"...not everyone is aware that there is a precedent for the Crown to sack a sitting Prime Minister..."Whenever the prospect of a hung parliament comes to mind (and given the many column inches and acres of cyberspace that must be filled in the run-up to an election, it always does), the question of the Queen’s constitutional role is never far behind. If there is no outright winner, must she summon the leader of the single largest party? Or (if it is not one and the same person) must she allow the sitting Prime Minister the opportunity to seek to form a government (of all the persuadable talents)?
But not everyone is aware that there is a precedent for the Crown to sack a sitting Prime Minister, despite his being duly elected and able to command a majority in the lower house, and to install the leader of the opposition in his place. The luckless victim of this manoeuvre was the venerable Gough Whitlam (then Prime Minister of Australia and Leader of the Australian Labor Party) and the lucky beneficiary, Malcolm Fraser, leader of Australia’s Liberals (i.e. Conservatives) and one of a small but distinguished band of politicians to have lost his trousers in mysterious circumstances.
The story is one of labyrinthine complexity, bad timing and enough duplicity to make even Machiavelli blush. Following a death and a resignation in the upper house (the Senate), Whitlam’s government no longer had control and the opposition was refusing to vote supply. Whitlam had already lost his Treasurer, Jim Cairns, who was accused of trying to negotiate an off-the-books loan of petro-dollars from the Middle East and of having an affair with his outrageously glamorous private secretary, Julie Morosi. The Queen’s representative in Australia then (as now) was the Governor-General; at that time, Sir John Kerr. On 11th November, 1975, at the beginning of a meeting requested by Prime Minster Whitlam and held at the Governor-General’s residence (a few minutes drive from the parliament building in Canberra), Kerr dismissed Whitlam. Fraser was waiting in an adjoining room. He was immediately commissioned as Prime Minster, returned to parliament, had supply voted through the Senate (before the Labor Party knew what had happened), secured the dissolution of parliament and the calling of fresh elections which his party duly won. On the steps of Parliament House, Whitlam delivered (entirely off the cuff) the most famous speech in Australia’s political history: ‘Well may we say “God save the Queen”, because nothing will save the Governor-General'. Kerr was indeed left a broken man. He resigned in 1977 and died in 1991.
Could it happen here? Probably not. Although Fraser’s tactics were unconventional, the Senate had a sort of popular mandate that the House of Lords could never claim. Did it change anything? Well, it certainly brought to a close what was by some way the most exciting period in Australia’s political history. It made Gough a folk hero (for some at least) and Fraser a pariah (for the same folk). Many thought it would hasten the coming of the Republic; but that is still awaited. Above all, it gave Labor the will to play as hard and dirty as its opponents. Under Hawke and Keating, Labor was to turn Fraser out of office (in 1983) and to go on to win five consecutive general elections. There’s a lesson Labour would like to have learned.
Professor Chris Pierson