The Dismissal: Fraser has the numbers
Malcolm Fraser (John Stanton) is being interviewed by journalist Stuart Littlemore (playing himself). The Liberal leader will not be drawn on his party’s plans for the Supply Bill in the Senate. His desire to block Supply is assisted when a Labor Senator from Queensland dies and is replaced by a conservative Joh Bjelke-Petersen appointee, Albert Field. This flies in the face of convention that dictates that a parliamentarian who dies in office be replaced by a person from the same political party. All the ingredients are now in place for a crisis in Australia’s political history, which will place the Governor-General at the centre of events. Summary by Janet Bell.
Who would have thought the behind the scenes machinations of the party room and the media interview would make such compelling drama? The tension mounts as we find ourselves first with the Liberals and then with Labor so the audience knows exactly what is at stake at each stage. John Stanton as Fraser is masterly – his square jawed face and that smirk sometimes make you forget this is an actor, not the man himself.
The Dismissal synopsis
On 11 November 1975, the Labor Prime Minister was dismissed by the Queen’s representative in Australia, the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. The Dismissal brings to life the events leading up to this extraordinary event that shook the nation. The drama is played out in the Federal Parliament, the back rooms and the ministers’ offices, while the world of those now far off times is drawn through archival images and a fine narration to establish the point in history when the Arab oil embargo sent the world’s economies into a tail spin of inflation and unemployment for the first time since the Second World War.
Federal politics takes on a grimmer tone when Malcolm Fraser replaces the amiable but essentially light weight Billy Sneddon and the cut and thrust of the parliamentary system is ramped up for the larger than life, Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. Whitlam becomes embattled by scandals caused by his ministers – Dr Jim Cairns and his affair with Juni Morosi, and Rex Connor’s dealings with a supposedly shady character from the Middle East, Khemlani of the petrol dollars. Both these ministers are consequently sacked, causing Labor to lose the balance of power in the parliament. This is the moment the leader of the opposition has been waiting for, and when Liberal controlled Senate refuses to pass the supply bill with the budget attached, the Commonwealth is threatened by the imminent prospect of running out of funds to run the country.
The climax of the film, the sacking of the Prime Minister, becomes inevitable when the character of the Governor-General is brought into the mix. Fraser plays him like a puppet and Whitlam seriously misunderstands the man to whom he gave the job.
The Dismissal Curator's notes
Kennedy Miller produced one of the great Australian dramas based on actual events less than a decade after they took place. For five years the Broadcasting and Television Act had prohibited the dramatisation of the dismissal as then a current event. Eventually the series – which, at $2.6 million was the most expensive mini series made in the country at that time – was dramatised, with a cast of some of the very best Australian actors including Max Phipps as Gough Whitlam, John Stanton as the Liberal leader of the opposition, Malcolm Fraser and John Meillon as Sir John Kerr. Ruth Cracknell, John Hargreaves, Ed Devereaux, Bill Hunter, Robyn Nevin and Nancye Hayes were among the cream of Australia’s acting fraternity who lent their extraordinary talents to this important series. There were 115 speaking parts and one thousand extras and this was the first time that Kennedy Miller had worked in television.
The opportunity to move into television was presented to Kennedy Miller hard on the heels of it’s Mad Max success. The company was commissioned to develop programming for Network Ten, then owned by News Ltd, with News CEO Rupert Murdoch reportedly saying they could make anything, 'as long as it was bold’. The Dismissal was a ratings winner for the network. George Miller shared directing with Phil Noyce, George Ogilvie, John Power and Carl Schultz. Each director took two weeks to shoot a 50-minute episode.
Kennedy-Miller followed up this TV hit with several more successful mini-series for Ten – The Last Bastion (1984, directed by Miller), Cowra Breakout (1984). Bodyline (1984), Vietnam (1986), The Dirtwater Dynasty (1988) and Bangkok Hilton (1989).
Notes by Janet Bell
This clip, from the television miniseries The Dismissal, shows the then Liberal Opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, played by John Stanton, being interviewed on television in 1975 by Stuart Littlemore, playing himself. Littlemore asks Fraser a number of questions related to his political intentions. In a cutaway to The Lodge, Sir John Kerr (John Meillon) watches the interview then starts to write a letter on the matter to the Queen. The scene cuts to an aerial shot of Brisbane. A voice-over announces the death of a Queensland Labor senator in office. A newsreader then announces that Queensland’s conservative premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, has appointed his own nominee, Albert Field, to fill the vacant Senate seat, thus breaking the tradition that in such situations replacement senators are chosen from the same party from which the previous occupant came.
Educational value points
- The clip, from the television miniseries The Dismissal, shows a dramatic re-enactment of one of the key moments leading up to what was probably the most controversial constitutional crisis in Australian history – the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975. The filmic technique used is a dramatic re-creation of an interview between Stuart Littlemore and Malcolm Fraser, including both verbatim quotes and an off-camera exchange, that probably took place on the ABC program This Day Tonight. The effect of this technique is that viewers, with the benefit of hindsight, listen to and hear the words spoken in a new and differently informed context.
- The clip demonstrates how politicians can use language to obfuscate or hide their intentions when they do not want to answer a question directly. Malcolm Fraser’s use of phrases such as ‘at the present moment’ and ‘at this stage it would be our intention’ allowed him to side-step questions he did not want to answer directly. In this clip, Littlemore’s off-camera interaction with Fraser confirms the fact that Fraser had no intention of answering his question directly.
- The clip focuses on the political events immediately preceding the dismissal of the democratically elected Whitlam Labor government in 1975. The Australian Senate has the power to bring down a government by blocking or deferring a Supply Bill. Supply is the revenue raised from taxation, which the government of the day uses to fund the execution of its policies and to pay the public service. In Australia it is a political convention that if a government no longer has access to Supply it must either resign or be dismissed. In 1975, the Opposition, led by Malcolm Fraser, used its numbers in the Senate to defer Supply, which created the political crisis that saw the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr.
- The repeated deferment of the Appropriation Bills in the Senate was the event that triggered the dismissal of the Whitlam government. All Australian Government legislation must be passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate before becoming law. The political party that has the majority of members in the House of Representatives forms the Australian Government. The Senate is a house of review and can amend Bills introduced by the House of Representatives as well as reject any Bill.
- John Malcolm Fraser (1930–) was the twenty-second prime minister of Australia. He was leader of the Liberal Party and was known as being right wing. He had been Minister for the Army and Minister for Education and Science in previous Liberal governments. In 1975 he successfully challenged Billy Snedden and became leader of the Liberal Party. He came to power as a result of the dismissal of the Labor government in 1975 and remained prime minister until 1983 when he was defeated at the general election by Labor’s Bob Hawke. Since retirement he has headed a number of foreign aid organisations such as CARE Australia and has become deeply involved in humanitarian issues.
- John Stanton (1944–), who plays Malcolm Fraser in this clip, is one of Australia’s most experienced actors in television, film, voice-overs for radio and television, and on stage. His depiction captures Fraser’s mannerisms and expressions with great artistic skill. His first ongoing television role was in Bellbird in 1972, and he appeared in Homicide (1964–75) from 1973 to 1974 as Detective Pat Kelly. He has also appeared in the television series Stingers (1998–2004) and Halifax FP (1994–2001). He was the English-language announcer for the Sydney 2000 Olympics opening ceremony.
- The governor-general of Australia is the official representative of the British monarchy in Australia. The office of governor-general was established in 1901 when Australia became a federation. Originally appointed by the British Government, following a crisis over the appointment of Sir Isaac Isaacs in 1929 the governor-general is now appointed by the prime minister of the day. The governor-general’s role is largely ceremonial except for the ‘reserve powers’, which have been used four times, including for the dismissal of the Labor government by Sir John Kerr.
- Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen (1911–2005) was the Country Party premier of Qld in 1975 when his appointment of an anti-Whitlam senator (Albert Patrick Field) precipitated a political crisis that ultimately brought down the federal Labor government. He held strongly right-wing views both economically and socially and won six consecutive elections, not least because of his manipulation of constituencies so that country votes counted for more than city votes. He won the 1972 election with only 20 per cent of the vote. He resigned in 1987 after the Fitzgerald Inquiry found that there was widespread corruption in the state police force and the National (formerly Country) Party.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia
In a television studio, journalist-presenter Stuart Littlemore is about to interview Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser.
Director OK, gentlemen. Stand by. Roll tape. (In Littlemore’s earpiece) We’re recording.
Stuart Littlemore Mr Fraser, there’s been widespread speculation about the Opposition’s attitude to this budget. Are you going to pass it or not?
Malcolm Fraser We’ll be voting against the, ah, budget in the House of Representatives. Of course, this will have little practical effect as the Labor Party has a majority.
Littlemore That’s the House of Representatives, but what about the Senate, where you do have the power?
Fraser We’ll be following normal procedure in the Senate. Of course, with the knowledge we have at the present moment, at this stage it would be our intention to allow it passage through the Senate.
Littlemore You’re saying that you would not be trying to force an early election. Is that right?
Fraser Well, I’ve just said, at this stage it would be our intention to allow it passage through the Senate.
Littlemore Mr Fraser, you’re saying ‘at this stage’…
Fraser That’s right.
Littlemore Well, does that mean that at some later stage…
Fraser Look, I’ve told you – I’ve given you my answer. I’m not prepared to make any further comment.
Littlemore Does that mean that the Opposition is not willing to give an undertaking?
Malcolm Fraser I’ve told you, I’m not going to say any more on this matter.
Littlemore signals to end the interview.
Director (at desk) What’s going on here? Hang in there. (In Littlemore’s earpiece) Still rolling.
Littlemore Mr Fraser, I think you understand that it’s not easy to get the interview under these circumstances.
Fraser I’ve told you our position. I’ve made it quite clear. More than that, I’m not prepared to say.
Littlemore Well, I hope you appreciate that it’s just very difficult to get the interview for the program if these are the sorts of answers I’m going to get.
Fraser Oh, I wouldn’t say difficult. I’d say impossible.
Littlemore Alright. We’ll have another go. Will you roll the tape again?
Director (at desk) Roll tape. (In Littlemore’s earpiece) Recording.
Littlemore Mr Fraser, there’s been widespread speculation about the Opposition’s attitude to this budget. Are you going to pass it or not?
Sir John Kerr is seated at his desk watching the interview with Fraser on television.
Fraser (on television) With the knowledge we have at the moment, at this stage, it would be our intention to allow it passage through the Senate.
Littlemore Is that your decision alone?
Fraser Not at all. There’s broad support within all sections of the Opposition.
Kerr turns away from the television and begins writing.
Kerr (voice-over) I am pleased to be able to report to Your Majesty…
Aerial footage of Brisbane. Subtitled: Brisbane, Queensland. September 3, 1975.
Narrator But before the Budget can even reach the Senate, other events intervene – events disastrous for the government. Bert Milliner, a Labor senator from Queensland, has died in office. And so, for the second time in seven months, a State premier, a conservative State premier, has the chance to fill a casual vacancy in the Senate.
A television newsreader is seated at his desk, reading the news.
Newsreader Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen today defied both convention and the Labor Party by appointing his own nominee to fill the casual vacancy in the Senate. The man he chose is 64-year-old Albert Patrick Field, a French polisher who has held no previous political office.