The Dismissal---25th Anniversary
Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the dismissal of Gough Whitlam's Labor government by the then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. This momentous event cast a long and destructive shadow over Australian political life, ushering in seven years of aimless Coalition rule under Malcolm Fraser, and many more years of Labor bitterness about its abrupt loss of power at the hands of Kerr and Fraser.
It was triggered by the determination of the conservative controlled Senate to defer the money supply bill until Whitlam agreed to an election for the House of Representatives. By November 1975, economic mismanagement and a series of scandals had so overwhelmed the Whitlam government that it was almost certain to lose such an election. So it held out in the hope that the Senate would back down, causing government business to come to a virtual standstill in the process.
Although legal, the Senate's decision to block supply went against a long-standing parliamentary convention, and conservatives claimed to respect such conventions. Worse, the conservative parties only controlled the Senate because the sudden death of Queensland Labor Senator Bert Milliner had allowed Premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson to appoint a lackey to take his place. That too was legal, but it was still a sleazy act.
Labor's rage over the dismissal now seems to have petered out amongst all but the most ardent believers. But for many years Fraser was blithely characterised as a 'fascist' by stalwarts on the left, and in graffiti and political posters denouncing him they would usually substitute a swastika for the 's' in his name. This was particularly contemptible, given that Fraser appeared to be genuinely hostile to racism.
So in 1975 no-one would have predicted that the ultimate denouement of that shocking November day would come with Malcolm Fraser being anointed as a latter day Whitlamite, fondly regarded as a national treasure and man of principle by the very people who formerly despised him as a ruthless and arrogant opportunist.
A bill of rights; an apology and compensation for the 'stolen generations'; deference to partisan United Nations sub-committees that denounce Australia---Fraser's advocacy of these and many similar positions has allowed him to become a denizen of that exalted place, the progressives' moral high ground.
Only two months ago the great Gough himself told the world that Fraser had become a 'vastly improved man'. 'I can't think of anything he's said in the last 10 years with which I did not agree', said Whitlam of his former adversary. And in a recent interview Fraser claimed that Kim Beazley has told him, 'Malcolm, I'm finding it very difficult to find an issue on which I'm more to the left than you'.
In retrospect however, Fraser's apparent transformation is not so surprising.
Even though the Coalition parties achieved a landslide victory in the Federal election held a few weeks after the dismissal---and a victory that was only marginally smaller in the 1977 election---progressive opinion never really accepted that the Fraser government had a rightful claim to govern. In their eyes Fraser had initially come to power through a 'coup', with some of the more unbalanced and conspiratorially minded members of the left even believing that the CIA had played a significant part in his triumph.
Fraser would never have doubted that every aspect of his accession to government was constitutional. But at some level he was obviously affected by the relentless assault on his authority coming from newly politicised sections of academia, the arts, the media and the churches. He must have accepted that there were at least some grounds for Labor's anger about the way he came to power, and felt a sense of guilt that had to be assuaged.
Had he really been motivated by a high-minded desire to rescue Australia from the economic and social damage that Whitlam had wrought, Fraser would have sought his redemption by acting in accord with the principles he espoused in the lead up to the dismissal and in the election campaign that followed.
He would have reduced the size and cost of government, as well as restraining the Whitlam inspired enthusiasm for government instigated and taxpayer funded social engineering. There was little to hinder him---he had a massive popular mandate for his first two terms, and for much of his rule the Coalition held the majority in both houses of Parliament.
But Fraser tried to gain his moral deliverance through a very different route, by adopting many of the positions of his adversaries. In doing so, he showed that their initial assessment had been right. He was not really a man of principle at all, but a vain opportunist interested in power only for its own sake.
As former Labor Finance Minister Peter Walsh has pointed out, at the end of Fraser's seven years in power government outlays were much higher in real terms than they had been under Whitlam. And the Fraser government adopted a raft of counter-productive Whitlamite follies---a divisive multiculturalism; a worthless human rights commission; Aboriginal policies based on sentimental fantasies about traditional communities rather than recognising Aborigines as responsible individuals who had to come to terms with modern life.
No doubt these would eventually have been introduced anyway, under later Labor administrations---although at least Hawke and Keating carried out a number of necessary economic reforms that Fraser had shirked. But the fact that Whitlamite social and cultural policies had been introduced by a conservative government enhanced their legitimacy, and made it more difficult for later conservative politicians to dismantle them or even question their value. Australia paid a high price for Malcolm Fraser's grab for power twenty-five years ago.