Essay: Gough Whitlam and the fragility of parliamentary democracy

However over-quoted a historical figure he may be, Winston Churchill certainly gave his global audience plenty to ponder over whenever he opened his mouth or put pen to paper.  His dictum that ‘democracy is the worst form of government, except for the all the other forms that have been tried’ still strikes ringing chords, five decades after his demise.  Then again, he also said that ‘The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter’, though whether he said that before or after his thumping defeat in the 1945 British general election I really couldn’t say.

Democracy as a system of governing is incredibly difficult for any country to get right, even if the country in question has experienced it for a very long time.  Parliamentary democracy, in particular, is especially hazardous, given the often unhealthy relationship between Executive and Legislature – since a Prime Minister is meant to control the former but not have too much power over the latter.  Most of the time, the system does work well, but every now and then the rules are broken, and it’s not always possible to pick up the pieces to everyone’s satisfaction – particularly in countries with an unelected head of state.  Such was the case in Australia in late 1975, and the lessons and implications of those events would travel far and wide, and are still relevant even to us in Ireland and Britain.

This week the death at age 98 was announced of Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia in 1972-5.  His was a radical reforming Labor government, sweeping into power after 23 years in opposition to the increasingly-misnamed Liberal Coalition.  Whitlam introduced universal health care and free university education, scrapped the death penalty, and opened Australia up for non-white immigrants.  As BBC reporter Jon Donnison noted, however, Whitlam is better remembered for the way in which his government fell.

Gough Whitlam (1916-2014), Australian Prime Minister 1972-5
Gough Whitlam (1916-2014), Australian Prime Minister 1972-5

On 11 November 1975, amid a constitutional crisis in which the Senate (the upper house), dominated by the opposition Liberal Coalition, repeatedly blocked government budget bills, Sir John Kerr, Australia’s Governor-General (the ceremonial Head of State appointed by the British monarch, on the PM’s advice) sensationally fired Whitlam as Prime Minister, and asked the Opposition leader and Liberal chief Malcolm Fraser to form a government, in preparation for a dissolution and election.

It was unprecedented, and scandalous – a virtual colonial head sacking his country’s democratically elected leader, as if he were some company chairman throwing his weight around in the boardroom.  For a while, as Australia’s voters prepared to go to the polls, it looked like Kerr wouldn’t get away with it.  As the campaign progressed, however, questions of constitutional abuse were ultimately drowned out by Opposition-led accusations in the newspapers of government mismanagement of the economy.  Fraser won the election by a record-breaking majority.

Whitlam and his supporters did not forget the way in which the government had brought down, and campaigned hard to overturn the Governor-General’s decision.  Gradually, though, the rest of the nation lost interest, observing what the multi-award-winning investigative journalist John Pilger has called a “national pact of silence” about the whole affair.

Pacts of silence aside, the alarming thing about Australia’s Dismissal is that it was not the first time that an unelected head of state had tried to defy his elected head of government.  Half a century before, there had been similarly dramatic trials of wills in Canada and Denmark.

Mackenzie King (1874-1950), Canadian Prime Minister 1921-6, 1926-30, 1935-48
Mackenzie King (1874-1950), Canadian Prime Minister 1921-6, 1926-30, 1935-48

In Canada’s federal elections of October 1925, the Liberal Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, came off second best to the Opposition leader, Conservative chief Arthur Meighen, but the Parliament in Ottawa was hung, and Meighen did not have a majority in the Commons.  A few months later, in what would become known as the “King-Byng Thing”, Canada’s Governor-General, Sir Julian Byng, vetoed King’s request to dissolve Parliament again as soon as possible.  King had advised him to do so on the ground that Meighen was unlikely to be able to govern with support from the Progressives, the third party holding the balance of power in Ottawa (Supporters of Fine Gael and Labour – as well as those of the Tories and Lib Dems in Britain – should take note here: conservatives and progressives have long been, and remain, the least likely of coalition partners).  Byng reckoned otherwise, opining that Meighen should at least be given a chance.  Meighen was duly given the chance – and proceeded to blow it, managing to alienate potential parliamentary allies with his high-handed demeanour, and losing a confidence vote barely three days after forming his government.  At the next election, in September 1926, King and the Liberals stormed back to power, and before the month was out Byng was back in England – ostensibly because his term as Governor-General was up.

Carl Zahle (1866-1946), Danish Prime Minister 1909-10, 1913-20
Carl Zahle (1866-1946), Danish Prime Minister 1909-10, 1913-20

Just six years before King and Byng had their Thing in Ottawa, events in Copenhagen had threatened to get revolutionary, as something went more than a little rotten in the state of Denmark.  Though the kingdom had remained neutral throughout the Great War, the Danes had nonetheless been promised some Danish-speaking German territory in its aftermath – subject to referendums in the affected counties.  Most voters in north Schleswig (today the Danish province of South Jutland) favoured becoming part of Denmark, while a majority in central Schleswig opted to remain within the German state.  Denmark’s Social Democrat Prime Minister, Carl Zahle, was happy to abide by both referendum results, incorporating just north Schleswig into Danish territory, but his Head of State, King Christian X, and the conservative and nationalist Opposition thought otherwise, reckoning that they should take central Schleswig and the city of Flensburg as well.  The King demanded the takeover of both areas, whatever their voters thought.  In March 1920, in what became known as the Easter Crisis, Zahle quit as Prime Minister rather than carry out such an undemocratic order from the King, and Christian went on to dismiss the rest of the cabinet and appoint a conservative caretaker government in its place – much as Kerr would do in Australia 55 years later.

Christian’s actions resulted in fierce street protests around Copenhagen over the following days, with serious questions being asked about the future of Denmark’s monarchy.  Before worse could happen, the King met with leading Social Democrats for talks, and then stood down his caretaker ministry, helping instead to create a compromise cabinet comprising all parties – though Zahle never headed his country’s government again.  Thereafter, Christian lived out the rest of his reign as a straight-down-the-line constitutional monarch.

Of course, observers of the Arab Spring and the experience of Iraq since the 2003 invasion know that democracy is a fragile entity, but it remains so even in states where it has been long established.  In each of the cases described above an unelected head of state took it upon himself to decide what was best for his people, immediately after a bitter dispute between apparently irreconcilable parties and viewpoints.  In Stormont, the parties remain deadlocked over the issue of welfare reform, and something somehow will ultimately have to give – something that may well involve the input of unelected as well as elected figures.  To those who reckon ‘It couldn’t happen here’, it is worth pointing out that in the last century no fewer than five British Prime Ministers entered 10 Downing Street without the accompanying legitimacy of an election – and with the monarch of the day playing a significant role in the process.

Meanwhile, as Australians prepare to bury Gough Whitlam on Wednesday week, the last word on the issue belongs to the man himself.  Still smarting from his Dismissal, as he and his party prepared to campaign in their unsought election of December 1975, he delivered a statement containing the following words that really ought to be printed and framed on the wall of everyone who cares about parliamentary democracy:

Maintain your rage – and enthusiasm

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.