Two Whitlam related dismissals in under a century
Words by Felix Eldridge
The Labor Party under the Prime Ministership of Gough Whitlam assumed office in 1972. His government was elected on a reformist and progressive agenda. He is remembered for making university degrees free, reforming the healthcare system and engaging in new diplomatic relations, such as Australia’s recognition of the Chinese Government before the United States. However, his rapid pace of reform raised many concerns. In response, the opposition leader Malcolm Fraser used his influence in the Senate to block supply bills so that the government could not spend money. In this deadlock between the two houses of Parliament the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, intervened by dismissing the government, as he believed, since it could not raise money, it could no longer ‘govern.’
It has been 42 years since the Constitutional Crisis in 1975, and another progressive institution with similar views to their namesake has also fallen. The recent de-registration of the Whitlam Club, good, bad or neutral depending on your viewpoint is rather ironic as it bears a striking resemblance to the ´dismissal’ of the Whitlam Government.
In this case, The Student Union’s Clubs’ Committee replaces the Governor General, and the Whitlam Club replaces the Whitlam Government. In both cases the outcome was a dismissal. In the former, the government’s inability to pass money bills through the upper house and in the later the breaching of the Clubs rules. To whit being ‘too similar to the Labor Club’ and merely differentiated on ‘factional lines.’ What is striking about the parallels is the broad spectrum of potential arguments over validity and motivation.
Labour supporters would argue that Sir Kerr’s action was wrong and his decision to ask the leader of the opposition for advice was bordering on criminal. In a similar fashion present Labour Left supporters are asking if the Committee’ decision was motivated by an altruistic desire to meet the exact wording of a constitutional by line or to gain partisan advantage? Three out of the five members of the Clubs Committee were elected on the conservative ‘Progress’ platform, including the AUU President Brodie Scott. In this case, both ‘Progress’ and the Liberal Party had the most to gain. The Liberal Party gained government at the subsequent election. The conservative members of the Committee would rid themselves of a rival organization, while diluting the influence of the left by spreading it to the centre and extremes. However, if this was the plan, it might backfire. The probable union of the two wings of Labor could lead to the creation of a stronger and more formidable Labor Party Club.
Regardless of your politics, the old saying that ‘history repeats itself’ seems pointedly apt, and to former Whitlam club members, bitter too.