The dismissal of Gough Whitlam on 11 November 1975 sparked public backlash, the likes of which had not been seen in Australia since the Depression.

Millions of words have been said and written in condemnation and justification of the actions of the key players in the dismissal.

Excluding only the invasion of the British in 1788, it remains the most contentious episode in the country’s political history, the moment when Australia’s parliamentary democracy broke down—although even to say as much is debatable, since some argue today, as many did in 1975, that Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s actions were fundamentally democratic because they brought about an election.

Gough Whitlam speaks on the steps of Parliament House, Canberra, after his dismissal in 1975. Photo: Australian Information Service, National Library of Australia, PIC Box PIC/8128.

As Kerr himself told Queen Elizabeth’s private secretary Sir Martin Charteris, “I am sure I had to get the matter to the people. The historians and academics can argue about it for years.”

The Australian, in an editorial the day after the dismissal, professed to believe that Kerr’s actions, and his reasoned explanation of them, were “a major contribution to the way we run our affairs and the way in which our leaders should conduct themselves”. It saw both a role model in the governor-­general and a welcome precedent for future application in his behaviour.

By way of contrast, the events of November 1975 convinced the conservative Jim Killen that the country “could never again pass through such political turmoil without actual violence.”

While Australia’s stock exchanges “went berserk” at the news of the dismissal and “launched into the biggest buying spree” since the mining bubble of 1970, the events of 11 November raised the spectre of serious civil violence for the first time since the Depression.

The demonstrations in Canberra … were raucous but mainly peaceful. This was not so elsewhere.

A few streets away from Clark’s home in Canberra, a large and excited crowd assembled outside the parliament as news of the afternoon’s events filtered through the city. A young journalist, Niki Savva, described the scenes that followed Malcolm Fraser’s parliamentary announcement as “memorable, awesome and frightening”.

When Fraser walked down the building’s famous steps to visit Government House for the second time that day, he was loudly jeered, and several protesters did their best to punch him. Protesters yelled “Sieg Heil” to Coalition politicians and invited those watching from the upper balcony of the building to jump.

After the governor-­general’s official secretary, David Smith, made the formal announcement on the steps of parliament of the dissolution of both houses, ending with “God save the Queen!”, Gough Whitlam replied—amid loud cheering—”Well may he say ‘God save the Queen’, because nothing will save the governor-­general.”’ He added that the proclamation had been countersigned by Malcolm Fraser, who would henceforth be recalled as “Kerr’s cur”. The scene and words have become emblematic not just of a dramatic day, but of an era, and the shattering of its dreams.

Malcolm Fraser leaves Parliament House, Canberra, after his appointment as caretaker prime minister. Photo: Australian Information Service, National Library of Australia, PIC Box PIC/5885.

The demonstrations in Canberra—which extended to Government House, where protesters lowered the flag to half-­mast—were raucous but mainly peaceful. This was not so elsewhere. A pro-­Whitlam protest in Melbourne at Liberal Party headquarters on the afternoon of the dismissal ‘erupted into one of the most violent demonstrations ever seen in the city’—according to The Australian—as protesters clambered over police cars and “kicks and punches were freely given”.

Police were “led from the taunting crowd bleeding from head wounds and with their shirts torn”. A police wagon drove through the melee, knocking down protesters and police, while a horse repeatedly used to charge through the protesters was “battered with sticks and stones.”

Glaziers refused to fix the broken windows of the party offices. “Each time they are asked to repair them, they just can’t quite seem to bring themselves to do it,” a helpful Furnishing Trades Society secretary explained.

On the day following the dismissal, a rally in Brisbane’s King George Square of about three thousand Whitlam supporters—mainly striking unionists—erupted into wild brawls with the small coterie of Liberals present. Speakers condemned Kerr the traitor, Fraser the fascist and Joh Bjelke-­Petersen, “that mad Dane”. Later in the bitter election campaign, letter bombs exploded in the Queensland premier’s department, injuring public servants.

Some called for a general strike, as many unionists walked off the job on the afternoon of 11 November to attend hastily organised rallies. Hundreds of thousands went on strike in the days that followed. But Bob Hawke, doubling as president of the ALP and the Australian Council of Trade Unions, resisted calls for a general strike and preached calm.

Strong passions were in evidence at pro-­Whitlam protest rallies, as well as at demonstrations in support of Fraser. New members flooded into the Labor Party. The secretary of the Armidale branch in northern New South Wales reported to head office that she was receiving a deluge of membership applications. Fifteen had already joined and there were more than 30 other requests with “no doubt more to come. I feel it is important to issue these people with tickets immediately, so that their involvement with the ALP will last into next year.”

There was perhaps recognition here that maintaining the rage, as Whitlam had urged, was easier said than done.

This is an edited extract from Dreamers and Schemers: A Political History of Australia by Professor Frank Bongiorno (La Trobe University Press)

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