40 years ago on November 11, 1975 Gough Whitlam’s Labor government was dismissed from office by the Queen’s representative the Governor General. At a stroke, the carefully nurtured image of the Crown’s ‘impartiality’ was blown away and the naked class bias of the parliamentary system was exposed.
The vice-regal ‘coup’ against Labor was the culmination of a concerted campaign by big business through its puppets in the Liberal and National Parties and in the law courts. It was coupled with a viscous media campaign spearheaded by the Murdoch press.
After 23 years of conservative rule, Labor came to office in 1972 and began carrying through a number of modest reforms. But with the onset of world recession in 1975, the government faced relentless pressure from big business to abandon its policies. A virtual strike of capital was organised to bring the government to heel.
Labor’s demand for ‘national ownership’ of the lucrative mining sector aroused the most fury among the capitalist class. This election pledge, like the rest, was eventually diluted as Whitlam sought to reassure the capitalists of his government’s ‘responsibility’.
Labor began to echo the bosses calls for ‘sacrifice’ and ‘restraint’ from the working class but far from appeasing big business, this only served to embolden them. Sensing a mood of disappointment amongst the workers and a collapse in Labor support, they pressed home their advantage and opposition leader Malcolm Fraser announced that the Liberals would block the government’s financial supply bills in the Senate.
Whitlam decided there was no other recourse than to call a half Senate election in the hope of breaking the conservative stranglehold. It was precisely at that moment that the ‘constitutional’ powers of the monarchy, held in reserve under ‘normal’ conditions, were brought into play. When Whitlam visited the Governor General John Kerr to gain ‘royal assent’ for a half Senate election, Kerr informed him that he was sacked and that Fraser had been asked to replace him.
News of the sacking had spread and within hours a huge, angry crowd had massed outside parliament. There were mass meetings and walk outs in workplaces across the country. Tragically, in the days and weeks that followed, an historic opportunity was missed by the Labor Party and trade union leaders. The Australian Council of Trade Unions, led by Bob Hawke at the time, appealed for calm and an end to the strikes and demonstrations.
The issue at stake was not the ‘personal’ crimes of a maverick Governor General but the class nature of the state itself. The central question with which Labor needed to front the electorate was “who wields economic and political power?” The Labor Party and the trade union movement needed to explain that a programme of reforms could only be implemented if the power of big business, and its state – including the powers of the crown – were decisively broken.
That would require action in the parliament but more importantly it would need to be backed up by the full strength of the labour movement outside of parliament to abolish the anomalous and undemocratic post of Governor General, but also to break the vice-like grip of the multinationals over the Australian economy.
Labor’s confused and vague demand for ‘national ownership’ should have been resurrected as a clear call for public ownership, not merely of the mining sector but of all large industry and of the banking sector. Only on that basis could the sabotage of big business be thwarted and the vast riches of the Australian economy be freed to tackle the pressing economic problems that had beset the country.
Such a clear socialist explanation would have completely undercut the smear campaign of Fraser. who sought to equate Labor with unemployment, inflation and economic crisis. Without such a programme, the barrage of propaganda from the conservative parties and the press began to take effect. Fraser won the election of December 1975 with a landslide majority.
The Australian ruling class must consider themselves extremely fortunate that they were able to ride the storm unleashed by playing the ‘royal card’. The gamble paid off, on that occasion, because the leaders of the Labor Party and the trade unions squandered their opportunity, shying away from an all-out confrontation with capitalism.
One of the key lessons to take away from the events of 1975 is that weakness on the part of the labour movement only invites aggression from the bosses. The task today, as it was 40 years ago, is for working class people to build a political vehicle that does not shy away from its responsibilities – a party that seeks to replace capitalism rather than mange it on behalf of the bosses.
Labor and union leaders derail struggle
Whitlam came to power in 1972 on the back of strong social and trade union movements. By 1974, the number of days lost to strikes reached 2 million. Under pressure he was forced to pump millions of dollars into expanding universal healthcare, education and welfare.
Whitlam was re-elected in 1974 but the Liberal Party held a slim majority in the Senate. In 1975 Malcolm Fraser won the Liberal Party leadership and from then on the Liberals sought to undermine the Whitlam government by any means necessary.
The ‘loans affair’, in which the government sought to raise $4 billion for infrastructure projects from financiers in the Middle East, was the pretext that led to the Liberal s to block the budget in the Senate and withhold supply.
With a constitutional crisis looming, the Governor General intervened. On November 11, 1975 the Governor General John Kerr dismissed Whitlam and installed Malcolm Fraser as interim Prime Minister.
In the aftermath of the dismissal, hundreds of thousands of people stopped work and took to the streets throughout the country. In Melbourne an estimated 400,000 people went on strike and a huge rally was held in the City Square.
The Australian warned that further protests raised “the very real danger that people might seek to express their opinions violently rather than democratically through the ballot box”.
Both the Labor Party and the Australian Council of Trade Unions feared that a mass movement, outside of their control, could develop in response. Union leader Bob Hawke was concerned that if “people move for a general strike” it “could unleash forces in Australia which we have never seen before”.
Whitlam implored his supporters to “maintain your rage and enthusiasm for the [election] campaign”. Side by side with the union leaders the Labor Party derailed the struggle and channelled people’s anger off the streets and into the election campaign.
The strategy failed miserably and resulted in the biggest parliamentary landslide in Australian history. The Liberals won a 55 seat majority and in the years to follow the Fraser government wound back many of Whitlam’s reforms.
By Socialist Party reporters