Saturday, April 7, 2012

Gough Whitlam Dismissal

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Account for the ways Whitlam, and various Australian historians have changed the way they write about the 175 Whitlam dismissal


Over the past few decades, Gough Whitlam, and various Australian historians have continually debated, deliberated, and interpreted the dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 175. When the many various interpretations of the 175 dismissal are being assessed, one must take into account the personal contexts of the writers, their motives for their writing, who they are directing their writing towards, and for, and various other factors that can affects the way in which they create history. Over the past thirty years, the Whitlam debate has progressed from the post-dismissal debate, to the ‘contemporary Whitlam debate’, which are both linked by the constitutional opinions surrounding historian’s interpretations of events.


An overview of the Whitlam rise to Prime Minister, and the dismissal of his government in 175 is not a simple task to undertake. The Labor Government had been elected on December 17 after years of Liberal/Country Party coalition rule.


Whitlam originally took office, determined to “employ an extensive program of developments within Australia. His loyalty to the ‘program’ resulted in Whitlam and his deputy, Lance Barnard, running a two-man government from December 5th to 1th, 17, after which the full ministry took office. Following an attempt by Whitlam to assign the previous leader of the Democratic Labor Party, Senator Vince Gair, as Emissary to Ireland, the Opposition Leader, Bill Snedden, threatened to force an election by blocking Supply in the Senate. Whitlam reacted by calling a double dissolution election for 18 May 174, at which the government was returned. The crisis brought up a number of fundamental inquiries about Australian democracy, and concentrated on a discord between Whitlam and Fraser over the rights of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Whitlam declared the supremacy of the House of Representatives, and his entitlement to govern so long as he maintained a majority there, while Fraser asserted that a government deprived of Supply by the Senate should resign. This was a fundamental dispute about how Governments should be chosen. The conflict also demonstrated the significance of constitutional conventions in the Australian political system.


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The Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, took an active concern in the crisis, discussing with both Fraser and Whitlam at different stages after October 15 the predicament at hand. At one point, Fraser offered to pass Supply, as long as an election was convened by the middle of 176. It is now known that Kerr sought the advice of Sir Garfield Barwick, the Chief Justice of the High Court. Barwick and Kerr met on Sunday November and Barwick endorsed Kerrs decision in writing the next day.


On November 11, 175, Whitlam proposed calling an immediate half-Senate election, but the Governor-General rejected this advice and instead dismissed Whitlam from office. Later, Kerr issued a statement of reasons for the dismissal. Fraser was offered a commission as caretaker Prime Minister which he accepted, and immediately sought a double dissolution election for 1 December. In the meantime, the Senate passed the Supply Bills, with the Labor senators unaware that their government had been dismissed. The House passed several motions of confidence in the Whitlam Government and instructed the Speaker, Gordon Scholes, to relay this to Kerr. The Governor-General refused to see the Speaker until after he had dissolved the Parliament. Scholes subsequently wrote to the Queen and received a letter in hich the Queen indicated there was no place for her involvement in an Australian political conflict. At the ensuing election, Frasers conservative coalition was resoundingly elected


Over the past few decades, Australian historians have constantly debated about the reasons for the Gough Whitlam’s dismissal in 175. A reformist as Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam had led his Australian Labor Party to victory in 17, returning the party to office after an absence of years. He had introduced a broad programme of social reforms, including measures to end restrictions on nonwhite immigration into Australia and other policies designed to improve relations with neighbouring Asian countries. However, his parliamentary lead fell against an environment of deteriorating economic circumstances. In 175 his administration was deadlocked, and his rejection to call elections led Sir John Kerr, the governor-general of Australia, to dismiss him “a controversial decision and the first time in two centuries that the Crown’s right to remove elected ministers had been used.”


When examining the historiographical aspect of the Whitlam dismissal, one can ascertain two details that Whitlam himself is a major contributor to this study, and that conversely, outside sources are what make up the bulk of the historiographical debate. When studying the Whitlam dismissal, there is a plethora of external sources and materials that originate from somewhere other than someone’s recollection or unequivocal familiarity. These external sources often structure what is believed to be solid evidence in an argumentative research essay. These sources consist of, but are not restricted to, books, magazines, academic or professional journals, radio and television shows, films, and the testimony of experts.


Historians can note that Whitlam’s own interpretation of the dismissal has differed over time. Although clearly he is a highly biased source, his works immediately pertain to this essay, as he has written numerous books and articles about the dismissal, and was directly involved in the issue.


In Whitlam’s first book (subsequent to John Kerr’s dismissal of the Labour Government in 175) titled ‘The Truth of the Matter ’, one can note that the highly probable motive for Whitlam writing the book is to validate his own actions that led to the dismissal of his government; and furthermore, to argue against the decisions of Sir John Kerr. As a researcher, awareness of any biases must not be considered superfluous in Whitlam’s case. If one ignores consciousness of any obvious biases, one’s argument may end up being undermined by them. Gough Whitlam’s own historical, and historiographical interpretation of the events of November 175, while bias, set about a precedent for fueling the post-dismissal debate. His first book, ‘The Truth of the Matter’ is radical, mainstream, moderate and ‘in-your-face’. This alludes to the fact that he is aiming his book towards a large variety of readers, and that he is trying very hard to gain supporters for his argument. Usually, if one can attain the same information from a more conservative source, it may have a greater effect on your audience, except in the case of Whitlam, as his own personal interpretation of the events was one which the public, and academics alike desired his opinion.


In ‘The Truth of the Matter’ Whitlam makes aware to the reader in the opening preface that the actions of Sir John Kerr in November 175 were both “avoidable” and “unwarrantable”. This sets the tone for the entire book, which not surprisingly concentrates on the reasons why Kerr’s actions were preventable and not necessary. Whitlam uses his own individual knowledge of the dismissal to inform the readers as to how, and why he should not have been removed from office. He examines the constitution, the reforms of his government, and possible conspiracies against his leadership to show that the reasons for his dismissal were anything but his own fault. Thus, the reader takes this book as being motives, validating in nature.


As previously explained, Whitlam’s own interpretation of the 175 dismissal has changed, and progressed over time. When Whitlam published his second book, he concentrates more on the “…things that [he] achieved while Prime Minister”. The book, was simply titled ‘The Whitlam Government’, and it detailed and highlighted in much more detail than his previous book, the many things that the Whitlam Government achieved, while in office. Thus, a critique of Whitlam’s could today deduce that Whitlam may have decided to produce yet another book, so soon after his previous one, once he had eventually put the dismissal ‘behind him’. The focus of this book is not the dismissal, like the previous book, but rather his achievements as Prime Minister. This book therefore, superfluous to say, is written with a differing motive. Whitlam quite clearly is moving away from dwelling on the events of 11th November 175, as his previous book concentrated on this, and rather deliberate on the positive nature of his leadership. In addition, it is also quite fair to assume that Whitlam may also have been trying to distance himself from the stigma of being the controversial Australian Prime Minister to be dismissed by the Governor-General, and towards what he probably desired to be remembered for � as a reformist.


For the next fourteen years, Whitlam did not produce any more books, but still remained well versed in Australian politics. In 17, he brought out his most recent book to date ‘Abiding Interests’. This book is extremely significant in the Whitlam debate, as it utilises up-to-date references to argue from a retrospective perspective issues and achievements throughout the duration of his leadership, and for the initial two chapters, the dismissal (or “coup de tat” as he claims).


This book has fueled the new ‘Contemporary debate’ that now exists concerning the Whitlam dismissal. The reason for this is that in ‘Abiding Interests’, as the name suggests, Whitlam has not completely put the dismissal of his government behind him; he still has permanent and unshakable opinions on the subject. Thus, historians now are beginning to return to many sources-some of which are primary and some secondary, and re-assess and re-evaluate them. The Contemporary Debate argues that Whitlam himself should not merely be remembered for his dismissal from government, but rather for the many things that he achieved as leader of Australia.


Whitlam has himself; significantly contributed to the historiography of his own dismissal-because he has fueled, and initiated various interpretations of his dismissal from government, and his time in office. Conversely, the writings of the late Sir John Kerr, the man who dismissed Whitlam from government, is an important source to juxtapose against Whitlam’s, because both have similar motives to validate, and justify their political positions.


John Kerr found it necessary to “…find a democratic and constitutional solution to the current crisis which will permit the people of Australia to decide as soon as possible what should be the outcome of the deadlock which developed over supply between the two Houses of Parliament and between the Government and Opposition parties.” The only solution Kerr felt was consistent with the constitution and with his oath of office and responsibilities, authority and duty as Governor-General was to terminate the commission as Prime Minister of Gough Whitlam, and to arrange for a caretaker government able to secure supply and willing to let the issue go to the people.


It is no surprise to historians that Kerr is arguing what he is-he is merely standing up for the position that he took with regards to the 175 dismissal of Gough Whitlam. In the book, ‘Matters for Judgment An Autobiography’ Kerr explains further that “The decisions I have made were made after I was satisfied that Mr Whitlam could not obtain supply. No other decision open to me would enable the Australian people to decide for themselves what should be done.” However, although Whitlam’s own interpretation of the events that transpired have somewhat progressed over time, in the 16 years after the dismissal, not once before his death did Kerr back down on his stance that he took. He felt that it was in “Australia’s best interests”, and it was “necessary, to break the deadlock.” On the other hand however, the fact that Kerr died in 11 has meant that there has obviously been no difference in interpretation over the past 1 years.


Newspaper and magazine articles from the past twenty-eight years are also a large source of information for historians of the modern day studying the Whitlam dismissal. An article taken from the day after Whitlam was dismissed as Prime Minister , written by Christopher Sweeney, shows the sudden shock, and impact that the dismissal had upon Australian society. Although Sweeney had not attained specific training in the topic, Sweeney was an expert journalist writing for the general public and he had/has devoted his career to writing about political issues. The article shows that at the time of the dismissal, historians were already beginning to formulate arguments; the pro and anti Dismissal Debates.


After studying this article, one can compare and contrast it with another article that was written at a later date this allows comparison, and enables the researcher to scrutinize how the interpretations differ between the two.


An article written in December 00 , by political analyst John Warhurst provides a different view of the 175 Whitlam dismissal. Warhurst, with the benefit of hindsight, and the ability to observe the many sources that have surfaced over the years, is able to provide a far more comprehensive insight into the Whitlam debate. Furthermore, due to the writing being produced recently, it will also have been somewhat influenced by the Contemporary Whitlam Debate, that argues Whitlam should not be stigmatized with being remembered for his dismissal from government, but rather to attain credit for the many things that he had achieved as leader of the Federal Government.


The final source that will be analysed in this essay is a journal written by Sir David Smith, a renowned scholar on the Whitlam dismissal, and debate. Smith claims that


“the history of l75 has so far been written, not by the victors, as is usually the case with the writing of history, but by the vanquished. That is why I said at the beginning of this address that our Constitution was not only at risk from political and administrative action, and imaginative judicial interpretation, but that it was also possible to subvert it by misrepresenting the meaning and the significance of action taken in accordance with its provisions. This, I believe, is yet another area in which members of The Samuel Griffith Society must take an interest if we are to achieve the purposes for which this Society of ours came into existence.”


This journal does have its advantages over other books and articles that have been written over the past three decades. Journals and Magazines are typically more current than books, often making them a better source of information. By the time a book reaches the shelves of a library, it may be as much as two or three years behind current scholarship on the topic. Hence, the scholarship above is extremely current, as it was published in 00. Although for the purposes of this essay, this historian attained the journal from the World Wide Web, it has also been published in various universities in Australia . Sir David Smith is a monarchist, and therefore it is important to note it affects the subject matter that he writes on. He is “extremely protective” of the Australian constitution, meaning that his work will be focused on examining the constitution, summarizing his own constitutional position.





As illustrated, Gough Whitlam, and various Australian historians have differed in their interpretations of the 175 dismissal over the past thirty years. The Whitlam debate has developed from the post-dismissal debate (when the dismissal occurred), to the ‘contemporary Whitlam debate’ (the debate today). Both are inextricably linked by the constitutional opinions surrounding historian’s interpretations of events, and this in turn influences why people’s writing of the Whitlam dismissal have changed and progressed over time.





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