The Dismissal 40 years on - highlights from the Malcolm Fraser collection

The Malcolm Fraser collection at the University of Melbourne Archives has recently digitised many of the highlights of the collection relating to the 1975 Dismissal of the Whitlam Government. We will be making these documents available online as they arose 40 years ago, up to 11 November. The Malcolm Fraser collection contains over 120 metres of records spanning his entire life, including his childhood through to his post-parliamentary career. To see what else is held in the collection, visit the University of Melbourne Archive’s online catalogue.

1975 had already been a tumultuous year. The election of Malcolm Fraser as leader of the opposition Liberal Party in March had signalled a stronger fight against the Whitlam government, one that would make use of debacles such as the loans affair.
When Queensland Labor Senator Bert Milliner died, the state Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen broke with convention and appointed Albert Patrick Field, giving Fraser the numbers in the Senate. The question of using those numbers to block supply became significant and debate raged within the Liberal Party and without.

13 October

On 13 October, Rec Connor, Whitlam’s Minister for Minerals and Energy, resigned following the publication of documents relating to the loans affair. That day, the Shadow Cabinet met to discuss the latest revelations. According to the minutes, they considered tactics for stopping the passage of the Appropriation Bills in order to force Whitlam to an election, but no final recommendation was agreed as further advise on the tactics was sought. Fraser raised the prospect of announcing the decision on the Budget by the end of the week, before debate was to resume the following week.

14 October

A joint parties meeting discussed the political situation and tactics.

15 October

A special meeting of the Shadow Cabinet was called to consider the blocking of supply. According to the minutes, there was a unanimous decision to delay passage. The minutes state “Mr Fraser went around the table, and all “Ministers” indicated their support for the move. Mr Fraser said he shared Killen’s reluctance about taking this course of action but, following the sacking of Connor, the Opposition would have little respect if it did not try to get rid of the Government.”
That afternoon, Fraser announced the intention of the Opposition, setting the stage for one of the most intense political periods in Australian history.

19 October

On Sunday 19 October, a special meeting of the Shadow Cabinet was called to assess the political situation since the announcement of the decision to block supply. According to the minutes, the Shadow Cabinet was “united and determined” in their support for the measures, although some concern was raised about “doubts and uncertainty” coming from the Liberal Party grassroots.
The meeting discussed the need to increase media appearances by Shadow Cabinet members to spell out the reasons for their stand. The meeting also decided that it would be “prudent” for Mr Fraser to approach Lord Carrington and Sir Alec Douglas Home (Conservative British politicians) about the constitutional situation. Finally, alternative courses of action were canvassed, including actually rejecting the supply bills, allowing supply until February or publicly seek an audience with the Governor-General.

20 October

The Shadow Cabinet met again on Monday 20 October, 1975. The loans affair was high on the agenda as new material was considered likely to be released on Channel 10 that evening. Questions were to be developed concentrating on the loans affair and Cabinet members were told to be prepared for a Government motion attacking the Opposition.

21 October

Both the Shadow Cabinet and the Joint Parties met on Tuesday 21 October. The Shadow Cabinet discussed the Khemlani interview on Channel 10 the previous evening and considered a direct approach to the Governor-General, although because “it was felt to be premature to move to a ‘reject’ position’”, that course of action was ruled out for the moment. The minutes record that the Cabinet felt “twice as firm” as they had a week before when they made the original decision to block supply.

At 10.30am the Joint Parties met, with Fraser providing an introduction to the situation that highlighted the attendance of 15-20,000 at an anti-Whitlam rally in Melbourne and the argument that Whitlam was “breaking all constitutional practice”. Comments were recorded for many of the coalition members, including Peacock, Cormack, Anthony, Staley, Killen, Snedden, Sinclair and Ruddock. A greater level of concern was noted from the Joint Party meeting members than the Shadow Cabinet members, with a few commenting on the hundreds of negative press and telegrams or the reaction of older people.

Elder statesman of the Liberal Party, Magnus Cormack commented that an example of what was needed in Liberal Party communications was a John Henry Austral-style show. The show was a 15-minute radio program that ran twice a week for a year in the lead-up to the 1949 Federal election won by Robert Menzies. You can listen to examples of the program online here.

23 October

Two Shadow Cabinet meetings continue to debate the tactics of delaying supply. Malcolm Fraser reported to the meeting on his interview with the Governor General the previous day.

27 October (with additional sittings on 28 and 29 October)

"No turning back" begins the outline of the political situation for the Shadow Cabinet meeting on 27 October. The meeting also discussed Khemlani's request to appear before the Senate, suggesting that Ellicott and Howard join Hay in meeting with Khemlani to examine the documentation that he would produce to the Senate.

3 November

On 3 November, Fraser briefed the Shadow Cabinet on a meeting of the Liberal and National Country Party leaderships held the previous day. The Shadow Cabinet agreed on a statement that Fraser would release on 4 November following a third meeting with the Governor General that afternoon.

The statement is attached to the minutes. It indicates the Liberal's key argument following Whitlam's statement that he would seek funds elsewhere in the event that they continue to block supply; "Australia is a democracy. The great - the final - safeguard of democracy is parliament's control over money. Mr Whitlam's claim to rule without parliament's approval is the first grave step to dictatorship." The statement goes on to give an indication of the substance of Fraser's meeting with Kerr, where he offered to pass supply immediately should a House of Representatives election be called for the same time as a Senate election, before 30 June 1976.

A discussion on the Khemlani documents showed the role John Howard played in the development of parliamentary tactics around the loans affair. It was agreed that he was to be exempt from normal parliamentary duties to prepare a briefing on the subject and assist with "backgrounding".

4 November

A Joint Parties meeting on 4 November saw a detailed discussion about tactics in light of Whitlam's statement that he could govern without supply. There was some disquiet about, but much support for, Fraser's statement in response to the meeting with the Governor General.

10 November

On the weekend, Fraser had publicly invited Whitlam to discuss the possibility of a general election to resolve the impasse. At the Shadow Ministry meeting on 10 November, Fraser reported on the rationale for that decision and that he thought it unlikely that the banks would co-operate with Whitlam's plan to finance Government without Parliamentary support.

11 November

There are many online resources that recount the events of 11 November 1975. Here we list some of the key online documents from the day held in the Malcolm Fraser collection at the University of Melbourne Archives:

  • 9.05am: Fraser's typed notes of a meeting between Liberal members Malcolm Fraser, Philip Lynch and Doug Anthony, and Labor members Gough Whitlam, Frank Crean and Fred Daly.
  • 9.55am: Handwritten note by Malcolm Fraser of a phone conversation with Sir John Kerr regarding the conditions that must be satisfied before Kerr could appoint Fraser caretaker Prime Minister.
  • 11.45am: Documents relating to the censure motion moved (and defeated) by Fraser in the House of Representatives. Includes the daily House program, two copies of the motion (one signed) and Fraser's handwritten speech notes for the motion.
  • 2.35pm: Handwritten speech notes for Fraser's announcement to the House of Representatives that Kerr had commissioned him to form a caretaker government. Includes the introduction "This afternoor the Governor-General has commissioned me to form a caretaker government..."