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EG Whitlam on the steps of Parliament House, 11 November, 1975


In the sixties, some in Australia’s intelligentsia thought the problem with the Australian Crown had something to do with the deference their class seemed obliged to offer to Britain, although the British seemed unaware of the issue. 

Our constitutional system is of course something entirely unrelated to the personal psychological problems of some Australian intellectuals. 

What put republicanism on the map was not the issue of some “cultural cringe “ to Britain, but a naked struggle for power in 1975 between two politicians neither of whom was willing to compromise.

The Prime Minister, EG Whitlam, whose government was extremely unpopular, was not prepared to have his term shortened by the Leader of the Opposition impatient  for government, Malcolm Fraser. Fraser was not prepared to wait the eighteen or so months needed for an election to be held in the normal course of events, and used his numbers on the Senate to delay supply until the Prime Minister advised an early election. 

It has been unconstitutional since the reign of King Charles I for a government to rule, or to spend money without supply being granted by Parliament.The Whitlam government investigate ways of continuing without supply, on bank loans for example. But these were refused.

Eventually, the Governor- General would have had to act. On 11 November, 1975 rather than a general election, Mr Whitlam advised a half senate election. The timing of this would depend on the state governors, advised by mainly hostile governments. Moreover, even if the election were favourable to Mr. Whitlam, new senators would not take their place until 1 July 1976.

The Governor-General withdrew Mr Whitlam’s commission, called on Mr. Fraser to form a government provided it would only take a caretaker role and would advise a double dissolution of the Parliament. This he did , the election being held on 13 December, 1975, which resulted in a landslide against Mr. Whitlam>

This essentially political crisis was resolve democratically. Nevertheless it has led to calls to change the Constitution, and remove or codify the powers of the Governor-General, and to end the role of the Australian Crown.

This led to the increased interest in such a change, but it was not until Paul Keating became Prime Minister that an Australian government adopted an agenda for change. However, Paul Keating was defeated in the 1996 election, but not before his rival, John Howard had decided to neutralise the issue in the election by adopting a policy of calling a constitutional convention to consider the matter. 

This convention was held in 1998, and was followed by the referendum in 1999. Notwithstanding considerable political, media and financial support, the referendum was defeated, nationally, in all states and in 72% of electorates.

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