Demonstrations and strikes erupted throughout Australia within hours of the unprecedented dismissal of Labor party Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on November 11 by the queen’s representative, Governor General Sir John Kerr.
Kerr’s “coup” installed millionaire rancher Malcolm Fraser, leader of the conservative Liberal party-National Country party (L-NCP) coalition, as prime minister. He was commissioned to form a “caretaker” government until elections – scheduled for December 13 – are held for both houses of Parliament.
Thousands of workers downed tools as soon as they heard the news. Dockers around Australia went on a twenty-four-hour strike. Seamen walked off their ships in port, and the Seamen’s Union office was flooded with calls from ships at sea condemning Kerr’s action.
Workers at the railway workshops in Sydney and Newcastle went out, the state dockyards in Newcastle were shut down, and 1,500 workers walked off the job at the Whyalla shipyards.
More than 3,000 meat workers closed many plants throughout Queensland, and metalworkers and others in many individual factories also went on strike.
In Canberra thousands of civil servants stopped work in protest and demonstrated outside Parliament House. Nearly 1,000 demonstrators mobbed Fraser’s car as he left Parliament by a back door to be sworn in by the governor general.
In front of Parliament House 2,000 workers and students rallied to hear speeches by Whitlam and Bob Hawke, the president of the Labor party (ALP) and of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).
Whitlam led the crowd in singing “Solidarity Forever.” He told his supporters: “Maintain your rage and enthusiasm. You will have a Labor Government again.” But he also appealed for restraint.
The brunt of the task of holding back the furious workers fell to Hawke: “Let’s cool it as much as we can so the issues can be talked out in peaceful rallies and the like,” he said.
As many as 10,000 workers and students gathered in Melbourne’s City Square for a rally and march to Government House. About 1,500 demonstrators then marched on the Victorian Liberal party headquarters. Police attacked the demonstration, driving vehicles through the crowd to try to break it up.
In Sydney about 6,000 workers marched through the streets carrying signs calling for a general strike. Demonstrations also took place in Adelaide, Perth, and Brisbane that day.
‘Mockery of Democracy’
Twenty-seven days of political crisis preceded the action by the governor general, who was accused by Whitlam of having “made a mockery of democracy.”
On October 16 the Senate, the upper house in the Australian Parliament, refused to pass the Labor government’s annual budget. The conservative opposition in control of the Senate said it would block passage of the budget until Whitlam resigned and called an election for both houses.
This move cut off the supply of funds to government departments, and it appeared the government would run out of money to pay civil servants by November 27 unless one side backed down.
Traditionally, the party that holds a majority in the lower house, the House of Representatives, forms the government. The Labor party still holds a majority there.
According to the Australian constitution, the Senate cannot amend money bills. It does not specify whether it can reject them, but the tradition since Federation seventy-five years ago has been that it does not.
As for other bills that are rejected by a hostile Senate, the government has the option of calling a double dissolution of both houses and then putting the disputed bills to the vote at a joint sitting of the new Parliament.
The unprecedented L-NCP action in the Senate followed months of scandalmongering over the so-called loans affair. The scandal developed around attempts by the Labor government to borrow money from Arab countries through “unorthodox” channels in order to buy back Australia’s mineral resources from overseas companies.
Treasurer Dr. Jim Cairns and Minister for Minerals and Energy Rex Connor were caught making false statements to Parliament on the matter, and the ensuing publicity in the press led to their dismissal by Whitlam.
But the “loans affair” was merely a pretext for the opposition moves. Fraser wanted an election in order to take advantage of Whitlam’s plummeting popularity, with inflation soaring to almost 20 percent and unemployment at about 400,000, the worst since the Great Depression.
When Whitlam showed no signs of backing down and agreeing to a double dissolution, Kerr stepped in. The governor general, traditionally only a figurehead representative of the queen, dismissed Whitlam and commissioned Fraser to form a government.
Within a half hour the Senate passed the budget. In the House of Representatives, however, a motion of no confidence in the newly appointed government was passed by 64 to 54.
Kerr disregarded this and shortly after dissolved both houses of Parliament. He cited several previously deadlocked bills as grounds for the dissolution, and set general elections for December 13.
Whitlam hinted that if he were returned to office he would get rid of the governor general. In an angry tirade from the steps of Parliament House he played on the phrase “God Save the Queen” in Kerr’s proclamation dismissing him.
“He may well say, ‘God Save the Queen,’“ Whitlam shouted, “because no thing will save the Governor General.” Later, complaining that he was the first prime minister to be dismissed by the crown since King George III dismissed British Prime Minister Lord North 200 years ago, he said:
“No Prime Minister with a majority in the House of Representatives will ever have his commission withdrawn by the Governor General again.”
Workers Call for General Strike
Many workers reacted to the undemocratic dismissal of an elected Labor government by demanding that the ACTU organize a nationwide general strike.
The Federal Council of the Australian Building Construction Employees and Builders Laborers Federation called for an immediate general strike and the resignation of the governor general.
A federal organizer of the 13,500-member Waterside Workers Federation, T. Bull, protested the governor general’s interference in democratic processes. “If this process is to continue,” he said, “there will be a real groundswell of reaction from the trade union movement and the community.”
WWF Federal Secretary Charles Fitzgibbon called the governor general’s act “totally reprehensible.” “We have called on the ACTU for an immediate national strike in protest,” he said.
The Amalgamated Metal Workers Union – Australia’s biggest union, with 186,000 members – called on the ACTU to put in force a recent ACTU executive resolution to withhold the supply of labor. AMWU Federal President R.E. Scott said the ACTU should call for coordinated industrial action.
The secretary of the Queensland AMWU said the dismissal was a severe blow to democracy and clearly showed how ruthless the capitalist system was. He stated, “They will go to any lengths to get their own way.”
Other calls for a general strike came from the Newcastle Trades Hall Council and Hugh Hamilton, state president of the Queensland branch of the Building Workers Industrial Union. There were also calls for a national teachers’ strike.
In face of this upsurge of protest against the capitalist parties and desire for militant action, Whitlam tried to cool down Labor’s supporters. He urged them to “maintain their rage,” but not to demonstrate too vigorously.
Hawke was also strong on rhetoric, but ordered workers to refrain from militant action. He described the opposition parties as “the greatest bunch of hypocrites this country has ever seen.” He continued:
“Men who have said they believe in law and order and conventions have trampled them underfoot. They cannot expect the trade union movement to have much sympathy for them.”
At the demonstration outside Parliament November 11 he urged the unions not to strike.
Answering a chorus from the crowd of “We want a general strike. When do we want it? Now,” he said:
“The view has been expressed that there should be a national stoppage or a national strike.
I question the integrity of people presenting that point of view.... I have been going around Australia in the past month and I know that this is not what people want.
They want stability and decency in government, and we can provide that.”
Hawke said that the Australian Labor party was appealing for one day’s pay from all workers for its election campaign. He said workers should adopt the slogan “A day’s pay for democracy” rather than take strike action.
Hawke said there had never been greater provocation of the industrial movement to take direct action. But he added:
“... we have got to show we are not going to allow this situation to snowball and there is a real possibility it will snowball into violence. We must not substitute violence in the streets and anarchy for the processes of democracy.
Of course I am upset but it is not just a question of a Labor Government appearing to fall, my concern is about the future of this country. What has happened today could unleash forces in this country the like of which we have never seen.
We are on the edge of something quite terrible and therefore it is important that the Australian people respond to leadership.”
However, if Australian working people obey Whitlam and Hawke’s orders to sit tight until December 13, they could lose out then as well. Labor is already suffering from capitalist control of the press, radio, and television. It was revealed that the L-NCP had paid $1 million (US$1.27 million) to buy all the available prime TV advertising time so that none was available to Labor.
‘Bitter Class Hatred’ Worries Capitalists
The initial reaction of the bourgeoisie in Australia and abroad to Whitlam’s dismissal was unmasked glee. Business executives in Sydney toasted each other with champagne. The Sydney stock exchange index rose 17.32 points, or 4.31%; the Melbourne index rose 3.5%. Shares in Broken Hill Pty. Ltd., the country’s largest industrial concern, jumped 96 cents to $7.50 in less than an hour.
After the euphoria died down, however, some of the more far-sighted sectors of the bourgeoisie began voicing fears about the possible dangerous consequences for them of the governor general’s action.
One result is that whereas a few months ago Whitlam would probably have been trounced in any election. Labor is now said to stand a good chance of being returned. A new Labor government, moreover, would have a politically aroused popular sentiment behind it, making it harder for the reformist Labor leaders to betray working-class interests.
Perhaps the Melbourne Age, one of the country’s major daily newspapers, recognized this when it termed Kerr’s action a “triumph of narrow legalism over common sense and popular feeling.”
Another consequence of the governor general’s action the ruling class fears is the radicalization of the working class it is provoking – “bitter class hatred” in the words of the London Daily Telegraph. Many workers will no doubt look for solutions beyond the confines of reformism and parliamentary politics. Whitlam himself gave clear warning of the “dangers” at a news conference after his dismissal:
“If my government is not elected the third time then there can be very great apprehensions that people in Australia will believe that Parliament is not a vehicle for reform. They’ll try to go outside the system.”
The London Times voiced its own doubts November 12:
“Australia has now entered uncharted seas. The constitutionality, the impartiality as well as the wisdom of the Governor-General’s intervention are being attacked, and this could bring into question the whole structure of authority.”
An editorial in the November 12 New York Times recognized that “there are serious doubts in Australia about the constitutionality of Kerr’s action. It continued:
“Australia’s 74-year-old constitutional system will doubtless survive its worst crisis in decades; but it will require a higher order of statesmanship than has been demonstrated either by Mr. Whitlam or his opposition to restore effective government and political tranquillity to the Commonwealth.”
An editorial in the November 13 Christian Science Monitor, a newspaper whose views frequently reflect thinking in the U.S. State Department, expressed the fear that “if the bitter outbreak of strikes and demonstrations against the Whitlam ouster continues in Australia, the flow of resources to the United States and other countries could suffer.”
Controversy understandably continues over such a dramatic sequence of events, the editors said:
“But all friends of Australia must hope and pray – the word is not too strong in the current turbulence – that bitterness will be muted. That Bob Hawke, president of the Australian Labor Party and head of the Council of Trade Unions, is listened to when he asks that demonstrations be kept peaceful.”
Despite the prayers of the bourgeoisie, demonstrations continued to take place in all the main cities.
On November 12, 3,000 dock workers and students marched on the Sydney stock exchange. In Melbourne 2,000 demonstrators rallied in the City Square, and 1,000 staged a sit-down protest, blocking one of the main streets. In Brisbane 5,000 workers and students held a city rally, and 2,000 unionists marched down the main street to the state Liberal party headquarters. Two demonstrations took place in Adelaide, while in Canberra 3,000 persons rallied outside Parliament House. In Darwin, 500 workers marched on the Legislative Assembly.
Demonstrations took place in the capital cities November 13 as well. About 2,000 persons demonstrated in Sydney, and half the crowd then marched on the offices of News Ltd., publishers of several conservative daily newspapers, and burned bundles of the papers. In Adelaide 1,000 persons demonstrated.
After his dismissal, Whitlam recalled the 200-year-old British precedent but made no mention of a case closer to home. In 1932 in the midst of the depression, the Labor premier of the state of New South Wales, Jack Lang, was dismissed by the state governor. Lang had suspended interest payments on the state’s debt to bondholders in London.
A huge upsurge by the Labor movement protested Lang’s dismissal, but Lang, demagogic Social Democrat that he was, provided no leadership. A quarter of a million workers attended an election rally for Lang in Moore Park, Sydney, demanding action. Lang betrayed them, however, and refused to conduct a militant fight. He was soundly defeated at the polls.
Perhaps Whitlam’s reticence on this precedent was because he was aware of the lessons but refused to draw them: For the workers to win in a struggle like this, they and their allies must take to the streets; if they do not, it even lessens Labor’s chances at the polls.
Socialist Election Campaign
Even before November 11, the opinion polls showed Labor’s popularity was recovering. A Morgan-Gallup poll taken November 1, after the opposition blocked the budget in the Senate, indicated that 47% of the population thought the Whitlam government was doing a good job, compared with 38% in July. At the same time the L-NCP’s popularity had slumped from 55% to 42%.
Whitlam has already revealed that he intends to conduct Labor’s election campaign almost solely on the issue of the unconstitutionality of his dismissal. He will offer no way forward to the masses of workers who are worried about the disastrous effects skyrocketing inflation and unemployment are having on their living standards. According to a poll published in the November 11 issue of the Australian, 77% of the electorate regard unemployment as a serious problem, while 84% see inflation as serious.
In order to pose a socialist alternative to Whitlam and provide answers to the problems of unemployment, inflation, and the rights of women and Blacks, the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers League are standing candidates in the December 13 elections. The SWL will be campaigning vigorously for the return of a Labor government. The League will demand that Labor mobilize its supporters in militant action to show that the undemocratic action of Fraser and Kerr will not be tolerated.
The SWL will be fielding nine candidates for the Senate, urging voters to “Vote 1 Socialist Workers! Vote 2 ALP!”* Candidates will be running in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory.
SWL National Secretary Jim Percy toured New Zealand at the end of October speaking on the political crisis in Australia. He was interviewed about the crisis by Socialist Action, a fortnightly Trotskyist newspaper, and described the type of campaign the SWL will be running. He said the SWL will participate “to put the kind of programme that will be necessary if the bosses’ offensive is to be defeated.” He continued:
“We want the Labour Party to fight for the people that elected it, for the trade unions and the other oppressed layers in society. We want it to fight for the oppressed throughout the world, with a progressive foreign policy.
Labour cannot defeat the bosses’ offensive on a policy that concedes in advance that the system can work, or that they will try and make the system work. Our campaign will point this out.
An example of the sort of campaign ours will be is in Canberra, where there are two senators to be elected. Labour could win both these seats, but rather than take a risk, they are standing down in one seat, and backing John Gorton, a reactionary of the highest order. Gorton is a former Liberal prime minister who has turned against his own party and opposes the blocking of the budget.
Rather than have Labour Party preferences go to the butcher of Vietnam, Gorton, we’re going to run a candidate who was a leader of the Melbourne antiwar movement, who was marching in the streets while Gorton was attacking Vietnam.
That’s an example of the sort of campaign we’ll be running, one that is in the interests of the working people in Australia and around the world.”
* Australian elections are by preferential ballot. Thus if the voter’s first choice is not elected, his or her next preference is counted as a full vote, and so on.