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Dismissal looms large for a new political generation

Date

Professor of Law at the University of NSW

View more articles from George Williams

"Unlike Whitlam, Gillard's numbers problem lies in the House of Representatives rather than in the Senate".

"Unlike Whitlam, Gillard's numbers problem lies in the House of Representatives rather than in the Senate".

Next month's 40th anniversary of Gough Whitlam's election reminded me of striking similarities between the political landscape of 1975 and today. Both eras have seen a determined and focused opposition using every tool at their disposal to bring down a Labor government.

In each case, the opposition has sought to bring on an early poll by destabilising the government and undermining its legitimacy. Hence, Whitlam was cast as an aberration after 23 years of unbroken conservative rule. The opposition argued that this required a quick correction.

Julia Gillard suffers from a different problem. The right to govern is usually established by winning a majority in the House of Representatives. A hung parliament frustrates this, leaving no one with a clear mandate.

Maintaining stability in these circumstances can be fraught, and indeed the last hung federal parliament of 1940 saw three different prime ministers. Despite this, and a withering attack on Craig Thomson and his support for the government, Gillard has managed to survive.

Even the rhetoric of the eras is similar. At the time, opposition leader Malcolm Fraser described the Whitlam government as the worst in Australia's history, saying that: ''The incompetence, the damage, the failures of the worst Government in our history cannot be ignored.''

Tony Abbott often makes the same argument about the Gillard government. He has also rejected the suggestion that it is merely the worst since Whitlam, saying ''that's unfair - to Whitlam''.

The bitter and unproductive partisanship of the present political landscape is by no means unique. Indeed, the similarities between the 1970s and today throw up a larger, unresolved problem.

The Whitlam government was sacked by then Governor-General Sir John Kerr on November 11, 1975. Kerr did so in response to the Senate blocking the government's budget bills. In effect, he saw the Senate's actions as giving rise to a vote of no confidence in the government.

The dismissal triggered the biggest crisis in Australia's political and constitutional history. It destroyed one government, and undermined the legitimacy of the next. It also introduced a flaw into our political system by which a government formed after receiving majority support in the lower house can be destabilised and destroyed by a countervailing majority in the Senate.

Unlike Whitlam, Gillard's numbers problem lies in the House of Representatives rather than in the Senate. However, if things had been configured differently, Abbott could have followed Fraser's example of blocking supply in the hope of toppling her government.

People often view the events of 1975 as unique, and never to be repeated. Our recent political history suggests otherwise.

If Kevin Rudd is right that Abbott ''is willing to obtain political power at any price'', an Abbott armed with numbers in the Senate could have applied the Fraser precedent. He would have been sorely tempted to force a government that he sees as worse than Whitlam's to an early election.

This avenue to power has not been closed. A hostile Senate can still deny a government the money it needs to function. If this occurred, the Governor-General would again be put in the midst of a constitutional crisis. Nothing has been done to change Australia's system of government to prevent this. Indeed, the failure to do so leaves it open for people to argue that Australians accept that this can occur again.

This needs to be fixed, and there are several ways of doing so. The most obvious is to adopt the example of the NSW Constitution, which provides that a budget bill can become law even if the upper house refuses to pass it.

For many years, the wounds of 1975 have been too raw for Australia's political parties to solve this problem. The debate has inevitably reopened questions about who was in the right. There is no definitive answer to this, only assertions coloured by a person's political persuasion.

Over time, the rage from 1975 has faded, and been replaced by a complacency that no one will follow Fraser's path to power. However, the only thing that prevents an opposition leader from doing so is self restraint. If the opportunity beckons, there is no convention or rule to prevent the crisis of 1975 occurring again.

George Williams is the Anthony Mason Professor of law at the University of New South Wales.

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95 comments

  • I don't think we will be seeing a repeat of the Dismisal in 2013, although questions surrounding the AWU scandal still haunt the PM, and Thomson has yet to survive allegations against him. I think the electorate is keen to make any changes at the ballot box.

    Commenter
    liklik
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    November 20, 2012, 8:09AM
    • ha ha!

      liklk, there are still big questions about AWB, WMDs, children overboard and many others in which Tony Abbott and most of his front bench were complicit.

      But while people can imagine Tony Abboot blocking supply to dismiss an ALP government doing poorly in the polls, it is hard to imagine an ALP opposition behaving as badly.

      I was18 when Gough was dismissed, and though I voted conservative in that election, what I could not understand was why, if the referee was going to step in, he punished the fouled team rather than the fouling team.

      Commenter
      Ross
      Location
      MALLABULA
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 8:27AM
    • Professor Williams' talents are wasted in the Herald. He could get a job with the tabloids or commercial TV. Mr Abbott might get the Opposition to block supply if only they had a majority in the Senate!! What a dreadful man he must be!!! It's all comnpletely hypothetical, but it just shows how evil the conservatives are. Let's never vote for Mr Abbott because he is so bad he might even use supply blocking to bring down his own government!!!!

      As for 1975, both Mr Fraser and Mr Whitlam bear most of the blame, Sir John Kerr may perhaps have acted differently, but it is regularly overblown in the political and constitutional crisis stakes. It resulted in a democratic election for both Houses and the government that resulted did not have undermined "legitimacy". When the people speak they have the last word in choosing a government.

      Commenter
      David Morrison
      Location
      Blue Mountains
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 8:29AM
    • Ross, in case you hadn't noticed Tony Abbott is not in power, so he is hardly going to be dismissed in the manner of Whitlam but if you want to ask Tony Abbott any questions, go right ahead. I'm sure he will have answers for you, unlike Gillard who continues to obfuscate and do or say anything to avoid answering fair questions surrounding her role in the AWU misappropriation. Not to worry though, former AWU official, Ralph Blewitt has now arrived in Australia to talk to police and i am sure Gillard will be doing all in her power to assist them as well, as she loves answering questions about her role in the scandal.

      Commenter
      liklik
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 8:54AM
    • liklik - you will do anything to avoid the issue

      1. Abbott is not in power but his hunger for power means that he would do anything to gain power. You suggest that AWU would be a trigger for such action as blocking supply, and I said that Abbott has greater baggage than Gillard. People who live in glass houses...".

      2. Howard never answered questions on all those matters, except to say. 'I've done nothing wrong." Abbott didn't resign from Howard's front bench - ipso he was complicit. I am not in a position to ask him for answers on those matters, but do you have any reason to say that he would answer them - that he would be more honest than Howard?

      And if it was good enough for Howard and Abbott to ignore those questions of competence and propriety, on what grounds do you think that Gillard should answer?

      Commenter
      Ross
      Location
      MALLABULA
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 9:13AM
    • David Morrison - perhaps the word 'legitmacy' was not the most appropriate word that Williams could have chosen.

      Rather, Fraser could not govern for all Australians because of the way that he had grabbed power rather than wait for the government to run its term.

      Anyone can win an election when the polls are very favourable to him or her, but that is not the way we run our governments. We elect them to a Parliamentary term rather than until the next change in the polls.

      The left long ago forgave Malcolm for blocking supply, but the right still haven't forgiven him for losing the 1983 election to Hawke.

      Commenter
      Ross
      Location
      MALLABULA
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 9:17AM
    • Don't worry Ross - You can still have a drink to Gough's memory come the 40th anniversary next month - you can even have your Don's Party to celebrate his many failures - seems it's the ALP way of doing things these days - finding victory in failure.

      Commenter
      Smack
      Location
      City of the Fallen
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 10:11AM
    • “Ross, there is no issue to avoid, just lots of questions surrounding Gillard's role in the AWU scandal.
      1. I said nothing of the sort. I said, "I don't think we will be seeing a repeat of the Dismisal in 2013......."
      You then imagined all sorts of scenarios that had nothing to do with my initial comment.
      2. Your issue is with Howard. I fail to see what that has to do with my comment. If people have concerns with Howard's tenure, then i suggest they raise them with the relevant authorities but as far as i am aware he has answered any questions, and regardless, his time has passed so i couldn't care less if he was put in a gulag. Gillard, on the other hand is our current PM and has refused to answer relevant questions. I would've thought that would concern you but obviously your partisanship is more important than right and wrong.
      As for Howard and Abbott, in the past, i don't recall anyone asking any valid questions, nor do i recall them refusing to answer. Regardless, if Howard and Abbott were guilty of any impropriety, it still does not change the fact that Gillard is avoiding answering relevant questions about her role in the AWU scandal.

      Commenter
      liklik
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 11:04AM
    • Smack

      One failure that seems to be a glaringly obvious one with cons spruikers is their total lack of grace and their propensity to try to demonise everything they don't like, no matter the truth of the matter.

      And you're one of those who bleat about how low the standards of political discourse have become! Look to your own unsolicited contributions before you start throwing stones.

      Commenter
      BillR
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 11:04AM
    • "People often view the events of 1975 as unique, and never to be repeated. Our recent political history suggests otherwise."

      Fair go George, give the current GG a little more credit.

      Commenter
      Lou
      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 11:06AM

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