|Title:||Letter to Gough Whitlam from Sir John Kerr dismissing him as Prime Minister, 1975|
|Content creator:||Governor-General Sir John Kerr|
|Keywords:||Dismissal, prime ministers, governors, government, Constitutional law, letters (texts), Letter of Dismissal|
|Record creator:||Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet|
This is the letter that Governor-General Sir John Kerr handed to Gough Whitlam terminating his appointment as Prime Minister of Australia on 11 November 1975. The document, written on the Governor-General's letterhead, explains that due to the Prime Minister's unwillingness to resign or call an election, he has decided to 'determine' the commission of Whitlam and his ministers and appoint the leader of the opposition to head a caretaker government until elections are held. The letter identifies Section 64 of the Australian Constitution as the means that enable him to do this.
This letter is the key document in what many regard as the most dramatic event in Australian political history–the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. It is the formal document of dismissal and was handed to Whitlam when he met the Governor-General at 1.00pm on 11 November at Government House in Canberra. Whitlam had intended to discuss a recommendation he had planned to put to the Governor-General that a Senate half-election be called. The discussion was pre-empted by the letter.
In his letter, Kerr advanced the legal argument that powers granted to him under Section 64 of the Australian Constitution meant he could determine (decide the fate of) the commission of his ministers, including the Prime Minister. Specifically, Section 64 states that 'the Governor-General may appoint officers to administer such departments of State of the Commonwealth as the Governor-General in Council may establish'.
Kerr later cited advice from the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia Sir Garfield Barwick as a major factor in making his decision. Barwick wrote to Kerr on 10 November stating that the Governor-General had the authority to withdraw Whitlam's commission. Some legal experts on the Constitution have subsequently expressed doubt that the reserve power of Section 64 does in fact enable the governor-general to dismiss a government with a majority in the House of Representatives.
In the letter to Whitlam, Kerr proposed to commission Malcolm Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister and this is what followed. Fraser immediately took steps to use the opposition Liberal-Country Party coalition's numbers in the Senate to have Supply (the budget bills) passed, thus breaking the deadlock and ending the financial crisis. Both houses of parliament were simultaneously dissolved and a general election called. In the election, held on 13 December 1975, the coalition secured a very large majority.
The termination of Whitlam's commission was the culmination of events beginning in October 1975. The refusal of the Senate to vote on the government's budget bills had resulted in a deadlock between it and the House of Representatives. The Coalition was able to block Supply in the Senate with the support of two non-Labor senators who had recently been appointed to vacated Labor seats. In justifying this unprecedented action, Malcolm Fraser claimed that the Labor Party was unfit to govern, citing as evidence the ‘Loans Affair’ – the Whitlam government’s attempts to raise $4 billion in foreign loans.
Kerr had been appointed Governor-General on 27 February 1974, and despite the controversy surrounding the dismissal, he remained in the role until 1977. Whitlam led the opposition until 1977. Both men argued that their own positions on the dismissal had been correct. Whitlam has consistently maintained he was the victim of a conspiracy that subverted the parliamentary principle that governments are made and unmade in the House of Representatives.
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