The facts of the Whitlam dismissal are more important than ever

The facts of the Whitlam dismissal are more important than ever

The facts of the Whitlam dismissal are more important than ever

Updated 11 November 2017, 7:35 AEDT

It's one of the most important events in Australia's political history.

The dismissal of the Whitlam government on November 11, 1975, is singularly important to Australian history.

Even now, this severe test of our democratic institutions is poorly grasped. Our haziness around the facts has led to many rationalising the dismissal. These rationalisations focus on Whitlam's personality, his alleged lack of strategy or claims that the government was "disintegrating anyway".

None of this is adequate — these rationalisations show a troublingly casual disregard for democratic process.

But facing the facts of our past can teach us how to better face the present. Without a clear grasp of the facts, our interpretations of political events are bound to go astray.

In a time of "fake news", it is crucial that we remain committed to the facts — whether they tell us what we want to hear or not.

Here are five facts you need to know to understand why Whitlam's dismissal matters.

1. The 'supply crisis' was actually over

In the weeks before Whitlam's dismissal, the Senate was frozen. The Liberal opposition were starving the government of funds by repeatedly deferring the vote on its money bills, creating a "supply crisis".

In response, Whitlam called a half-Senate election. Governor-general John Kerr agreed and was exchanging draft documentation with Whitlam — it was already being announced on ABC radio's PM program.

The Liberal Coalition had used the same strategy to block the government in 1974. In response, Whitlam had consulted with then governor-general Paul Hasluck and called an election. The money bills were passed as soon as the election was called.

This sequence was about to be repeated in 1975. Instead, Kerr "ambushed" Whitlam, dismissing him just hours after he announced the Senate election.

2. Kerr's second dismissal

After Kerr sacked Whitlam, the House of Representatives met in the afternoon. Kerr's newly-appointed prime minister Malcolm Fraser was defeated in a "no confidence" motion.

By the afternoon, the Senate passed supply, resolving the supply crisis.

Next, the Speaker of the House went to advise the governor-general that the House had no confidence in the Fraser government.

Kerr simply refused to see the Speaker or receive the motion of no confidence.

In short, he rejected the democratic role of the House of Representatives in the making and unmaking of governments.

This, argues historian Jenny Hocking, was "Kerr's second dismissal: the dismissal of the Parliament".

3. Kerr believed he had a green light from Buckingham Palace

Kerr's recently released papers show he was seeking advice on using the "reserve powers" to dismiss Whitlam long before was previously revealed.

This included consultations with Prince Charles, the Queen, and the Queen's private secretary, Martin Charteris.

The Palace offered to delay Kerr's recall to help the governor-general sack Whitlam before Whitlam could sack him.

The Palace didn't counsel Kerr to consult with Whitlam, nor did it contact Whitlam. Kerr took this as a green light.

4. Fraser and Kerr were in secret phone contact

Former Liberal Senate leader Reg Withers recently revealed that Kerr had already decided to act against Whitlam in the week before November 11 and Fraser was aware.

In utter disregard for our constitution and political conventions, the pair were in secret phone contact the week before the dismissal.

Their deception around this was sustained for decades.

5. Two High Court justices secretly advised Kerr

In an egregious breach of the separation of powers, Chief Justices Garfield Barwick and Anthony Mason advised how to dismiss a government.

Kerr's papers show Mason secretly advised him for months leading up to the dismissal, and both during and after it.

Mason even drafted a letter of dismissal for Kerr.

Mason's central role was unknown before the release of Kerr's papers.

Kerr and Barwick — a former Liberal minister — colluded to deceive the public.

By focusing attention on Barwick, they shielded Mason from public view.

Christopher Pollard teaches philosophy and sociology at Deakin University.