Born in 1916, Edward Gough Whitlam was elected to the Australian parliament in 1952 and became the leader of the Labor party in 1967.
Whitlam came to power as Australia’s first Labor prime minister for 23 years in 1972, introducing sweeping constitutional changes and ending military conscription.
He was also the first Australian premier to address the issue of Aboriginal land rights for indigenous people.
Despite successes in the areas of law reform, social policy, the arts, land rights and foreign policy, the Whitlam government was dogged by a series of scandals, the most serious of these being the ‘loans affair’ where the Government sought to secure finance without the consent of the Loan Council to fund projects during the lean economic period of the mid-1970s.
In response to perceived mismanagement of the Australian economy by the Government, a Liberal party dominated Senate sought to block supply thereby freezing potential Government finances. The Liberals also demanded that an election be held for the House of Representatives or, failing this demand, that the present Government be dismissed.
In a move that shocked the nation, the Governor-General Sir John Kerr took the unprecedented step of sacking Whitlam on Tuesday 11 November 1975 and dissolving Parliament.
Kerr appointed the former Opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, as Prime Minister and commissioned him to form an interim government until elections could be held.
Mr Whitlam’s sacking arose follow weeks of political tension and a worsening constitutional crisis after the PM failed to force the budget through the Opposition-controlled Senate, with the Senate continuing to block Supply.
The Opposition ignored a convention, held since Federation, that the Senate should not reject budgets and a deadlock inevitably resulted. Mr Fraser believed his action would force a general election. However, Mr Whitlam refused to budge on his conviction that the Senate could not impose its will on the Government.
It was a remarkable incident in Australian history, and much unrest ensued. Few observers were prepared for Sir John’s solution, with most placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of Mr Fraser.
On the morning of 11 November, Mr Whitlam told Mr Fraser that he intended pressing for a half-Senate election. Mr Fraser rejected this, insisting that a House of Representatives election be held.
Mr Whitlam had arranged an appointment with the Governor-General for 1:00 pm but Mr Fraser arrived before him.
In a scenario resembling slapstick, one leader entered at one door while the other left through another. At 1:30 pm Sir John unceremoniously dismissed Mr Whitlam.
At 2:35 pm Malcolm Fraser announced to Parliament that he had been commissioned as caretaker Prime Minister.
The house of Representatives subsequently passed a motion of no confidence in the caretaker Government but the die was cast – at 4:45 pm on the steps of Parliament House the official secretary to the Governor-General David Smith, read the proclamation dissolving Parliament.
By this stage, about 2,000 people were jammed around the steps of Parliament House cheering as Mr Whitlam appeared, and chanting “We want Gough”.
The spontaneous demonstration in Canberra was reflected in other capital cities as protesting crowds took to the streets. Thousands of workers in all states began an indefinite strike.
Responding to the charged emotions of the crowd, Mr Whitlam condemned the actions of Sir John Kerr, adding “Well may we say God save the Queen . . . because nothing will save the Governor-General”. In a contemptuous reference to the caretaker Prime Minister, Mr Whitlam referred to Fraser as “Kerr’s cur”.
One political analyst described Sir John’s action as “breathing life into a constitutional relic – the right of kings and queens to unilaterally appoint Governments”.
In essence, the Governor General’s position, which many were accustomed to thinking of as largely ceremonial, proved to carry considerable constitutional clout.
In the ensuing general election, Labor was defeated though Whitlam held on to the party leadership, only to be forced to resign a year later.
The Dismissal was an event that polarised Australians, with many calling for changes to the system that removed a democratically elected government, yet today it is still possible for a Governor-General to dismiss a Federal Government.
Edward Gough Whitlam passed away on 21 October 2014, at the age of 98.
“Australia spent the first half of the century as a farm for the British. Now it looks as though we may spend the second half as a quarry for the Japanese”.
Gough Whitlam. 1971
“Well may we say ‘God Save The Queen’, because nothing will save the Governor-General”.
Gough Whitlam. 11 November 1975