On 11 November 1975, the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the Labor government led by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and appointed Liberal Party leader Malcolm Fraser Prime Minister, on the understanding that he would immediately call an election.
The Dismissal was the conclusion to Australia's most significant constitutional crisis, and there is still debate over whether John Kerr's actions were constitutional or unconstitutional.
The Chain of Events
In December of 1972, the Australian Labor Party was elected to govern Australia, ending nearly 23 years of continuous government by the conservative coalition of the Liberal and Country Parties. The new Australian Prime Minister was Gough Whitlam.
Whitlam's Labor government was a idealist and reforming government, among other things instituting free tertiary education and making the first moves towards granting Aboriginal land rights. It was also, not having been in power for over twenty years, a hopelessly inexperienced government. One of their biggest blunders involved the attempts of a senior government minister to secure funding for a revamp of Australian industry. He gave authority to a shady businessman from the Middle East, Khemlani, to secure a multi-million dollar loan on behalf of the Australian government. This caused a great scandal when the press found out about it, and the minister was forced to resign.
By 1975, Whitlam and the Labor government were becoming increasingly unpopular, but the next election was not due until May 1977. Malcolm Fraser, the leader of the Liberal Party, wanted an election as soon as possible, and decided to block supply in the Senate.
After the last election in 1974, Labor held the slimmest of majorities in the Senate. The death of a Labor Senator from Queensland led to the vacancy being filled with an appointment of the premier of Queensland, arch-conservative Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Bjelke-Petersen appointed a political enemy of Whitlam's, and Labor lost control of the Senate.
Malcolm Fraser decided to block supply in the Senate - the Senate refused to pass the annual supply bill allowing the Government to draw money from consolidated revenue. This meant that the Government would soon run out of money to run the country. Fraser expected Whitlam to call an election, but Whitlam refused to do so.
A stalemate resulted, with both Whitlam and Fraser refusing to give ground. Eventually, the Governor-General stepped in, dismissing the Labor government, appointing Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister. Fraser immediately called an election, and the Liberal Party won office in the election held on December 13.
The Constitutional Issues
Under a literal reading of the Australian Constitution, all the actions carried out leading up to the Dismissal, and the Dismissal itself, were Constitutional. However, the Australian political system is based almost as much on convention as on the words set out in the Constitution. For example, nowhere in the Australian Constitution is there any mention made of the Prime Minister or Cabinet, two of the most important aspects of the Australian political system. Many of the actions taken leading up to the Dismissal were contrary to convention, and therefore considered by many to be unconstitutional.
The Senate vacancy
In the event of a Senate vacancy, the Constitution specifies that the Premier of the relevant State should appoint a replacement. By convention, the Premier appoints a member of the same political party as the Senator whose death or resignation caused the vacancy. The Senator appointed by Joh Bjelke-Petersen was once a member of the Labor party, but was not at the time of appointment.
Under the Constitution, the Senate may make no modification to a taxation or an appropriation bill. The Senate does, however, have the power to return such a bill to the House of Representatives with recommendations of amendments they would like made. In 1975, the Senate simply refused to pass the appropriation bill. The Constitution does not say that the Senate can't do this, but it doesn't say that it can, either.
It is a principle of the Westminster system of government, on which the Australian political system is based, that the executive branch of government is responsible to the lower house of parliament (the House of Representatives). The blocking of a supply bill by the upper house (the Senate) to force an election makes the executive responsible to the upper house, and is clearly against the conventions on which the Australian political system are based.
The Powers of the Governor-General
A literal reading of the Australian Constitution would lead you to think that the position of Governor-General is one of the most powerful in the Australian political system. The Governor-General has the power to dismiss governments, dissolve parliament, and refuse to give assent to any acts passed by parliament. By convention, however, the Governor-General acts only on the advice of the Prime Minister.
Sir John Kerr, prior to dismissing Whitlam as Prime Minister, consulted with Malcolm Fraser on what he would do if appointed Prime Minister by Kerr. In consulting with the leader of the opposition, and in dismissing the Prime Minister, Kerr was clearly not acting on the advice of the Prime Minister.
Kerr was not entirely consistent in taking a literal reading of the Constitution. According to a literal reading of the Constitution, the Governor-General is the Queen's representative in Australia. As the Queen's representative, it could be argued that he should have consulted with the Queen and asked her advice. He never did this, and it has been revealed recently by the Queen's secretary at the time that the Queen was disappointed with her representative's actions and, had she been asked, would probably have advised against his taking the actions he did.