The Dismissal: Into the history books

The Dismissal: Into the history books
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In the panic and confusion of the Labor government’s sacking and the packing up and the frenzied shredding of documents, Gough Whitlam stands alone, a tragic figure, before all his friends and colleagues. He is called to the steps of Parliament house by the milling and fast growing crowd and this is the moment that was captured by the news cameras on that Remembrance Day in 1975. Summary by Janet Bell.

This is the moment at the end of a magnificent series when drama segues into archival history, a moment captured forever by the news cameras. As Gough Whitlam (Max Phipps) moves from the corridors of the parliament and into the sunlight to face his supporters, the image changes into the archival pictures we remember and there is Gough Whitlam standing up before his admirers pronouncing the words we all remember and there’s the Governor-General, standing between the caretaker Prime Minister and his deputy.

The voice of Peter Carroll has been the narrator throughout, reminding us of how the pieces of the jigsaw fitted together. Now his voice gives the epilogue – telling of the next two elections lost by Gough as Labor leader, of Malcolm Fraser becoming Prime Minister for the next five years and of Sir John Kerr, who chose to live in exile in the United Kingdom rather than face the wrath of so many of his fellow Australians.


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


Education notes

This clip shows prime minister Gough Whitlam (Max Phipps) striding down a corridor in Old Parliament House, surrounded by colleagues, on his way to hear the governor-general’s official secretary proclaim the double dissolution of Parliament on 11 November 1975, as angry crowds outside wildly chant ‘We want Gough’. The clip cuts to a montage of archival footage shot on 11 November 1975 that includes voice-over and the sounds of crowds cheering, protesting and chanting. On the steps of Parliament House, Whitlam makes his famous speech in reaction to the decision to dismiss him. Opposition leader Malcolm Fraser is then shown smiling at the television cameras from the back of a car. This is followed by scenes of people violently protesting on the streets and both leaders conducting electoral campaigning as the narrator describes the political campaigns of the Liberal and Labor parties. The final scenes show a victorious Fraser after his decisive election win on 13 December 1975.

Educational value points

  • The clip, from the television miniseries The Dismissal, depicts scenes on the steps of Parliament House on the day of the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government on 11 November 1975. The Senate, which the Opposition Liberal–Country Party Coalition controlled, had been deferring the passing of the Appropriation Bills. The governor-general of Australia at the time, Sir John Kerr, the Queen’s representative, dismissed the government and called for a general election. In the archival footage shown here, Gough Whitlam refers to Malcolm Fraser as ‘Kerr’s cur’, a derogatory reference indicating Whitlam’s belief that Fraser was doing Kerr’s bidding.
  • This clip combines a re-enactment of the events of the Whitlam government’s dismissal with archival footage to heighten the drama. The reality of the events was still fresh in the minds of the Australian public at the time the program was shown, and the use of newsreel footage of some of the actual events had greater dramatic impact than a re-creation of reality alone would have. The footage reveals a bias, clearly displaying sympathy for Whitlam’s plight. Placing the footage of a smirking Fraser in a car between shots of Whitlam on the steps of Parliament shows the director’s belief that Fraser was closely involved in the events leading up to Whitlam’s dismissal.
  • In 1972 the Australian Labor Party was elected to government after 23 years of Liberal–Country Party government. Led by prime minister Gough Whitlam, the Labor Party rapidly introduced a range of domestic reforms such as a universal health care system, free tertiary education, the abolition of conscription and the formal ending of the White Australia Policy, as well as making a number of significant foreign policy decisions such as the recognition of China and the granting of self-government to Papua New Guinea. In early November 1975, the money provided by the Supply Bills to maintain the public services of the country for the first five months of the financial year were becoming depleted pending the passage of the main Appropriation Bills, and there were indications that some time before 30 November there would be insufficient funds to meet the necessary commitments of the government.
  • When the Senate refuses to pass Supply, section 57 of the Australian constitution allows a double dissolution election. This means that both houses of Parliament, the House of Representatives and the Senate, are dissolved at the same time. Members of the House of Representatives are elected for three years and members of the Senate are elected for six years, so usually a House of Representatives election is held at the same time as a half-Senate election.
  • The clip mentions the key campaign themes of the Liberal and Labor parties in the lead-up to the general election in Australia held on 13 December 1975. In the political campaign conducted in 1975, the Labor Party focused on the importance of democratic process and the Liberal and National Country parties focused on the economy. The Labor Party accused Fraser of engineering Whitlam’s dismissal, contrary to the principles of democracy. They advised Australians not to trust Fraser. The Coalition’s campaign focused on economic issues such as high unemployment and high inflation.
  • The slogans used in political campaigns attempt to capture the key idea of a party’s platform. Labor had come to power with the ‘It’s Time’ campaign, after 23 years of conservative Liberal–Country Party government. In 1975, the Liberals’ slogan, ‘Turn on the Lights’, encouraged Australians to vote for them after the darkness of the Labor years, while the Labor campaign used ‘Shame Fraser Shame’ to focus on Fraser’s role in Whitlam’s dismissal.
  • Edward Gough Whitlam (1916–) was the twenty-first prime minister of Australia who led the Australian Labor Party into government after 23 years of Australia being governed by conservative parties. He served in the Royal Australian Air Force during the Second World War, was a barrister in New South Wales and was elected to the NSW federal seat of Werriwa in 1952. Whitlam became leader of the Opposition in 1967 and led his party to electoral victory in December 1972. Re-elected for a second term in 1974, his government was dismissed in 1975 by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr. He resigned from Parliament in 1978.
  • George Miller (1945–) is an Australian writer, producer and director. Along with Byron Kennedy (1952–83), he was the producer of The Dismissal. He studied medicine at the University of New South Wales and his first feature film as a director was Mad Max (1979). This was followed by Mad Max 2 (1981) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). His first US feature as director was Witches of Eastwick (1987). He was nominated for an Academy Award for cowriting, with Nick Enright, the screenplay of Lorenzo’s Oil (1992). He produced Babe (1995) and directed Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and Happy Feet (2006), winner of the 2007 Academy Award for Best Animated Film.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Kennedy Miller
Terry Hayes
George Miller, John Power, Carl Schultz, George Ogilvie, Phillip Noyce
Screenplay by :
Terry Hayes
Story outline:
Ron Blair