With leadership challenges, minority Government and a pick-and-mix balance-of-power to manage, the last few years have been tumultuous for Federal Labor. But recent years are a walk in the park compared to the rocky road that befell Gough Whitlam back in the Seventies. Clinging to power with a slender majority, Whitlam faced an opposition hellbent on blocking progress – and with the numbers in the Senate to do it.
Let’s re-wind clock a little bit. It is December 1972, and Australians are going to the polls. The Liberal-National Coalition have been in power for over twenty years. But just like in 2007, there is a mood for change. The Labor campaign famously proclaims that ‘It’s Time’. The public agrees, and Gough Whitlam becomes the first ALP Prime Minister since 1951.
But it is not all good news for the Labor Party. Senate terms had not expired, and there was no Senate election that year. Despite being defeated in the House of Representatives, the Coalition will continue to enjoy an Upper House majority. For Labor, it means the Prime Minister will have to pass bills through a Senate controlled by the Opposition.
By May 1974, the Whitlam Government had become baulked by Coalition repeatedly blocking several bills (including the Health Insurance Bill, the precursor to today’s Medicare). Needing a Senate majority more than ever, Whitlam calls a double-dissolution election. With that, Australians went back to the polls, returning the Government with a reduced majority of five-seats. Crucially though, in the Senate, Labor could not win the 31-seats it needed. Neither could the Coalition though, and each party took 29-seats apiece in the 60-seat chamber.
Just like their Labor colleagues 35-years later, the new Government of 1974 and beyond would have to manage a balance-of-power if it were to last. The Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor of 1974 were Independent MP, Michael Townley, and Liberal Movement MP, Steele Hall. The knife-edge numbers of the Senate were going to be crucial to the longevity of the Whitlam Government.
It did not take long for the Senate composition to change. In February 1975, Michael Townley joined the ranks of the Liberal Party, increasing their numbers to 30. As he had already voted with the Liberals, this change was not greatly significant. A greater change occurred the same month when the New South Wales Labor Senator, Lionel Murphy, stood down to take up a role as justice with the High Court. The Constitution tasked Tom Lewis, the New South Wales Premier, with appointing his replacement. Convention dictated that he would simply approve the Labor nomination to fill the casual vacancy. However, Lewis was not constitutionally bound to do so, and seeking the opportunity to stack Senate numbers in favour of the Coalition, he instead appointed an Independent, Cleaver Bunton.
Surprisingly, Bunton retained his political independence, refusing to bow to Coalition pressure to block the Whitlam Government’s supply bills. But a new precedent had been set, and when Labor Senator Bertie Milliner died a few months later, Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen followed the lead of his southern counterpart. The Country Party premier openly despised Whitlam and rejected the Labor’s chosen nominee to fill the vacancy, instead making the bizarre appointment of renegade ALP member, Albert Field.
Although he had been a member of the Labor Party for 30-years, the obscure floor-polisher from Brisbane was not politically active. Ultra-conservative in his views, Field was at odds with Gough Whitlam and made clear his disdain for the Prime Minister. Particularly offended by Whitlam’s comments that Bjelke-Petersen was a “bible bashing bastard”, the deeply-religious Field declared that “Mr Whitlam will never get a vote from me”.
Enraged at his appointment against their wishes, Labor expelled Field, and launched a High Court challenge over his eligibility to serve. His appointment and subsequent absence handed the Coalition a 30-29 Senate majority (with Bunton and Hall voting with the Government. This ‘majority’ was enough to hand the Coalition the means to deny supply bills. The rest is history, and on Remembrance Day 1975 the Governor General dissolved the Whitlam Government that had in deadlock with the opposition, unable to pass supply bills.
For a few months, Albert Field, the obscure Senator from Queensland, was at the forefront of Australian politics. The interview aired on the ABC’s Four Corners in 1975, and reveals a man staunch in his opposition and disgust towards homosexuality, abortion, and pornography. “I dislike it – really dislike it”, he tells the reporter, adding that “(the) House of Parliament is meant for better things than that”.
Asked about his hobbies, the Senator comments that he is into dancing and soccer, amongst other things. Movies? Not so much. Last time he went to a film, the Senator recalls, he walked out after being disgusted by scenes of “men in the nude, bathing in the nude, and, uh — playing leapfrog over each other”. Quite how the Senator ended up seeing such a film in the first place remains a mystery, but the overtness of his disgust is clear.
After the Whitlam Government was dissolved, Australians voted again in December 1975 – the fourth Federal Election of the decade. Field stood for re-election, but was defeated despite an overall swing to the Coalition. His Senate term expired on June 30, 1976, and with it a bizarre chapter in Australian history ended.
Forty-years later, the Senator’s attitudes seem stuffy, and archaic. A rich vein of ugly conservatism still flows in this country – just look at the electoral success of the Christian Democrats, Family First, and Katter’s Australia Party in recent years. But thankfully, overtly backwards views like Field’s have largely been reduced to the fringes of parliament, embraced mostly by minor parties, obscure religious groups.
For all the negativity about the state of the nation, and for all the need to continue the fight against backwards-thinking, sometimes it is prudent to stop and remember how far we have come.