The Dismissal: Is this a time for the reserve powers?

The Dismissal: Is this a time for the reserve powers?
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Sir John Kerr (John Meillon) has invited the Prime Minister (Max Phipps) to a celebratory drink with the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Abdul Razak (Peter Collingwood). Razak boldly brings up the issue of the Governor-General’s role in this time of constitutional crisis. Whitlam explains with great certainty that he expects the Governor-General to take his orders from the Prime Minister. It’s plain Kerr is troubled by this. Summary by Janet Bell.

This scene cleverly rehearses the constitutional issues that are about to unfold in practice. For the audience who might be unsure of the relationship between the Governor-General, the Crown and the leader of the government, Razaks not so artless questions set out what’s at stake and suddenly we see that Whitlam’s own choice of Governor-General may not be the pushover that the Prime Minister assumes.


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 depicts governor-general Sir John Kerr (John Meillon), prime minister Gough Whitlam (Max Phipps) and the prime minister of Malaysia, Tun Abdul Razak (Peter Collingwood), discussing the continuing crisis of Supply, the blocking of the Appropriation Bills, and the possibility of the political crisis becoming a constitutional crisis. Whitlam states that convention dictates that the governor-general acts on the advice of the prime minister but Razak points out that under the constitution, the governor-general can sack the prime minister. These are the ‘reserve powers’ that Whitlam is convinced will not be used.

Educational value points

  • The clip shows the prime minister of Malaysia, Tun Abdul Razak (1922–76), on a visit to Canberra in late 1975. In this fictional re-enactment, he explores issues associated with Australia’s constitution and its interpretation with Kerr and Whitlam. Razak suggests that under the Australian constitution, the governor-general can withdraw the prime minister’s commission. While Kerr agrees with this comment, Whitlam rejects it and takes it as axiomatic that the governor-general as much as the Queen, whose constitutional representative he is supposed to be, would not exercise such powers in practice.
  • The dialogue in this scene explains the complex constitutional background leading to the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government, reflects the filmmaker’s views and reveals aspects of the character of the two protagonists, Gough Whitlam and Sir John Kerr. Kerr wears his imperial decorations, indicating his position, and Whitlam is confident that the governor-general will follow convention rather than invoke the reserve powers in the constitution. Having the Malaysian prime minister pose the questions is a clever device to elicit information that then illuminates character. The scene ends with Kerr standing above Whitlam in a dominant position.
  • The reserve powers of the governor-general are discretionary powers, enabling the governor-general to go against convention and act against the advice of the prime minister. Because these powers are not written into the constitution their scope is open to interpretation. The reserve powers have been used to refuse to dissolve federal Parliament (1904), to replace a prime minister without an election (1905), to allow an unelected coalition of parties to form a government (1911) and to dismiss a prime minister (1975).
  • There are conventions, not stated in the Australian constitution, that are central to democracy in a constitutional monarchy. For example, the written constitution confers executive power on the governor-general to appoint the prime minister. There is also an unwritten convention that the leader of the party that wins the majority of seats in the House of Representatives becomes the prime minister. The most important convention is that the governor-general acts only on the advice of the prime minister. It is this convention that Gough Whitlam appeals to in this clip.
  • Australia is a constitutional monarchy. 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.
  • The Dismissal is a miniseries that was made for television in 1983. A miniseries usually consists of between two and five movie-length episodes and the subject matter of Australian miniseries has tended to be historical. Miniseries have relatively large budgets with greater on-screen production values, and are usually shot on film rather than tape, all of which position them as ‘quality’ programs. The Dismissal is an account of historical events combining dramatised re-creations of real events with archival footage of those events, giving it a documentary–drama feel.
  • Sir John Kerr (1914–91) was a successful barrister in New South Wales and a former member of the Australian Labor Party who became a Queens Counsel (QC), a judge of the Commonwealth Industrial Court and, in 1972, the chief justice of NSW. In 1973, Whitlam offered Kerr the post of governor-general. In 1975 Kerr dismissed the Whitlam government. Kerr was vilified in public for his actions and after leaving office in 1977 lived mainly in Europe.
  • John Meillon (1934–89), who played Sir John Kerr in The Dismissal, was one of Australia’s most gifted actors in film and on television. He began his career on radio at the age of 11 and his film career started in On the Beach (1959). He acted in a number of US and British television series and films between 1961 and 1964. In 1964 he returned to Australia to costar with Gordon Chater (1922–99) in one of Australia’s first sitcoms, My Name’s McGooleyWhat’s Yours? In 1971 he appeared in Walkabout and in 1974 in The Cars That Ate Paris, an early film by director Peter Weir. He continued to appear in Australian television series and played the role of Wally Reilly in Crocodile Dundee (1986).

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
Terry Hayes
Story outline:
Ron Blair

Governor-General Sir John Kerr and Australian Prime Minister Whitlam are hosting a visit from the Malaysian prime minister. Kerr is standing and offers a toast to the seated prime ministers.
Sir John Kerr A toast, to our friend and neighbour, Malaysia. 
Gough Whitlam Malaysia. 
Tun Abdul Razak Australia. May she emerge unscathed. 
Whitlam Thank you, prime minister. Australia will emerge stronger. Never again will a Senate dare to defer a government’s money bills. 
Tun Razak But what if the Opposition insists? 
Whitlam It will profit them nothing. The government survives for so long as I have a majority in the people’s house. 
Tun Razak And when the money runs out, the government is facing bankruptcy – what then? 
Whitlam Let Mr Fraser explain it. It will be on his head. 
Tun Razak Sir John? 
Kerr Well, that’s a few weeks away. A lot could happen. 
Tun Razak I agree. But assume it doesn’t. Both sides are in their bunkers, determined. The people are frightened. Businesses are failing. Chaos. 
Kerr Well, then the crisis would cease to be political and become truly constitutional. 
Tun Razak Exactly. The governor-general would find himself at the very centre of it. I wonder, how would he resolve it? 
Whitlam Well, it’s quite clear. By tradition, by all convention, by commonsense, the governor-general can act only on the advice of his prime minister. That’s a fundamental convention of parliamentary democracy. 
Tun Razak Correct me if I am wrong, but under your constitution, the governor-general also has the power to withdraw the prime minister’s commission – to sack him. 
Kerr Well, section 64 does say that ministers hold office during the pleasure of the governor-general. 
Whitlam The so-called reserve powers of the crown. But they don’t apply. Consider if they did. It would mean that the governor-general as representative of the Queen would enjoy a power that the Queen herself has never enjoyed. 
Tun Razak A right which the British sovereign hasn’t had for almost 200 years. 
Whitlam Exactly. And if Her Majesty can’t dismiss a prime minister, I don’t see how a governor-general can. It’s absurd. 
Kerr Gentlemen, you are both a long way down the track. The Opposition could change its mind, the prime minister could advise an election. There is time enough, and good sense will prevail. 
Tun Razak But Sir John, politicians are proud, stubborn men, not given to surrender or retreat. 
Whitlam Well, in that case it will depend on who gets to the phone first – Sir John to dismiss me, or me to have the Queen recall him, hmm?
The men laugh.