and Keating, Labor advocated free markets, globalisation, deregulation and privatisation, albeit in a less extreme form than the Liberals advocated. For example, while Labor introduced major public sector cuts, it attempted to use means tests to target the cuts and protect those most in need. Nonetheless, Hawke and Keating embraced the market far more than previous Labor leaders had.
Along with New Zealand Labour, Australian Labor became one of the international pioneers of a rapprochement between social democracy and a watered-down form of free-market neoliberalism. Years later, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had visited Australia during the Hawke and Keating years, was to acknowledge the influence of Australian Labor on his own “Third Way” approach to politics.
Keating justified his economic rationalism on the grounds that the Australian economy needed to transform to be internationally competitive in a changing world. To avoid becoming one of the world’s “economic museums” or “banana republics”, in Keating’s view, there was no alternative but to embrace his economic rationalist agenda.
Trade unions and the ‘social wage’
At the same time, Keating argued that his economic policies would avoid social injustices. This contrasted with the outcomes of the extreme economic rationalism of the Thatcher and Reagan governments.
Unlike in the UK or US, where anti-union policies were pursued, the Labor government was prepared to work with the trade union movement to introduce its economic policies. Under the Accord agreements, trade unions agreed to wage restraint, and eventually real wage cuts, in return for government services and benefits.
Hawke and Keating referred to this as the “social wage”. They claimed the resulting increased business profits would encourage economic growth and rising standards of living.
Social inclusion and economic growth
Keating saw his economic policies and progressive social policies as compatible. Increased social inclusion would contribute to economic growth.
Drawing on Hawke-era affirmative action legislation, Keating argued improved gender equality would mean women could contribute their skills to the economy.
Keating was also a passionate advocate for reconciliation with Indigenous Australians, including acknowledging the injustices of Australia’s colonial past and facilitating Native Title. He envisaged an Australia where Indigenous people would benefit from sustainable economic development, cultural tourism and could sell their artworks to the world.
National identity, Asia and the republic
In Keating’s ideal vision, Australia would engage more with Asia and benefit from the geo-economic changes occurring in the Asia-Pacific region.
Then Opposition Leader John Howard accused Keating of rejecting Australia’s British heritage. In fact, Keating acknowledged many positive British influences on Australian society. However, he argued that Australia had developed its own democratic innovations such as the secret ballot long before Britain accepted these. He also suggested Australian values had become more inclusive as a result of diverse waves of immigration.
Consequently, it was time for Australia to throw off its colonial heritage, including the British monarchy, and become a republic. Keating believed that doing so would enable Australia to be more easily accepted as an independent nation in the Asian region. He established a Republic Advisory Committee as part of preparations for a referendum on becoming a republic.
Australia’s greater relationship with Asia has had major benefits for the economy, although Keating underestimated the downsides of increased competition. Recently, he complained about what he sees as excessive security fears in relation to China and their impact on Asian engagement. The republic remains unfinished business.
Keating’s vision has also left some unintended consequences for Labor today. Despite his patchy record in achieving them, Keating argued that both tax cuts and budget surpluses were important, even at the expense of public sector cuts.
Consequently, it became harder for Labor leaders to make a case for deficit-funded stimulus packages when needed (as Kevin Rudd tried to do during the Global Financial Crisis). Similarly, it became harder for Labor leaders to argue for increased taxes to fund a bigger role for government, as Bill Shorten attempted during the 2019 election.
In addition, as I argue in a recent book, Keating-era policy contributed in the longer term to poorer wages and conditions for workers. Labor is predictably loath to acknowledge this. Keating also underestimated the detrimental impacts of economic rationalism on other vulnerable groups in the community.
The 2019 election result suggests many Australians no longer believe Labor governments will improve their standards of living.
Rather than the prosperous brave new world he envisaged, parts of the Keating legacy may have made things harder for subsequent Labor leaders. Nonetheless, Keating remains a revered figure in the Labor Party and one of its most memorable leaders.
The Conversation is running a series of pieces on key figures in Australian political history, examining how they changed the country and political debate.
When Julia Gillard was sworn into office as Australia’s first female prime minister on a chilly Canberra morning in 2010, it seemed like the ultimate glass ceiling had been smashed.
The two Es: education and equality
Born in Wales in 1961, Gillard’s family moved to Australia in 1966. She grew up in Adelaide as the daughter of a nurse and aged care worker.
Gillard was educated at local public schools before studying at the University of Adelaide and then the University of Melbourne.
She told the Harvard Business Review last year her involvement in the student movement, protesting education cutbacks, was a formative experience:
That’s what spurred an activism and engagement in public policy in me, and I went on to lead the student movement nationally … people had said, ‘You really should consider politics’. It was a slow dawning over time that it would be a fantastic way of putting my values into action — and realising that someone like me could do it.
Graduating with an arts/law degree, Gillard joined law firm Slater & Gordon in 1987 and was a partner by 1990.
While she has said she felt “quite at home in many ways” as a young woman in the “larrakin” culture of the law firm, she also worked on affirmative action campaigns in the 1990s. She was a founding member of Labor women’s support network, EMILY’s List Australia.
She continues to maintain this focus on gender and education in her post-politics advocacy.
Going to Canberra, creating history
Gillard was elected to federal parliament in 1998 and was a frontbencher by 2001.
In 2007, with Labor’s election victory, she became deputy prime minister and minister for education, workplace relations and social inclusion.
However, despite the popularity of prime minister Kevin Rudd, the Labor party became increasingly frustrated with his leadership style ahead of the 2010 federal election.
These tensions saw Gillard challenge Rudd for the top job in June 2010, in one of the most dramatic episodes in recent Australian political history.
Gillard’s unexpected promotion would have lasting consequences for her, the Labor Party and Australian political culture.
It initiated a “coup culture” in Australian politics, where a series of challenges saw the removal of four out of the five most recent prime ministers.
A sexist backlash
The unprecedented removal of a popular first-term prime minister during an election year also prompted an overwhelming backlash from the opposition, the media and the public.
Gillard faced accusations of disloyalty that marred the historic significance of her victory and status as the “first woman”. It also unleashed what seemed like a ceaseless tirade of sexism and misogyny that she endured for the next three years of her term.
The more prominent examples include broadcaster Alan Jones saying Gillard should be put in a “chaff bag” and taken “out to sea”. A menu at a Liberal National Party fundraiser described a dish as “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box”.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott stood in front of – and tacitly endorsed – sexist placards.
A productive parliament
After the 2010 federal election, Gillard had to work with a minority government.
But in a sign of her formidable negotiating skills, Gillard’s term as prime minister was extremely productive.
Despite the surrounding political turmoil, 570 bills were passed by the Senate, with key achievements including the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the child abuse royal commission, a carbon price, education funding and paid parental leave.
Labor’s legacy: six years of … what exactly?
It wasn’t all warm and fuzzy
Yet not all Gillard’s policies are so fondly remembered.
On the same day Gillard delivered her famous “misogyny speech”, her government passed welfare reforms that moved single parents off the parenting payment and onto Newstart (now called JobSeeker Payment). This reduced people’s payments by $60 to $100 a week, disproportionately affecting women.
‘I will not be lectured by this man’
Twelve iconic words have come to define Gillard’s legacy:
I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man.
This statement launched a blistering 15-minute speech, in which Gillard called out the sexism and hypocrisy of Abbott during Question Time in October 2012.
Though it was initially critiqued by the Canberra Press Gallery, which accused Gillard of “playing the gender card”, the speech went viral.
It has become the definitive moment of her prime ministership and is often the only thing people overseas know about Australian politics.
Earlier this year, it was voted the “most unforgettable” moment in Australian TV history by a Guardian Australia poll. Last month, a senior advisor to former-US President Barack Obama revealed they often watched the speech whenever they were frustrated with then-prime minister Abbott.
The misogyny speech has even entered into the pop cultural canon, inspiring young women today to create memes and TikToks paying homage to those famous words.
Changing the way we talk about sexism and politics
Gillard’s misogyny speech and her time as our first woman prime minister changed the way that politics and sexism were talked about in Australia and highlighted the toxic nature of parliament.
Rather than “playing the gender card”, Gillard drew attention to it, calling out the sexism and misogyny that many women in politics had to silently endure.
Speaking with Gillard last year in preparation for my doctoral research, she noted how the conversation around gender and sexism is “everywhere now”, and that people are far more aware of and likely to challenge gendered double-standards.
In recent years, we have seen multiple women politicians breaking their silence, from Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young suing fellow senator David Leyonhjelm for defamation, to former Liberal MP Julia Banks calling out “gender bias” and “bullying”.
Post-politics: ‘what would Julia do?’
Gillard lost the Labor leadership in 2013, when Rudd got his revenge and his old job back.
But she has left a lasting legacy as a role model for girls and young women. This stems not just from her political career, but for the way she has gracefully moved on.
Since leaving politics, Gillard continues to work in the areas she cares about, with high-profile appointments in education, mental health and women’s leadership. Earlier this month, she was also appointed as the next chair of medical research giant, the Wellcome Trust.
Like all politicians, she’ll continue to have her critics, but her post-political life and demeanour has largely been admired. Gillard’s former foe, Abbott, even attended the 2018 unveiling of her official portrait.
The political tragedy of Julia Gillard
And her career continues to resonate with people, particularly women.
This was recently seen when she received a handwritten note from a stranger on a flight, which thanked her for being “such a strong, intelligent and unapologetic role model for myself and so many of my peers”.
The note added that the author and her female colleagues used the phrase “WWJD” or “what would Julia do”.
As the woman explained: “It’s our rallying cry to be the absolute best at our jobs”.
High Court ruling on ‘Palace letters’ case paves way to learn more about The Dismissal – and our Constitution
The High Court has ruled that Sir John Kerr’s correspondence with the queen comprises “Commonwealth records”. This means access to them is now in Australian hands and can no longer be vetoed by the private secretary to the queen.
This correspondence, which includes Kerr’s briefings to the queen on the political crisis prior to the dismissal of the Whitlam government on November 11 1975, and his explanation to her afterwards of why he exercised this power, have so far been kept from public view.
The High Court’s decision opens the possibility that we will finally see the last pieces of factual evidence about The Dismissal – revealing the concerns and reasoning of the governor-general, as events occurred, without the gloss of hindsight.
It could even allow this festering wound in our political history to be healed, once all the information has been revealed. But it depends now on what the National Archives does next.
How were these letters treated until now?
Until now, the National Archives has claimed all correspondence it holds between governors-general and the queen, even when written in their official capacities, is “personal” and not a “Commonwealth record”.
This means there was no legal obligation on the National Archives to provide public access to these letters. Instead, the National Archives had stated it could only release these documents in accordance with the conditions placed on them by the person who lodged them with the National Archives.
But it let those conditions be changed on the instructions of the queen in 1991 so that her private secretary and the secretary of the governor-general held a veto over the release of any such correspondence.
In the case brought by academic Jenny Hocking against the National Archives, the High Court held by a majority of six to one that the letters between Sir John Kerr and the queen were created, received and held as institutional documents by the “official establishment of the Governor-General” before being transferred to the National Archives by the official secretary to the governor-general in his official capacity. This level of official control over them was enough to make them “Commonwealth records”, even if the governor-general still held ownership rights over them (which the majority said it did not need to decide).
In their joint judgment, Chief Justice Kiefel and Justices Bell, Gageler and Keane said they could not see how the correspondence could be described, however “loosely”, as “private or personal records of the Governor-General”.
They said it could not be supposed that Kerr could have taken the correspondence from the governor-general’s official establishment and destroyed or sold it.
Justice Gordon thought even if Kerr did have property rights in the original documents, he gave up any claim to them when they were deposited with the National Archives. Justice Edelman agreed the correspondence between the governor-general and the queen was “created or received officially and kept institutionally”.
Only Justice Nettle concluded these letters were personal communications between Kerr and the Queen, and were not Commonwealth records.
Does this mean we get to see the letters now?
The court did not order that the letters be publicly released. Instead, it ordered the director-general of the National Archives reconsider Jenny Hocking’s request for access to the correspondence held by the archives, treating them as Commonwealth records.
Section 31 of the Archives Act 1983 requires the National Archives to give public access to any Commonwealth record that it holds that is within the open access period and is not an “exempt record”.
The correspondence between Kerr and the queen has been in the “open access period” since 2006/2007. The only question that remains is whether the director-general will now claim that the correspondence is comprised of “exempt records”.
Section 33 of the Act lists a number of exemptions. These include documents that could reasonably be expected to cause damage to international relations, or where disclosure of matters in the record would constitute a breach of confidence.
The damage that might be caused by the release of documents necessarily diminishes over time. So even if these exemptions are claimed, consideration would have to be given to whether they remain applicable, given the age of the documents.
The director-general of the National Archives responded to the High Court’s decision by stating the
“National Archives is a pro-disclosure organisation” that operates on the basis of making records publicly available “unless there is a specific and compelling need to withhold it”.
It will be interesting to see what “compelling” needs it might identify.
Are there any wider implications of the decision?
The High Court’s decision will also affect the release of correspondence by other governors-general. The release of Lord Casey’s correspondence with the Queen was recently blocked by Buckingham Palace, which stated it would refuse access to any correspondence with the queen until at least five years after her death, and then only if the private secretary to the new monarch agrees. That veto has now been destroyed by the High Court.
So not only is Kerr’s correspondence with the queen liable to be opened, but also the correspondence by all other governors-general with the queen, when it is in the “open access period” and subject to any exemption.
That may mean we get a better idea of how the roles of the governor-general and the queen operate under our Constitution, which would be a good thing.
The rise of Bob Hawke to the prime ministership now seems to have been so unstoppable, so inevitable, that it is hard to imagine Australian political history might have unfolded differently.
But what if, instead of entering the House of Representatives at the 1980 election, Hawke had retired from his leadership of the union movement into, say, a business career? What if he’d not had willpower to give up the booze? What if he’d lacked the inclination to tone down his image as a larrikin union leader?
In that event, we might perhaps recall Hawke as a gifted union leader – probably a bit of a “character” – but one who had lacked the personal discipline to fulfil his potential. Perhaps we would remember him as epitomising those olden days when mighty trade unions imagined they were a kind of fifth estate, and when their big bosses were giants whose power rivalled, and sometimes eclipsed, that of leading politicians and capitalists. Hawke might have justly been recalled as a symbol of the pride before the fall.
Instead, Hawke is recalled as one of our greatest prime ministers and certainly among the most influential. It is a strength of the ABC’s upcoming two-part documentary, Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader, narrated by Richard Roxburgh, that it evokes the industrial world that gave Hawke both a long and rich apprenticeship in public life and a remarkable celebrity status. Some of the 1960s and 1970s footage is marvellous. You can almost smell the beer and Brylcreem.
But we are also reminded of the personal transformation that was needed before Hawke could be seriously considered for national political leadership. As the pollster Rod Cameron comments in the program, the public might have been willing to tolerate, while frowning on, a womanising prime minister, but they would not take a drunkard.
The larrikin side of the Hawke personality is now a popular favourite at events, where the octogenarian acquiesces to the urgings of an adoring public by sculling a beer – a reprise of his record-breaking student effort at Oxford. But the beer-swilling larrikin, who would still be there at closing time in the bar of Melbourne’s John Curtin Hotel, had to be placed in the shade in the 1980s.
The reformed larrikin, of course, is a familiar type in Australian culture, most famously embodied in Bill, the protagonist of C.J. Dennis’s The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. Bill gives up stoushing to become a properly domesticated husband and father, “Livin’ an’ lovin”. Hawke did a lot of both. The program’s discussion of his philandering is more coy than its handling of his drinking, but the expression on Hawke government minister Susan Ryan’s face when discussing Hawke’s relationship with women paints a thousand words.
The treatment of Hawke in this series is rather generous. Hawke was himself interviewed and all the talking heads clearly admire him to a greater or lesser extent – mainly greater. There are occasional hints of a darker side. Graham Richardson says he did some pretty appalling things under the influence of drink, but will not tell us what; only that Hawke would not have made it to the prime ministership in the age of the internet and the mobile phone.
Hawke’s 1971 Victorian Father of the Year award is treated ironically. The news footage has Hawke looking decidedly sheepish; the long-suffering Hazel privately wondered whether the judges had been on opium. Neal Blewett, a minister in Hawke’s government but a Bill Hayden supporter, thought Hawke and the party’s brutal treatment of Hayden on the eve of the 1983 election did long-term damage to the Labor Party’s morality.
The documentary does bring together many of the threads that help explain Hawke’s success as a politician. There was the sense of destiny, instilled in this Congregational minister’s son from childhood. His mother claimed that her Bible was forever marvellously opening at Isaiah 9:6: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder”.
We are reminded of Hawke’s love affair with the Australian people, the “almost mystical bond” with voters. During that golden period of about 18 months after the 1983 election – as the drought broke, the recession ended and Australia II triumphed in the America’s Cup – Hawke was lucky, but he also knew how to exploit the brightening national mood to the full. Hawke did not just ride the wave of national pride and optimism during what Jim Davidson has aptly called the “Age of the Winged Keel”. He embodied it.
For a time at least. The 1984 election, in which Labor lost ground, took off much of the shine. Then there was the “banana republic” crisis of 1986, but the documentary does not pause long over economic policy. It does recognise that Hawke was immensely lucky in the depth and breadth of talent in his ministries, but that he was also skilled in bringing out the best in those he worked with. His ego was colossal, but he had the wisdom to share power.
There would be more election victories – in 1987 and 1990 – but things were never the same once his relationship with his younger treasurer and natural successor, Paul Keating, degenerated into acrimony. Yet, to the very end, as his approval rating plunged during “the recession we had to have”, Hawke clung to the idea that his relationship with voters was special. Like so many others, he failed to grasp the opportunity to leave office on his own terms.
Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader moves along rather breezily. The episodes in Hawke’s career that reveal his attachment to high moral principle, such as his hostility to racism, or those achievements that rhyme with the present preoccupations of progressive politics – environmental protection and Medicare – receive loving attention. Hawke’s failures are not ignored, but get more superficial treatment. An exception is the abandonment of national Aboriginal land rights legislation and the proposal for a treaty, which figures in a melancholy few minutes towards the end of the second episode. But Hawke always has good intentions.
This is a nostalgic program that begins by noting that Australians today “have never been so distrusting of politicians. But there was a time when things were different”. So, how did we get from there to here? On this question, Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader is silent.
But it may be that for all of Hawke’s achievements, the era’s narrowing of political possibilities – the equation of economic efficiency with good government, and of national productivity and competitiveness with national achievement – planted the seeds of both later economic success and political decay.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the disappearance of Australian prime minister Harold Holt in 1967.
Australia: John Gorton, Former Prime Minister Died
On this day in 2002, John Gorton, the 19th Prime Minister of Australia died. Sir John Grey Gorton was born in Melbourne, Victoria, on the 9th September 1911 and died in Sydney, New South Wales. He was Prime Minister from the 10th January 1968 to the 10th March 1971.
ABOVE: John Gorton as Prime Minister
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