Today marks the 40th anniversary of the greatest political crisis Australia has ever seen, the dismissal of the Labor government of Gough Whitlam, with Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser installed as caretaker prime minister.
On November 11, Remembrance Day, 1975, then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, sacked the Whitlam government, which had supply bills blocked by the Senate. It came without warning, sparking a constitutional crisis and recriminations that continued to reverberate over the next four decades.
Fraser went on to win the subsequent general election by a landslide and in later life, the two old foes reconciled. Whitlam died in October last year, aged 98. Fraser, 15 years Whitlam’s junior, died earlier this year.
Sir John Kerr resigned from the governor-general’s role prematurely in 1977 (one of his final public appearances was drunk at the ’77 Melbourne Cup presentation), moved to London to escape the ongoing controversy and died in 1991.
But cast your mind back 40 years to this tumultuous moment in history and you’ll find a uniquely Australian moment on the steps of Canberra’s old parliament house.
Actor and satirist Garry McDonald, who some know best as Arthur Beare from the sitcom “Mother and Son” and more recently as Dr Noonan in “Offspring”, created a hapless comic character, “the little Aussie bleeder” Norman Gunston, in the 1970s.
“The Norman Gunston Show”, on which McDonald interviewed bewildered international celebrities including Mick Jagger, Frank Zappa, Warren Beatty, and Muhammad Ali, earned him a Gold Logie, but on 11 November, 1975, McDonald had Gunston on the steps of Parliament as Whitlam appeared to address the crowd over his dismissal.
At one stage McDonald’s character even addresses the angry crowd chanting for Whitlam, asking if the moment was an affront to democracy.
“Yes!” the crowd shouts back.
Or, he asks, is it just good luck for Fraser?
“No!” they shout.
“Thanks very much, just wanted to know,” Gunston deadpans.
In the footage below, you’ll see Norman next to a future prime minister, Bob Hawke, who tells him the moment is “a bit too serious for this”.
And the man Hawke replaced as leader in 1983 before going on to defeat Fraser at the election, Bill Hayden, was there too.
“I think you’re sending me up,” says Hayden, who went on to become a governor-general, before adding “It’s only because you’re so serious and genuine…”.
There’s something wonderfully Australian about the fact that even in the midst of one of the biggest political crises to face the nation, there was someone there to make fun of it.
Relive the moment and maintain your rage below.
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