Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Gough Whitlam 1916-2014

Gough Whitlam is probably the most intensely studied of all Australian Prime Ministers, not just in his home country but around the world. In just three years he brought sweeping changes to Australia, whether in education, health, foreign affairs, relations with indigenous Australians, the government of the Northern Territory and so much more. Even the Queen's title was changed to be more Australian.

It is in constitutional affairs that Whitlam attracts much global attention. Literally from its very first moment to its very last his government saw precedents broken and argument ensued. Rather than wait the customary period to assemble a full ministry and take office, he instead had himself and his deputy sworn into no less than twenty-seven different posts just a few days after winning the 1972 election in order to hit the ground running and immediately start implementing the government's agenda. Over the next few years more precedents would be broken and the two sides of Australian politics would fiercely argue over what practices were fundamental constitutional conventions and which were optional agreements to be set aside as and when.

Throughout its three year life the Whitlam government struggled with a hostile majority in the Senate. More legislation was blocked in three years than in the entire preceding seventy-two years of the Australian federation. Not even a "double dissolution" - a full election of all seats in both houses - resolved the gridlock beyond a few individual bills being passed (though they included the introduction of universal health care). How casual Senate vacancies were filled became another battleground with both sides crying foul about particular vacancies in Queensland. And then the Senate obstructed Supply, leading to Whitlam's dramatic dismissal by the Governor General Sir John Kerr on 11 November 1975. (The above picture is of Kerr's Private Secretary, David Smith, reading out the proclamation of the dissolution of Parliament in less than ideal circumstances with Whitlam literally glaring over his shoulder.)

Beyond the personalities and the use of the reserve powers of the Governor General, the Dismissal was a struggle over competing visions of how parliamentary democracy works in an elected bicameral system. It was more than just a dispute over the specific issue of both houses having powers over supply - the Senate was blocking much other legislation as well - and went to the heart of democracy and mandates. Did a government with a solid majority in the House of Representatives have the right to govern or did the Senate have the right to veto bring it down? Which democratically elected body was more democratically elected? Was it right for an upper house to demand an early election just because the political wind was blowing the opposition's way? Those considering elections for the British House of Lords would do well to look at the struggle between the Senate and House of Representatives in the Whitlam era to see how conventions are not enough to prevent check & balance powers being used for naked partisan aims.

The disputes about 1975 will last forever. Whitlam is probably arguing about it with Kerr right now. On this mortal coil we must look to see how these messes can be avoided.

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