Teaching about Saint Gough

It’s quite tricky to teach undergraduate law students about the Whitlam Dismissal.  You have to cover it because it’s the only example of exercise of vice-regal reserve powers of dismissal of an elected government since federation (at least at federal level; there’s also Sir Phillip Game’s dismissal of the Lang government in NSW).

The problem is that few students today have any knowledge or memory of the events, and it seems it isn’t taught to most of them in school (which no doubt says something about the teaching of history).  Law textbooks tend only to cover the actual events in very basic outline, and we don’t have time in class to recount them either.  The focus is necessarily on the constitutional and legal issues arising from the events.

Given that 85% of CDU’s students are studying law externally and online (attending lectures and tutorials in voice/video-enabled online Live Classrooms), it makes sense to deliver necessary historical and cultural context using a range of publicly available online sources.  In addition to a couple of scholarly articles in subscription journals, I give students a link to historian Geoffrey Blainey’s article ‘The ghost of crisis past‘ from The Age newspaper of 5 November 2005.

Slightly more idiosyncratically, I also embed various videos in the Learnline website, including footage of Whitlam’s famous “nothing will save the Governor-General” speech on the steps of Parliament House and a fairly wacky Barry Humphries sketch about the 1970s from Edna and Les’s viewpoint, in which Gough and Margaret feature prominently. It aims at giving them the flavour of the times.

I also embed a video of a Max Gillies sketch about the events, albeit with some cautionary notes. I thought Troppo readers might find both the video and the caveats worth a look:

The following YouTube video is of a classic Max Gillies sketch presented as a Gilbert & Sullivan-style operetta on the Whitlam Dismissal.  It’s very funny but also worth making a couple of observations:

  • It presents a fairly stereotypically left-Labor view of Kerr as a dishonest, sleazy drunkard which is grossly unfair and historically inaccurate.  Certainly Kerr manifested signs of alcohol problems after the Whitlam Dismissal when he was being continuously vilified by Labor supporters as a traitor and so on, but in some respects Kerr’s reaction in those circumstances is human and understandable.  In fact at least arguably he did his imperfect best in an almost impossibly fraught and unprecedented political situation.
  • Gillies also asserts a prior conspiracy between Kerr and Fraser for which there is little evidence i.e. it is completely ahistorical.
  • Similarly with the portrayal of the Queen as having prior knowledge but choosing not to intervene. In fact she simply wasn’t consulted.
  • As long as students realise that this is comic caricature with no pretension whatever to historical accuracy or balanced evaluation, the video is both entertaining and useful.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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meika
12 years ago

The problem is that few students today have any knowledge or memory of the events, and it seems it isnt taught to most of them in school

Rarely are major events 20-30 years ago ever taught in schools. It’s always a blind spot where those who lived through it and those who didn’t haven’t yet started talking to each other. (One group assumes everyone knows and the other group is living in an unknown unknowns kinda world.) The conversation seems to happened at about 40 years. Wars and some popular culture are exceptions. The Dismissal does not really count as either of these. Not quite.

If they don’t talk then it gets forgotten of course, so well done Ken, though there is no avoiding it for you, I guess.

I remember 1975, I was 9, but my brother who was 7 has no memory of it at all.

Kevin Rennie
12 years ago

I was teaching about the Dismissal on November 11 1975 with year 10 and 11 students in Daylesford. It was a much more conservative place then. We listened to ABC radio broadcasts in the classroom during the afternoon. Happy to act a first-hand primary source for any students who care to contact me. My bias is decidedly a left-labor ALP view. I still have a copy of ‘The Canberra Coup’ published by the Socialist Labour League’s Workers News in 1976 that includes Bruce Petty catoons and a range of great photos.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
12 years ago

The Dismissal is a useful thing for students to watch – it’s very corny with similar characterisations – even though it’s not satirical, but it gives students a good grasp of the events. The mini-series runs for about six hours.

tim quilty
tim quilty
12 years ago

I know I struggled with this for some years growing up. Born in 1973, I had no memory of the events, and everything writen about it in the 70s and 80s at least, assumed that the readers were well aware of the facts. Interestingly enough, I remember the Gilles sketch quite well from whenever it was first broadcast, I just had no frame of reference for any of the events it was portrayed.

Now, thanks to that clip, I’m trying to explain the events of 1975 to my relatively recent migrant wife. Perhaps it will feature in her citizenship test, if they will ever get round to scheduling the test for her (Four months now since she became eligible, and they won’t give her a date for a test…)

TimT
TimT
12 years ago

High-class comedy, though it seems to buy into the view presented by Gough and Labor after the event, re: Gough being the rightful Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser being a high-class toff lusting after power, Gough being betrayed/turning into a Labor martyr… in other words, it satirises Malcolm and valorises Gough. A pity.

I’m not sure whether Gilbert and Sullivan style operetta is the right description here – the music is right out of classic Italian operas and the melodramatic roles (tragic heroes and bungling villains) are straight out of Italian central casting, as well.

GeoffRobinson
GeoffRobinson
12 years ago

I recently reread Kerr’s autobiography, it has a hysterical sense of self-importance (think Latham diaries x 10). Kerr was a good judicial administrator and would have been a good reformist Liberal A-G but he was entirely unsuited to a GG role in a crisis.

pedro
pedro
12 years ago

What else could Kerr have done in the circumstances? The alternative was to keep waiting until the money ran out or Fraser caved in. Kerr just called an election (effectively) and left it to the people. The argument against that act seems to be equivalent to the argument for longer terms, namely that government works better if removed from worrying about elections. Can that really be a good idea?

Tel_
Tel_
12 years ago

A fair examination of the issue would require some consideration of the policies of the Whitlam government and in particular the way they implemented those policies — very rapidly with minimal public consultation. It would be a reasonable contender for the prize of most radical Australian federal government to date, and this helps explain the rapid change of public sympathy because there’s nothing more sure to get people’s back up than changing everything in a short space of time. Also, radical policies usually do more harm than good in the short term (long term results can be argued from various points of view).

It’s better for any government who wants to implement change to narrow down maybe their three most important reforms and concentrate on phasing those in, with only minor twiddles in other areas.

As Pedro points out, Kerr never put Frazer into power, he had no authority to do so. The people of Australia put Frazer into power, which is something the ALP old timers constantly refuse to recognise.

Probably also fair to point out that Howard pushed on for years with a difficult senate and managed to get his way on many issues (little bit at a time), while Rudd has been in for barely six months and already we hear regular talk of a double dissolution because the ALP stubbornly refuse to work with people who display alternate points of view (if you want an example, try searching federal Hansard for the various discussions on the mandatory web filtering issue and witness Conroy being rude to the Greens despite having an absolute requirement for Green votes in the senate).

TimT
TimT
12 years ago

Yeah, but the media went on and on and on and on and on and on (and on) about the possibility for a double dissolution election every time the Howard Government ran into a snag.

TimT
TimT
12 years ago

I think the media like to be wrong about double dissolutions that don’t happen, so that when they do happenm, they’re right.

It’s better to be wrong about non-stories and right about big stories rather than the other way around, presumably.

pedro
pedro
12 years ago

Tel, the issue boiled down to supply, which was never threatened in the Howard Govt. Whitlam faced running out of money, which was a serious consequence for us all.

I thought the complaint against Kerr was that the election was called at a time when the Labor govt was on the nose and so they did not get the chance to redeem themselves, and I think there is some substance to that complaint. but I still ask whether Kerr was unreasonable to make that decision given the brinkmanship displayed by both sides. Gough had won a DD election only a year or so before. I also find it difficult to support a complaint against the idea that the people get to decide the dispute.

davebath
12 years ago

Must get that vid. I’ve never seen that “Gillies” before. Thanks for that.

(yep… got a copy of the miniseries).

To me, the most telling point is that Big Mal passed supply immediately… therefore there was no valid objection to the supply bills. But perhaps the underhanded means of acquiring power made Mal work a bit harder to redeem himself, if only to quieten his conscience which only became apparent after Aaargh J Hawke thrashed him.

Can’t see JWH ever displaying a conscience or becoming a darling of the left the way Big Mal has in recent years.

Of course, without Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s shenanigans in senate appointments, Big Mal would never have tried the blackmailing of a nation.