The Parliament of Australia consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate. In October 1975, the ruling Labor party had passed appropriation bills in the House of Representatives, where they held a majority. The opposition Liberal party, which controlled the Senate, refused to pass those bills. The Liberal party objected to what they saw as expansive spending, particularly since signs indicated the country could be moving into a recession. The Liberal party wanted Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, leader of the Labor party, to call an election for the House of Representatives. Instead, Whitlam planned to call for an election in the Senate, hoping to seize control there.
Meanwhile, because Australia is a constitutional monarchy, Parliament has another element: Queen Elizabeth II is the head of State. The Queen’s representative at the time, Sir John Kerr, served as Governor-General. Kerr negotiated with both parties and recognized that neither the Labor nor the Liberal party would give in. He also knew that the supply (appropriations money) would run out on 27 November. Prime Minister Whitlam’s planned election to break the Senate stalemate wasn’t until 13 December.
Kerr sacked Whitlam on 11 November 1975 and put Liberal party leader Malcolm Fraser in his place. Fraser quickly passed the appropriations bills in the Senate. Kerr released the following statement on 19 November 1975:
Because of the federal nature of our Constitution and because of its provisions the Senate undoubtedly has constitutional power to refuse or defer supply to the Government. Because of the principles of responsible government, a Prime Minister who cannot obtain supply, including money for carrying on the ordinary services of government, must either advise a general election or resign. If he refuses to do this, I have the authority and indeed the duty under the Constitution to withdraw his Commission as Prime Minister.
The resulting political turmoil from Kerr’s controversial actions has lasted many years, up until the current day. It is unknown how much Queen Elizabeth II was involved with her Governor-General’s decision. While Buckingham Palace maintains she knew nothing at all, there is a pending lawsuit to make her communications with Kerr public.
There has never been a government shutdown in Australia since. Those long-lasting reverberations from the 1975 crisis have convinced Australian politicians to never again hold appropriations bills hostage. There is an unspoken agreement between the parties that appropriations bills will always be passed, and Parliament will keep the government running.
Looking at our current crisis, I find myself wondering: Where’s Queen Elizabeth II and a Governor-General when you need them?