Commemoration of the events of 1975 reaches its apex today. Labor
frontbencher Lindsay Tanner, writing in The Australian,
“expresses bemusement at the blanket nostalgia-tinged coverage”: “I’ve
reluctantly come to the conclusion it’s time we got over it.”
He’s right; the dismissal is history, and we should be able to look at
it with some historical detachment. We could start by recognising that
the polemical positions taken on both sides are untenable, and that any
reasonable verdict will award blame all around. So here’s my take on
what a compromise assessment might amount to.
First, Fraser was wrong to block supply when he did. The circumstances
weren’t extreme enough to justify it; with the departure of Cairns and
Connor, the government was actually starting to get its act together a
bit. The move was unnecessary, because the next election was going to
be a walkover anyway, and it poisoned Fraser’s subsequent government.
Second, given that supply had been blocked, Whitlam was wrong to try to
tough it out. It’s basic to constitutional government that you can’t
govern without parliamentary appropriation of funds, and subverting
that principle cut away Whitlam’s high ground. He had done the right
thing in 1974 by calling an election, and he should have done so again.
Third, the real constitutional problem that was exposed is the
governor-general’s lack of tenure. Kerr had to act secretly because he
knew he could be sacked with a single phone call; a governor-general
with more security could have warned Whitlam what he was thinking and
maybe arranged some sort of compromise. What happened was underhanded,
but we should blame the system, not Kerr personally.
Fourth, Labor took the wrong tack by focusing its election campaign on
Kerr’s action. The Senate’s obstruction was an electoral plus for
Labor; its poll ratings improved in the weeks before 11 November. But
that changed once the election was called. Whitlam’s obsessive campaign
against Kerr didn’t resonate with voters; it just looked as if he was
attacking the umpire instead of the other team – which is always a bad
move, even if the umpiring really has gone against you.