On 11 November 1975 in the Federal Government offices in Ann Street, Brisbane, a telex operator came out of her office clutching a telex tape that went down in Australia’s political history.
“They’ve just sacked Gough,” she said with her voice and hand both shaking.
It was met with jeers and laughter and calls of ‘Don’t be silly, they can’t sack the Prime Minister’, and ‘Who did?’ from the staff.
She shakily read from the teleprinter paper, “The Governor General of Australia, John Kerr, has asked for the resignation of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and asked the leader of the Opposition, Mr Malcolm Fraser, to form a caretaker government…”.
Then a supervisor quietly said, ‘Actually, he can,’ and the crowd fell silent.
Someone suggested they check with the Prime Minister’s office up on the 12th floor in case it was an elaborate hoax. A group hurried to the lifts and arrived on the 12th floor in time to see them removing Gough Whitlam’s portrait from the wall.
The indignity of the space being left bare spoke volumes.
Three days later 15-20,000 thousand people descended on Brisbane’s King George Square in support of Whitlam and in protest to the sacking. Many had just wandered out of their workplaces, in confusion or in shock at the upheaval occurring across the country. Others were formally organised by unions and the Labor Party.
A contingency of university students made a stunning impact as they ascended the stairs from Adelaide Street with black cardboard coffins on their shoulders and the words Democracy is Dead emblazoned in white paint on the sides.
The University of Queensland reported that the initial contingency started with 300 students, but had grown to over 1000 by the time they reached the city. The UQ Library holds a 10-minute Super 8 film of the rally.
The Double Dissolution of 1975 was certainly a shocker, but it wasn’t the only one.
On 3 February 1983, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser decided it was time to break his stale-mate with the Senate. What he didn’t know was that the ALP had changed leadership that morning, from Bill Hayden to Bob Hawke.
Hawke led the Labor Party back into power on 5th March of that year.
Australia has faced double dissolutions only seven times in our history, but they haven’t always achieved what they set out to achieve. Maybe democracy wasn’t quite dead after all.
What memories do you have of these turbulent times in our politics? Do you think the current Senate will go quietly?