July 31, 2015

Horse 1949 - Australia's Prime Ministers - No 21 - Gough Whitlam

XXI - Edward "Gough" Whitlam

For the first time in 23 years, Australia had a Labor Government. Although Labor won a 9 seat majority in the lower house, it still found itself with a hostile Senate; no Senate seats had been up for election, as they had been elected in 1970.

Although Whitlam had been sworn in as Prime Minister on November 5, the full results of the election weren't official for another two weeks. In the interim, Whitlam appointed Lance Barnard as deputy prime minister and between them, they assumed all 27 cabinet positions, with Barnard taking 14 and Whitlam 13.

During the two weeks of the "duumvirate" cabinet, where Barnard was Minster for Everything and Whitlam was Minster for Everything-Else, they ordered the establishment of proper diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China (and formally broke off ties with Taiwan), eliminated sales tax on contraceptive pills, instructed UN Delegates to vote in favour of sanctions on South Africa die to Aparthied, officially barred discrimination on racial grounds for all sport teams in Australia and announced the end of conscription.

When the full cabinet was establised, the government abolished tertiary tutition fees, abolished the death penalty for federal crimes, established a legal aid framework which would later become the Commonwealth Legal Aid Commission, installed "Advance Australia Fair" as the national anthem and founded the Department of Urban Development to bring many people's houses up to standard by at least ensuring that they were connected to sewers.

Whitlam's government still couldn't pass the legislation that it wanted to though and by March 1974, the Senate rejected 19 bills and 10 of them on their second presentation. Whitlam's solution to this was to offer former Premier of Queensland Vince Gair, the position of Australian Ambassador to Ireland and thus create a casual vacancy in the Senate. In doing so, this would cause the election of six Senators for Queensland and not five; thus in winning 3 of those Senate seats, Whitlam would have taken control of the Senate. 
On 2 April 1974, a group of Country Party Senators kept Gair in their offices beyond the 6pm deadline required to issue the writs for the election of Queensland Senators by plying Gair with beer and prawns and thus the writs were delayed sufficiently long enough not to cause six instead of five vacancies at the election. This delaying tactic became known "the Night of the Long Prawns" but it was irrelevant anyway because Whitlam cited six bills as triggers for a double dissolution and it was held on 18 May 1974. The election changed nothing; even after the election, there was still a hostile Senate.

The Labor Government was returned (being only the second Labour Government returned to office since Federation) and at the Joint Sitting of parliament on  6-7 August 1974, the six bills which had been used to trigger the election all passed.
- Commonwealth Electoral Bill (No. 2) 1973: which added more electorates and reduced population variances.
- Senate (Representation of Territories) Bill 1973: which gave the ACT and NT two Senators each
- Representation Bill 1973: which exluded the territories from population requirements in determining the number of seats they could have 
- Health Insurance Bill 1973: which set up universal health care (which is now Medicare)
- Health Insurance Commission Bill 1973: which set up the Health Insurance Commission (now Medicare Australia)
- Petroleum and Minerals Authority Bill 1973: which set up a body to control petroleum and mining resources

The 1973 oil crisis saw a slump in commodity prices and a spike in prices for goods and services. Inflation ran at 13% and unemployment jumped from 2% to 6%. Whitlam found his budgets facing financial issues and when he wanted to fund plans for various projects such as a uranium enrichment plant, a natural gas pipeline and the final electrification of Australia's railways (which still hasn't happened), he sought funding of $4bn from London firm Dalamal and Sons. It ultimately never resulted in any loans but it galvanised the opposition into delaying passing the 1975 budget.
On the other side of the chamber, Billy Snedden lost the leadership after having failed to win government in the 1974 election and in March 1975, Malcolm Fraser became leader of the Opposition.

Even after passing legislation like the Family Law Act 1975 and Racial Discrimination Act 1975, and after setting up the Aboriginal Loans Commission and handing the Gurindji people  of the Northern Territory title deeds to their tradtional lands, the damage was done. The Appropriation Bills for 1975 were delayed and delayed until six months later when on 11th November 1975, when Whitlam went to see the Govenor-General Sir John Kerr, his government was dismissed and installed Malcolm Fraser as Prime Minister. Before all members of parliament were even aware, the Senate passed the 1975 budget and Kerr dissolved Parliament for a double dissolution election to be held in December.

Whitlam would remain as Opposition Leader for both the 1975 and 1977 elections but ultimately lose both of them. Even though Whitlam's Government has been described as frenetic, breathless and even chaotic, it arguably changed Australian politics in three short years more than any government has done before or since. Those three years still leave long shadows and a legacy today.

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