Today is former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s 95th birthday. Whitlam became Prime Minister in December 1972 and was eventually toppled, not by the Liberal/National opposition, but by then-Governor-General of Australia Sir John Kerr who sacked him on Remembrance Day 1972.
Whitlam’s short term in office was one of the most unstable moments in Australian political history, and was the first true test to the Australian hybrid system of government.
The “constitutional crisis” which surrounded Whitlam’s dismissal was a clash between the unwritten conventions of the Westminster system and the written constitution of Australia, which is required to make the Australian Federation work.
Sir John Kerr broke many conventions when dismissing Whitlam, especially the convention that the Governor-General should consult with the Prime Minister on important matters. I argue that Kerr also broke the law of the Constitution of Australia by consulting with a member of the High Court – a move which is questionable under the separation of powers described in section one of the constitution.
This was not the first time that convention had been broken for the Labor MP; in fact, right from the moment that Whitlam entered Parliament he was subject to breaches of convention. When delivering his maiden speech to the parliament in 1953 after the Werriwa by-election, Whitlam was interrupted by John “Black Jack” McEwen. Maiden speeches are, by convention, heard in silence.
The political instability of the early- to mid-1970s was, to say the least, a scary realisation that Australia’s democracy is far from perfect. But what is the alternative? One of the strange side-effects of anti-communism in Australia is that any non-democratic system of government is hardly considered by the population.
Although any future Governors-General are unlikely to dismiss a Prime Minister, we’re not out of the woods yet in proving the worth of Australian democracy.
I was watching a sitting of the House of Representatives last week, where the house became rowdy so quickly that Speaker Harry Jenkins was forced to stand and issue a general warning after only five minutes of sitting time. The rest of the sitting saw Jenkins throw out five opposition members, nearly throw out the opposition leader and yell for silence at both sides of the chamber.
Once again, we are lucky that there is not a strong alternative to democracy in Australia as, given how much of a rabble our Parliament has started to become, it would be difficult to defend the functionality of our system at present.
Although there is some fun about Australia’s parliament and how parliamentarians interact, when there are clear breaches of standing orders for the sake of TV news bites and attempts to stall parliamentary proceedings to force an extra sitting week it has gone too far. Everyone should be thankful that we have no rival ideology.
©2011 William Kulich.