The motion that might have saved the Whitlam government

Notice of motion written by Gough Whitlam, 11 November 1975
Notice of motion written by Gough Whitlam at The Lodge, 11 November 1975. (NAA: M4628, 2)

On one of the most dramatic days in Australia's political history, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. In the frantic hours after the Dismissal, Whitlam sought to find a way to restore his government to power.

It was business as usual in the House of Representatives. At 2.00pm on 11 November 1975, the Deputy Prime Minister, Frank Crean, resumed the defence of the Whitlam government against an Opposition censure motion. But below the surface momentous events were in train. ‘What would happen, for argument’s sake, if someone else were to come in here in a few minutes and say he was now Prime Minister of this country’, Crean hinted cryptically.

As he spoke, government staffers were beginning to empty their offices. Rumours were spreading through Parliament House. Soon the dramatic news was confirmed. The Whitlam government had been sacked by the Governor-General.

Crean’s job was to stall for time while his leader planned his response. Ten minutes earlier, Crean had been at the Lodge discussing tactics with Whitlam and others. There was no doubt in Whitlam’s mind that the House of Representatives held the key. It was in the House that governments were made and unmade, not in the offices of the Governor-General. Surrounded by senior members and staff, Whitlam drafted a notice of motion that he hoped would restore his government to power.

The motion declared the House’s support for the sacked Whitlam government. The Queen was to be informed that the House would have no confidence in any government formed by the Opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser. No prime minister could govern without the confidence of the people’s house. This was a fundamental principle of representative government. Whitlam had the numbers, Fraser did not. The Whitlam government had to be reinstated.

Breaking the deadlock

For weeks Whitlam had been defending the independence and authority of the House of Representatives against the Senate's attempts to force it to an election. On 16 October, the Opposition-controlled Senate had voted to delay passage of the Budget bills until an election was called. If the bills were not passed, the government would run out of money. This deadlock could not continue.

By 11 November, Whitlam believed his only option was to bring forward a half-Senate election in the hope of securing a majority in the upper house. The necessary documents were prepared, and Whitlam arranged to meet the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, during the parliament's lunch recess. The Prime Minister believed that the Governor-General was bound to accept his advice. But Kerr had other ideas.

The Governor-General had been considering how he might use the powers granted to him under the Constitution to end the crippling deadlock. Legal advice from the Chief Justice of the High Court helped him decide his course. He had to act. If the Prime Minister remained unwilling to call a general election, he felt he had no choice but to dismiss him.

Shortly after 1.00pm Whitlam entered the Governor-General's study. Before he had a chance to hand over the documents relating to the half-Senate election, Kerr informed him that his commission had been withdrawn. He was sacked. 'We shall all have to live with this', Kerr remarked as Whitlam was leaving. 'You certainly will', he replied.

Soon afterwards, Fraser was sworn in as caretaker Prime Minister. He assured the Governor-General that he would move immediately to arrange the passage of the Budget bills, and would then seek an election for both houses of parliament. The deadlock was broken, but the battle had just begun.

Tactics over lunch

John Menadue's notes of the events of 11 November 1975
John Menadue, Secretary of the Prime Minister's Department, was one of those summoned to the Lodge. In this memo he sets out his recollections of the day. (NAA: A1209, 1975/2448)

Whitlam returned home to The Lodge for lunch and to plan his next move. He summoned his key advisors, whom he greeted with news 'I've been sacked!' They were like 'stunned mullets', remembered Fred Daly. They could scarcely believe what had happened. In the morning they had been planning optimistically for a half-Senate election. Now, without warning, they had been ejected from office.

Their only chance seemed to lie with Labor's majority in the House of Representatives. They still had the numbers to demonstrate their legitimacy, to show that they were the only party with the confidence of the House. The notice of motion, which Whitlam drafted, embodied their hopes and principles. Sir John Kerr's actions were unprecendented, perhaps unconstitutional, but Labor's response would hold firm to the foundations of representative government.

As the tactical discussions continued, Frank Crean left The Lodge for the House. He proceeded to defend the record of a government he knew had just been sacked. But events were moving more quickly in the Senate, where the Budget bills were reintroduced. There was, one parliamentary official recalled, 'a certain amount of confusion'. News of the dismissal was spreading, but Labor's Senate leaders had received no instructions from Whitlam's office. When the time for the vote came the bills were passed with the support of both parties.

The new Prime Minister was fulfilling the terms of his agreement with the Governor-General. The Budget bills had been passed, and documents were being prepared to dissolve both houses of parliament. Time was running out for Labor.

A message from the House

At the conclusion of the censure debate, Fraser announced to the House that he had been commissioned to form a government. Uproar engulfed the chamber. 'The various interjections from both sides of the Chamber, especially when Mr Fraser spoke, practically drowned out the speakers', noted a parliamentary liaison officer.

Having outlined the reasons for the Governor-General's action, Fraser sought to adjourn the House. But the numbers were still against him. Instead, Fred Daly successfully moved to suspend standing orders so that the member for Werriwa, Gough Whitlam, could present a motion.

At 3.00pm, Whitlam rose and addressed the House in a last attempt to save his government. The motion he presented differed from the one drafted at the Lodge. He had decided to remove the reference to the Queen, and Fraser had already been commissioned as Prime Minister. But despite the differences, the intent remained – to demonstrate clearly who held the confidence of the House. Whitlam moved:

That this House expresses its want of confidence in the Prime Minister and requests Mr Speaker forthwith to advise His Excellency the Governor-General to call the honourable member for Werriwa to form a government.

The motion was carried by a majority of ten. The Speaker, Gordon Scholes, expressed his intention 'to convey the message of the House to His Excellency at the first opportunity'. But despite the urgency of his request, the Speaker was unable to arrange an appointment with the Governor-General until 4.45pm.

A matter of timing

The Governor-General's official secretary reads the double dissolution proclamation on the steps of Parliament House
David Smith, the Governor-General's official secretary, reads the proclamation of the double dissolution on the steps of Parliament House (NAA: A6180, 13/11/75/45)

Behind the scenes, departmental officials were working swiftly to provide the Prime Minister with the paperwork needed to proclaim a double dissolution. At 3.50pm Fraser left for Government House with the documents in hand. About ten minutes later the proclamation was signed by the Governor-General. Elections for both houses of parliament would be held on 13 December.

The Speaker was waiting outside the gates of Government House when the Governor-General's official secretary, David Smith, drove past on his way to Parliament House. There on the steps of the House, with the towering figure of Gough Whitlam close behind, Smith read the proclamation to the growing, restive crowd. By the time the Speaker was admitted to convey the House's message to the Governor-General, it was too late. Parliament had been dissolved.

Despite widespread anger over the Whitlam government's dismissal, the Labor party was soundly defeated in the election.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019