An Australian Republic? 3. 1975 - a case study

The Dismissal of the Whitlam Government, November 1975

Responsible government versus the power of the Governor-General

Australian democracy is based on the convention of responsible government. This is the idea that the members of the parliament are elected by the people as their representatives, and that governments formed out of members of parliament are responsible to the parliament and, in turn, to the people. Under the convention, a government can only fall if it loses the confidence of parliament, or fails to win endorsement at an election. In the Australian party system, the governing party is said to have a 'mandate' to implement its policies once it has been elected.

In November 1975, however, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, intervened in a legislative deadlock between the Senate and the House of Representatives and dismissed the Whitlam Government under the authority of the constitution. Up until 1975, it had been customary for Governors-General to only act on the advice of the prime minster, as they held an unelected office.

Gathering Information

  1. Divide into three groups, with each group reading at least one of the following accounts of the dismissal of the Whitlam Government.
  1. Each group should now create a flow chart of the main events leading up to the dismissal.

Analysis

  1. Each group should now complete a Cause and Consequences chart demonstrating what key events led to the Governor-General’s decision.
  2. What options did the main three protagonists – the Prime Minster (Gough Whitlam), the Leader of the Opposition (Malcolm Fraser) and the Governor-General (Sir John Kerr) – have to break the deadlock? Each group should take responsibility for investigating the point of view of one of the protagonists.
  3. Break up the groups into smaller groups, with each new group having at least one representative from the three protagonists' groups. The new groups should consider the question:

Q: Had the Governor-General not been willing to act, how would the deadlock have been resolved?

Reporting your findings

  1. In a flow chart, each group should, outline at least one alternative course of events to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government.
  2. A class debate can then be organised around the following proposition:

Proposition: A republic is incompatible with the notion of responsible government in Australia.