UK High Commissioner Morrice James on the Whitlam Dismissal 1975

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I have blogged in the past about the files at the National Archives in London revealing the British attitudes towards the ‘constitutional crisis’ of 1975, when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr after the Liberals, under the leadership of Malcolm Fraser, refused to pass supply bills in the Senate. When I was last in the UK, I photographed the three files that I had previously mentioned and am finally getting the chance to have a look at the documents, which seems timely with the recent death of Whitlam and the 39th anniversary of ‘The Dismissal’. The document I have decided to blog about is a report for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the crisis by the UK High Commissioner in Australia at the time, Morrice James. Written in late November 1975 under the title, ‘The Australian Constitutional Crisis, 1975’, James outlined the events leading up to the dismissal and wrote about the possible implications it would have for the future. He concluded his report with this paragraph:

It helps to illuminate, I think, the real responsibility for the lamentable dramas of the past few weeks in Canberra. Certainly the naked ambition for power of Mr. Fraser, and the obduracy of Mr. Whitlam, have contributed to the crisis; and it is impossible to dismiss completely the suspicion that Sir John Kerr’s judgment has been open to question. But the real villain, if there is a villain at all, has been the inherent contradictions of the Australian Constitution… Was it ever really a practical possibility to combine an Upper House on the American model, in which all the states are represented equally irrespective of population, and having a broadly the same powers as those of the Lower House, with a Westminster style of relationship between the executive and legislative branches, in which by convention the possession of a majority in the Lower House confers the right to form the Government and to govern as long as the majority lasts? It is this attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable which the Australian Constitution enshrines. If the contradiction has only now led to a major political upheaval , the reason is that hitherto Australian leaders have respected , not just the letter of the Constitution, but also the spirit of the unwritten conventions concerning the exercise of power which breathe vitality into written documents… The moral is that sooner or later a reliance on the discreetness of members of the Chamber, and on their willingness to refrain from exercising their normal rights in the pursuit of power, is likely to come unstuck. I suppose it is a moral which those who depend more on unwritten convention than on written Constitutions ought, in their own interests, to ponder. 

James, earlier in the report, suggested that Senate needed to be seriously reformed or abolished and highlighted a potential problem that Australian governments have avoided for the last four decades, unwilling to indulge in the brinkmanship that Fraser did in 1975. But he also seemed to be suggesting that the Westminster system did not need an elected house of review, in line with conservative thinking in the UK at the time, alluding to the problems that might be faced if there was electoral reform in Britain.

Labour politicians feared that the dismissal of Whitlam gave the right ideas about how to subvert parliamentary democracy in the UK, with Tony Benn writing in Marxism Today in 1982:

If there were ever to be a right wing coup in Britain it would not be carried out by paratroopers landing in central London, as it once seemed they would land in Paris just before de Gaulle came to power, but by an attempt to repeat what happened to Gough Whitlam when the Governor-General dismissed him as Prime Minister.

But it would be interesting to see if conservatives in the UK saw the events of 1975 in Australia as a demonstration of why an elected (and more powerful) upper house was undesirable.

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