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‘The first [and only] government...dismissed’

1975: Governor-General dismisses Whitlam government

National Archives of Australia A6180, 13/11/75/40
1900 2000
Year level

10

Learning area

Civics and citizenship

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Ask a family member who remembers the 1975 dismissal whether they agreed with the actions of the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, to dismiss the Whitlam government. What was their main reason for having this point of view?

2. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the dismissal of the Whitlam government is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Gough Whitlam speaking after the dismissal of his government, 11 November 1975</p>
National Archives of Australia A6180, 13/11/75/34

In a snapshot

On 11 November 1975 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and his Labor government became the first (and only) government in Australian history to be dismissed by the Governor-General. Sir John Kerr, who was earlier appointed Governor-General by Whitlam, justified his actions by arguing that the government couldn’t pass Bills, including its own Budget Bills, through the Senate. After the dismissal, an election was held and the Whitlam government was defeated. The dismissal was a controversial decision, and people still debate whether it was the correct thing for a Governor-General to do.

Gough Whitlam speaking after the dismissal of his government, 11 November 1975

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. How long had the Whitlam Labor government been in power by November 1975?

2. Who was leader of the Opposition in October 1975? Which political party was this person a member of?

3. Who won the federal election after the dismissal in December 1975?

How did the Whitlam government come to power?

The Australian Labor Party, led by Gough Whitlam, won the 1972 federal election. As part of the election campaign, Whitlam had promised to end military conscription, improve education and health care, and increase the rights of women, migrants and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Whitlam government had won a majority in the House of Representatives, but not in the Senate. This meant that the Opposition could block many government Bills from passing through the Senate. But the Whitlam government could still pass a large number of Bills, fulfilling many of its election promises.

Why did a constitutional crisis develop in 1975?

During 1975 members of the Whitlam government were involved in a number of political scandals. As a result, public opinion began to turn against the government.

In October 1975 the Liberal Party Opposition leader Malcolm Fraser believed that the Whitlam government was in a weak political position. The Opposition used its power in the Senate to block the Whitlam government’s Budget Bills. This blocked the government’s access to the money it needed to govern the country. This had never been done before by the Australian Parliament.

Fraser expected the prime minister to call an election. But Whitlam strongly disagreed with the Opposition’s tactics so he continued to govern.

Research task

 

Do some research to find out how long the Australian Labor Party had been out of government before it won the 1972 election.

Research task

 

Research whether the Governor-General still has the power to dismiss an Australian Government.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, well may we say “God save the Queen”, because nothing will save the Governor-General.’

Gough Whitlam, 11 November 1975

How did the dismissal unfold?

On 11 November 1975 Prime Minister Whitlam planned to call a half-Senate election to break the stalemate. He visited Governor-General Sir John Kerr to get approval for this, but Kerr refused and instead dismissed the Whitlam government. He appointed Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister.

Fraser’s first act as caretaker prime minister was to arrange for the Budget Bills to be passed in the Senate. He then called a double dissolution election. On 13 December 1975 the Labor Party was defeated in the election, and Malcom Fraser was elected prime minister.

Research task

 

In 1972 the Australian Labor Party used a now-famous slogan as part of its election campaign. Research this slogan and why it was so powerful.

<p>Malcolm Fraser, 1975</p>

National Archives of Australia: B582, F3/17/1975/V

<p>Malcolm Fraser, 1975</p>
John Kerr, 1965.

How is the dismissal remembered?

The Whitlam government is still the only Australian Government in Australian history to be dismissed by the Governor-General. Sir John Kerr’s decision was controversial at the time, and people still debate whether it was the right thing for him to do.

Some people argue that the Governor-General, an unelected officer appointed by the Queen, should not have the power to sack a prime minister elected by the Australian people. Others believe that Sir John Kerr made the right decision, using his constitutional powers to break the stalemate in the parliament.

 

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. How long had the Whitlam Labor government been in power by November 1975?

2. Who was leader of the Opposition in October 1975? Which political party was this person a member of?

3. Who won the federal election after the dismissal in December 1975?