Australia’s 1975 ‘constitutional coup’: Queen’s correspondence surrounding dismissal of Labour PM released

Former Australian prime minister, Geogh Whitlam, in 1981 in front of a portrait of the governor-general, John Kerr, who undemocratically removed him from office. (Photo: Peter can der Veer)

In November 1975, the UK queen’s representative in Australia, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, dismissed the elected Labor prime minister. He replaced Gough Whitlam with the leader of the right-wing Liberal Party, Malcolm Fraser. Documents just released from the National Archives of Australia reveal how closely the monarchy was involved in the discussions leading up to this coup.

It took a four-year campaign by historian Jenny Hocking, and a decision by the Australian High Court, to get the documents released. And their contents are a warning to all who think of the monarchy just as a useful tourist attraction or a national soap opera.

Gough Whitlam was Australian prime minister from December 1972 to November 1975. He was originally on the right of the Labor Party but was pushed to the left by the tumultuous events of the 1960s.

In Australia and throughout the world, workers went into struggle and won reforms, on the basis of the favourable economic conditions of capitalism’s post-war boom. Against this background, the Australian Labor Party was swept to power in 1972 after 23 years of Liberal Party rule.

Reforms

Whitlam’s initial aims were to rationalise some aspects of the economy and improve the welfare state. At that stage, these aims were not seen as a threat to the established capitalist order. Right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch even supported Labor in the election.

Whitlam set about making significant reforms, under pressure from the working class and associated social movements. Free higher education was introduced, with a massive increase in university students. Healthcare spending was increased to provide a universal system.

Legislation was passed introducing equal pay rights for women, and the first Aboriginal land rights were granted. Australian troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, and a swathe of social reforms introduced.

But as the post-war boom petered out, crisis loomed. The international oil crisis plunged the global economy into a downward spiral. World commodity prices fell – a particular problem for Australia, whose economy relies on raw material exports. Profits fell, and inflation and unemployment rose.

Big business was desperately trying to protect its interests. Bosses were worried that the strike wave that erupted throughout 1974 could continue to grow.

They demanded public spending cuts from the Labor government and got them. But that was not enough. On the pretext of a failed attempt to borrow from the Middle East, the Liberals blocked the budget in the Senate – the upper house in the Australian parliament – causing a constitutional crisis. That was when the governor-general intervened and removed Whitlam.

Workers walked out on strike in protest. 400,000 took to the streets in Melbourne and held a huge rally.

The capitalist class was worried that the situation would get even more out of control. Fortunately for them, they could rely on the Labor and trade union leaders, who refused to do anything to organise this mass movement against the coup.

As a result, the movement receded. Over the following decades, a lot of the Whitlam reforms were scaled back to suit the demands of big business in the face of a crisis-ridden world economy.

There are important lessons to learn from the Whitlam government and these events. One is that reforms are only won through working-class struggle – and they must be backed up.

The struggle must be continued around a programme of defending those reforms by taking control of the major levers of the economy and running them under democratic working-class control. Any government anywhere in the world which seeks to put workers’ interests first must understand this.

The Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales) warned Jeremy Corbyn of this. In the event, the right wing of Britain’s Labour Party intervened to protect big business before there was even a chance of forming a pro-reform Labour government.

State machine

The other major lesson is about the role of the monarchy. It is a component of the state machine, holding special constitutional powers in reserve, which the capitalist establishment can use to supersede even the limited democracy of parliamentary elections.

The letters reveal a careful discussion with the queen – about the constitutional powers of the governor-general to carry out this right-wing coup, and the fear of how far Whitlam would go, even worrying that he would sack the governor-general!

The queen is a weapon of the ruling class which is usually kept relatively sheathed. But she gives royal assent to all legislation. MPs and the armed forces do not swear allegiance to parliament; they swear it to the queen. Tory prime ministers have recently used the ‘royal prerogative’ to act without parliament’s approval, and even suspended a dissenting parliament using the queen’s power of ‘prorogation’.

The monarchy is a powerful ideological and legal tool for capitalism. It can be used quickly, as these events show, to prop up the profit system against workers’ struggle. As such, the abolition of the monarchy must form part of a broader programme for socialist change.

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July 2020
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