[Underlined header:] AUSTRALIAN HIGH COMMISSION, LONDON
INTERNATIONAL MESSAGE [end header.]
O.CH288818 1205 13.11.75 UNC
FM. [From] CANBERRA /
[Stamped in black ink: ‘PRIORITY’, ‘DISTRIBUTION’, ‘ACTION: H. C.’, ‘INFM’N: [information] HC DHC MIN OS’.]
FOR HIGH COMMISSIONER FROM THE SECRETARY.
PLEASE PASS THE FOLLOWING LETTER FROM THE HON, G.G.D. SCHOLES, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, TO HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN.
[Handwritten:] 2. THE ORIGINAL LETTER FOLLOWS BY BAG. [end handwritten.]
12 NOVEMBER 1975
I AM COMPELLED BY EVENTS INVOLVING YOURSELF THROUGH YOUR REPRESENTATIVE IN AUSTRALIA, HIS EXCELLENCY THE HONOURABLE SIR JOHN KERR, A.C., K.C.M.G., K.ST.J., Q.C., TO COMMUNICATE MY
CONCERN AT THE MAINTENANCE IN THE OFFICE OF THE PRIME MINISTER OF THE HON. MALCOLM FRASER, M.P. DESPITE HIS LACK OF MAJORITY SUPPORT IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES.
IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE DISMISSAL OF THE FORMER PRIME MINISTER, MR. WHITLAM, AND MR. FRASER’S APPOINTMENT, THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES CARRIED A RESOLUTION EXPRESSING WANT OF CONFIDENCE IN THE GOVERNOR-GENERAL’S NOMINEE AND REQUESTING THE RE-INSTATEMENT OF THE FORMER PRIME MINISTER IN WHOM THE HOUSE EXPRESSED CONFIDENCE.
I AM SERIOUSLY CONCERNED THAT THE FAILURE OF THE GOVERNOR-GENERAL TO WITHDRAW MR. FRASER’S COMMISSION AND HIS DECISION TO DELAY SEEING ME AS SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES UNTIL AFTER THE DISSOLUTION OF THE PARLIAMENT HAD BEEN PROCLAIMED WERE ACTS CONTRARY TO THE PROPER EXERCISE OF THE ROYAL PREROGATIVE AND
CONSTITUTED AN ACT OF CONTEMPT FOR THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES. IT IS IMPROPER THAT YOUR REPRESENTATIVE SHOULD CONTINUE TO IMPOSE A PRIME MINISTER ON AUSTRALIA IN WHOM THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES HAS EXPRESSED ITS LACK OF CONFIDENCE AND WHO HAS NOT ON ANY SUBSTANTIAL RESOLUTION BEEN ABLE TO COMMAND A MAJORITY OF VOTES ON THE FLOOR OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES.
IT IS MY BELIEF THAT TO MAINTAIN IN OFFICE A PRIME MINISTER IMPOSED ON THE NATION BY ROYAL PREROGATIVE RATHER THAN THROUGH PARLIAMENTARY ENDORSEMENT CONSTITUTES A DANGER TO OUR PARLIAMENTARY SYSTEM AND WILL DAMAGE THE STANDING OF YOUR REPRESENTATIVE IN AUSTRALIA AND EVEN YOURSELF.
I WOULD ASK THAT YOU ACT IN ORDER TO RESTORE MR WHITLAM TO OFFICE AS PRIME MINISTER IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE EXPRESSED RESOLUTION OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES.
FOR YOUR MAJESTY’S INFORMATION I WOULD POINT OUT THAT SUPPLY WAS APPROVED BY THE SENATE PRIOR TO 2.25 P.M. MR FRASER ANNOUNCED THAT HE HAD BEEN COMMISSIONED AS PRIME MINISTER IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES AT 2.35 P.M. THE HOUSE EXPRESSED ITS VIEW AT 3.15 P.M. BY 64 VOTES TO 54. I SOUGHT AN AUDIENCE WITH THE GOVERNOR-GENERAL IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING THE PASSAGE OF THAT RESOLUTION. AN APPOINTMENT WAS MADE FOR ME TO WAIT ON THE GOVERNOR-GENERAL AT 4.45 P.M. THE GOVERNOR-GENERAL PROROGUED THE PARLIAMENT AT 4.30 P.M.
THE HOUSE EXPRESSED ITS VIEW AFTER THE PASSAGE OF THE SUPPLY BILLS AND WAS AND IS ENTITLED TO HAVE THAT VIEW CONSIDERED.
[Space for signature.]
XC. O.CH2888818 1205 126.96.36.1993 12 NOVEMBER 1975
2.25 P.M. 2.35 P.M. 3.15 P.M. 64 54 4.45 P.M. 3.30 P.M.
About this record
This document is a ‘priority’ letter for Her Majesty the Queen, sent from Gordon Scholes, the Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives, on the day following Prime Minister Whitlam’s dismissal on 11 November 1975. The letter was sent to the Queen by way of the Australian High Commissioner in London.
Scholes expresses his concern about the actions of Governor-General Sir John Kerr—not only for the dismissal but also for appointing the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser, as caretaker prime minister. Scholes requests that the Queen reinstate Whitlam to the office of Prime Minister, because he still retained the support of the House of Representatives.
- This letter was written the day after one of the most controversial events in Australian political history: when the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam—even though his government held a majority in the House of Representatives. It was the first time that an Australian Governor-General had used the Constitution’s reserve powers to dismiss an elected prime minister.
- Discretionary reserve powers allow the Governor-General of Australia to act against (or without the advice of) the prime minister. These powers are not written into the Constitution and their scope is open to interpretation. They have been used to refuse to dissolve federal parliament even when a prime minister had requested it (in 1904, 1905 and 1909); to dismiss a prime minister (in 1975); and to appoint a caretaker prime minister (in Malcolm Fraser, in 1975).
- The language in this letter has a stern and accusatory tone, which is unusual for an address to the Queen. This tone—together with his detailed timeline of events—show Scholes' concerns about the legitimacy of Kerr's actions.
- As Speaker of the House of Representatives, Scholes questions both the validity and the integrity of the Governor-General's use of his discretionary powers. Because Kerr has refused to see him, Scholes expresses his fear that the parliamentary system has been compromised.
- When he dismissed Whitlam, the Governor-General was trying to break a constitutional impasse. The Labor government had presented the Federal Budget to Parliament, but the Senate had refused to approve the supply of funding. The Senate could do this because it was controlled by a coalition of two opposition parties—the Liberal Party and the Country Party (now known as the Nationals)—and their allies.
- ‘Passing supply’ means agreeing to money or appropriation bills that form part of the budget process. Without ‘supply’, government programs and services cannot be delivered and the salaries of government employees (including the armed forces) cannot be paid. However, following well-established convention, the Senate had not previously refused to pass supply.
- In Australia it is a political convention that a government that cannot access supply must either resign or call an election. When Prime Minister Whitlam refused to resign, a political crisis emerged.
- Furious debate raged over the timing and ethics of the events, and Scholes' views gained support among some sections of the Australian community. However, his letter apparently had little influence on the Queen. In an official response (drafted on the her behalf), the Queen distanced herself from her Governor-General's actions, stating that there was no place for her involvement in an Australian political conflict.
- The Australian Constitution does not specify whether the prime minister must call an election if the Senate refuses to pass supply. However, section 57 allows for both houses of parliament—the Senate and the House of Representatives—to be dissolved at the same time.
- After Whitlam was dismissed, the Governor-General sent for Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser, who undertook to call a double-dissolution election. The election was held in December and—despite the anger and concerns expressed by Whitlam’s supporters—it resulted in a massive win for Fraser's coalition (Liberal Party and National Country Party) government.
Learning resource text © Education Services Australia Limited and the National Archives of Australia 2010.
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