The Great Dismissal
In 1972, after 23 years of rule by conservative Liberal Party, Australia elected a Labor government under the leadership of the dashing and urbane Gough Whitlam. At once Whitlam’s government embarked on a programme of ambitious reforms – it gave Aborigines rights they had not previously enjoyed, began to disengage Australian troops from Vietnam, made university education free, and much more. But, the government gradually lost its majority and by 1975, the parliament was in a deadlock from which neither Whitlam nor Malcolm Fraser, the leader of the opposition, would budge.
Into this impasse entered Sir John Kerr, the Governor General. Using an obscure privilege previously not invoked, he dissolved the government, placed Fraser in control and ordered a general election. What happened on that evening of 11th November 1975 was perhaps the most memorable political event in Australia. An angry crowd of Labor supporters filled the steps and halls of the Parliament House as the news of the dismissal became publicly known; David Smith, Kerr’s Secretary, who was given the thankless job of announcing the dismissal to the public, had to enter Parliament House through a side door and make his way to the parliament’s steps from the inside. Smith read the proclamation, as the boos of the crowd drowned him out; after he concluded the short statement with the traditional “God save the Queen“, Whitlam began his address to the crowd with now immortal words:
Well may we say “God save the Queen” because nothing will save the Governor-General. The proclamation you have just heard read by the Governor-General’s Official Secretary was countersigned “Malcolm Fraser”, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr’s Cur.
Although Whitlam may have won the war of words, he lost the general elections to Fraser, who would lead the Liberal Party to three electoral victories. Thus ended one of the most intriguing episodes of political theatre. Despite their outrage, indignation and resentment at the governor general’s high-handed interference before they had had any real chance to sort out their differences themselves, the Australian electorate calmly endorsed the action that had so incensed it only a month before. As for Labor, the episode became a humiliating reminder that Australia was still at root a colony, constitutionally subordinated to the United Kingdom, and an unelected representative of a government on the other side of the planet.