What was The Dismissal?

'The Dismissal' is a term that has come into general use since 1975, to describe the termination of the elected Whitlam ALP Government by the then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. The event came as the culmination of one of the most tension-filled years in Australian political history. The Whitlam Government, elected in 1972 after 23 years of Liberal rule, was dealing with an economic downturn and facing considerable criticism following a number of scandals. Its ability to govern was also destabilised by the fact that it lacked a clear majority in the Senate.

In 1975, following the death of an ALP Senator and his replacement with a conservative politician, the ALP lost control of the Senate. The way was now open for opposition leader Malcolm Fraser to do what he had promised to do if 'extraordinary and reprehensible circumstances' existed: block the passage of money bills through the Senate.

Whitlam tried to tough it out but Kerr stepped in on November 11 and withdrew Whitlam's commission to form a government. He installed Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister and called for a full election of both Houses of Parliament on December 13.

The events of 1975 caused enormous controversy at the time and there is still bitter dispute about the political and moral correctness of the decisions that were made.

Examine a visual source

The governor-general's secretary reads the notice dissolving parliament 11 November 1975, with Gough Whitlam, the sacked prime minister, looking on

Look at this photograph taken on the steps of Parliament House several hours after the dismissal of Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister (p 199).

  • What can you learn or guess about the event and its significance from:
    – the expression on Whitlam's face and his general demeanour?
    – the dress and expressions of most people in the photograph?
    – the presence of so many journalists' microphones?
  • What further evidence or information would you require before you could make a more reliable judgement about the attitudes of the key participants in this event?
  • After you have completed this unit, revisit your response to this photograph and assess the accuracy of your responses.

Introduction | What was 'The Dismissal'? | How did the crisis develop? | How was the crisis resolved? | Assessment tasks and Additional resources