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From The Socialist newspaper, 29 October 2014

Australia: when the Queen's representative sacked a government

Becci Heagney

Gough Whitlam, former Australian Prime Minister, has died at the age of 98. His time in government raises important concerns for the working class about so-called democracy under capitalism.

Whitlam led the Australian Labor Party (ALP) to power in 1972 after 23 years of Conservative government. Despite not being from the left-wing, trade union side of the party, he carried out important reforms under pressure from an increase in workers' struggle.

The reforms included: scrapping university tuition fees, equal pay legislation, the introduction of a universal health insurance scheme and the withdrawal of troops from South Vietnam. He reduced the voting age from 21 to 18 which involved a new generation in politics.


For all of this, he was undemocratically removed from power by the Governor-General John Kerr. The position of Governor-General is appointed, ironically by the Prime Minister, as the representative of the monarchy in Australia. They have similar 'reserve' powers to the Queen in Britain, including the power to appoint or dismiss ministers, to dissolve parliament and to give assent (or refuse assent) to laws.

The Governor-General is head of the Federal Executive Council, a body which consists of all current and past government ministers and legally enacts the policies of the Cabinet, which actually has no legal power at all. They are also the head of the armed forces.

By 1974, a constitutional crisis was developing. The ALP had a majority in the parliament, the House of Representatives, but the Liberal-Country Party coalition (an alliance of right-wing parties) controlled the upper house, the Senate. The Liberals, led by Malcolm Fraser, were using their majority to block bills.

During 1975 they refused to pass the budget Supply Bill, which meant that the government was not receiving money to function. The deadlock apparently went as far as the government only having enough money to last two more weeks.

It was then that the Governor-General struck, dissolved parliament, removed Whitlam from power and appointed Fraser Prime Minister. A vote of no confidence by ALP MPs, who still had a majority in the House of Representatives until a general election, was ignored.


Instantly, Australia was rocked by outrage. Thousands of civil servants in Canberra took strike action and a huge protest was held outside parliament in support of the ALP. In Melbourne, dockers protested. Fraser was physically attacked as he left parliament. Unfortunately, Whitlam failed to mobilise this resistance and lost the following election.

The 'reserve' powers of the monarchy and the Queen's representatives in the Commonwealth will be used against democratically elected governments if they think that it is necessary, especially left wing ones. Whitlam didn't carry out radical socialist policies but he went too far for the Australian ruling class. Revelations since show the involvement of both MI6 and the CIA in the run up to the dismissal, just a couple of years after a violent CIA-backed coup in Chile.

Working class

They weren't worried about what Whitlam was doing, but about the rising confidence of working class people - Whitlam wasn't trusted to hold that back. More recently, in 2008 the Governor-General in Canada suspended a minority conservative government to allow it to avoid a vote of no confidence from the opposition.

The position of Governor-General should be scrapped - along with all other undemocratic 'reserve' powers, they can be used against the workers' movement if it is seen as a threat to their system.

The monarchy and other feudal relics have no place in a democratic society and should be abolished. The workers movement must be prepared to fight for genuine democracy - a socialist society.

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In The Socialist 29 October 2014:

Socialist Party news and analysis

Millions robbed by greedy bosses

Capitalism - 'the new mediocre'

Record numbers of workers suffering poverty pay

NHS: More cuts planned

Our health is not a game!

Scottish Labour in crisis

Them & Us

Socialist history

Lessons from history: 1917 Revolution in Russia

Australia: The sacking of a government

International socialist news and analysis

Building a political alternative in Seattle

Socialist Party workplace news

Support FBU pension strikes: Save our fire service

St Mungo's Broadway workers discuss next action

Sheffield recycling workers to start indefinite action

Ritzy workers threatened with redundancy

Fighting for better pay for workers

Wales colleges: Vote 'yes' in pay strike consultation

NASUWT members strike at Swinton High School

Workplace news in brief

Socialist Party reports and campaigns

Leicester holds historic People's Budget talks

Southwark Labour demolishes homes

Donate for socialism!

Readers' comments and reviews

Film review: On the streets of Belfast in 1971

Red Dylan Thomas


Bill Webster 1941-2014

Ronnie Sookhdeo 1946-2014


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