Gough Whitlam

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Gough Whitlam : biography

11 July 1916 –

Early troubles

In February 1973, the Attorney General, Senator Lionel Murphy, led a police raid on the Melbourne office of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, which was under his ministerial responsibility. Murphy believed that the ASIO might have files relating to threats against Yugoslav Prime Minister Džemal Bijedić, who was about to visit Australia, and feared the ASIO might conceal or destroy them. The Opposition attacked the Government over the raid, terming Murphy a "loose cannon". A Senate investigation of the incident was cut short when Parliament was dissolved in 1974. According to journalist and author Wallace Brown, the controversy over the raid continued to dog the Whitlam government throughout its term, because the incident was "so silly".

From the start of the Whitlam government, the Opposition, led by Billy Snedden (who replaced McMahon as Liberal leader in December 1972) sought to use control of the Senate to baulk Whitlam. It did not seek to block all government legislation; the Coalition senators, led by Senate Liberal leader Reg Withers, sought to block government legislation only when the obstruction would advance the Opposition’s agenda. The Whitlam government also had troubles in relations with the states. New South Wales refused the government’s request that it close the Rhodesian Information Centre in Sydney. The Queensland premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen refused to consider any adjustment in Queensland’s border with Papua New Guinea, which, due to the state’s ownership of islands in the Torres Strait, came within half a kilometre (about one-third of a mile) of the Papuan mainland. Liberal state governments in New South Wales and Victoria were re-elected by large margins in 1973. Whitlam and his majority in the House of Representatives proposed a constitutional referendum in December 1973, transferring control of wages and prices from the states to the federal government. The two propositions failed to attract a majority of voters in any state, and were rejected by over 800,000 votes nationwide.

By early 1974, the Senate had rejected nineteen government bills, ten of them twice. With a half-Senate election due by mid-year, Whitlam looked for ways to shore up support in that body. Queensland senator and former DLP leader Vince Gair signalled his willingness to leave the Senate for a diplomatic post. With five Queensland seats at stake in the half-Senate election, the ALP would probably win only two, but if six were at stake, the party would most likely win three. Possible control of the Senate was therefore at stake; Whitlam agreed to Gair’s request and had Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck appoint him ambassador to Ireland. Word leaked of Gair’s pending resignation, and Whitlam’s opponents attempted to counteract his manoeuvre. On what became known as the "Night of the Long Prawns", Country Party members secreted Gair at a small party in a legislative office as the ALP searched for him to secure his written resignation. As Gair enjoyed beer and prawns, Bjelke-Petersen advised the Queensland governor, Sir Colin Hannah, to issue writs for only the usual five vacancies, since Gair’s seat was not yet vacant, effectively countering Whitlam’s plan.

With the Opposition threatening to disrupt supply, Whitlam used the Senate’s defeat of six bills twice to trigger a double dissolution election, holding it instead of the half-Senate election. After a campaign featuring the Labor slogan "Give Gough a fair go", the Whitlam government was returned, with its majority in the House of Representatives cut from seven to five. It was only the second time since Federation that a Labor government had been re-elected to a second full term. Both Labor and the Coalition secured 29 seats in the Senate, with the balance of power held by two independents. The deadlock over the twice-rejected bills was broken, uniquely in Australian history, with a special joint sitting of the two houses of Parliament under Section 57 of the Constitution. This session, authorised by the new governor-general, Sir John Kerr, passed bills providing for universal health insurance (known then as Medibank, today as Medicare) and providing the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory with representation in the Senate, effective at the next election.