The Coup d’état: The Whitlam Dismissal

whitlam   fraserkerr


Gough Whitlam was a visionary. The Whitlam Government not only reshaped Australian society but Australia’s relationship with the world. Yet his radical approach to politics, the awful alignment of the crashing economy, many political scandals and an opposition leader out for his job, led to a rocky Prime Minister-ship for Gough Whitlam.

The political overthrow that occurred in 1975 created a lot of controversy, which historians have debated about for decades. Particularly when assessing the culpability of Malcolm Fraser, the opposition leader and Sir John Kerr, the Governor General. The key to 1975 lies in the personalities and characters of Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Sir John Kerr.

Malcolm Fraser was thorough and accurate at attacking the Whitlam government. However, often the Whitlam government created many problems for itself. Scandals rocked the political scene and contained two elements that created a press frenzy; sex and money. Self –inflicted political wounds such as the Loans Affair and the Morosi Affair led to the downward spiral of the Whitlam government. Malcolm Fraser whilst was judged as being ruthless and tough competitor, historians surmised that Fraser was mostly doing his job and merely benefited greatly from the fallout of the dismissal of Gough Whitlam. Despite Fraser’s precision offensive, the political issues boiled down to a constitutional crisis for which Sir John Kerr determined the verdict. Wayne Reynolds stated that Whitlam’s dismissal was ‘ultimately the outcome of a constitutional deadlock’ that was set up but the dramatic events earlier in 1975. This constitutional crisis was to be determined by Sir John Kerr.

Historians have debated the culpability of Sir John Kerr. Sir John Kerr’s actions and decisions have been clouded in controversy and constitutional loopholes. The importance of role however, was defined by the Governor – General’s reserve powers. However, there is a large discrepancy about the use and functions of these reserve powers. When examining the constitution it becomes evidently clear of the allusiveness and vagueness of the duties and obligations of the Governor – General. This in-exactitude of the Constitution has created this dispute between the rights and roles of the Governor – General and his obligations to his Prime Minister.

If Kerr was guilty of anything it was the blatant disregard for his Prime Minister and his duty to inform the Queen. Kerr exercised the powers in secret, in ambush while the Queen slept.

It is this secrecy that Whitlam and many others have criticized for years. Whitlam has repeatedly said that at all stages Kerr had failed to counsel and warn. Yet, I.C.F.Spry defends Kerr’s actions as Kerr according to Spry had no legal obligations to inform Whitlam of his intentions. When examining the Australia constitution, there is no mention of the Governor- General’s obligation to inform his Prime Minister. However, there is what many have referred to as conventions. When reading the documents that accompany the constitution, there are a wide range of Constitutional Conventions that exist and play a fundamental part in the Parliament/Executive Government relations.

Although, it is acknowledged that these are not universally agreed to, the Constitutional Conventions are of great significance in the exercise of the reserve powers of the Crown. Particularly when exercising the dissolution power as Kerr did. As Professor Gordon Reid states, it is well known that Australia’s written Constitution is silent on many important aspects of government, which in reality this void is filled in by well- established practice, methods and habits, many of which are long standing and are vaguely referred to as conventions of the Constitution. Therefore to ignore the importance of these conventions that so many held to a high standard can be seen as unscrupulous.

Majority of historians have assessed the largest culpability to Sir John Kerr. Sir John Kerr is considered to be the biggest component in the demise of the Whitlam Government. Historians have discussed the forethought and planning that Kerr did, with the help of his confidants, in the lead up to the dismissal of Whitlam. As Jenny Hocking surmised Kerr’s role now becomes clearer; his planning lengthier, more extensive and more deceptive than previously imagined. Whilst Kerr was constitutionally able to dismiss Whitlam, the constitutional conventions which were considered to be withheld at the time were ignored. Kerr is still considered to be the executioner of the Whitlam Government.

39 years later and we are not much wiser about the dismissal of Gough Whitlam…

To make your judgement, have a look at these:
I.C.F. Spry, “Tribalism and Hypocrisy: The Whitlam Dismissal of 1975,” National Observer Issue 39 (1997)

Michael Sexton, The Great Crash: The Short Life and Sudden Death of the Whitlam Government (Victoria: Scribe, 2005)

Wayne Reynolds, “(Mis) Adventures in Brinkmanship: Whitlam and the Governor – General,” in The Great Mistakes of Australian History, ed. Martin Crotty and David Andrew Roberts (Sydney: UNSW Press Book, 2006)

“The Australian Constitution in Power, Practice and Procedure,” Parliament of Australia, available from

“Power, Practice and Procedure,” Parliament of Australia, available from


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