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.