I spent the afternoon of 11 November 1975, the day the Governor-General dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, marking essays on an earlier dismissal, when the New South Wales Governor, Sir Philip Game, sacked the Premier Jack Lang in 1932.
As a very junior tutor in Australian History, I had a desk in an outlying building well away from the hub of the History Department. By current standards, I had generous accommodation – a room on my own! – but also by current standards, I was isolated there: no internet, no phone, no tea room or gossip in the corridors. All I had was a deadline and a good 50 essays to mark and return before the students sat for their final exam. When I finally got to the bottom of the pile, in the mid-afternoon, I bundled them up and headed back to the department.
As soon as I entered the corridor of Forgan Smith – the original sandstone building at the centre of the University of Queensland – I knew something must be up: knots of people talking, radios switched on behind closed doors, notices pinned to those doors saying their occupants were elsewhere because of ‘reprehensible circumstances’. This was the phrase the opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, had used to justify his decision to refuse to pass supply in the Senate.
As we all now know, that afternoon Sir John Kerr sacked Gough Whitlam and appointed Fraser as interim Prime Minister. An election was called for 2 December. As the topic of my essays shows, this was not a unique event. There have been a surprising number of occasions throughout the British Commonwealth when a government has been dismissed by Vice-Regal authority, but it had never happened at the Commonwealth level before – and 43 years after Lang’s sacking, nobody had expected it ever to happen again in Australia – least of all Whitlam.
For us workers at the chalk face, mid-November was one of the busiest times of the year. We still ran year-long courses, and these were the weeks leading up to final exams, and the publication of results in early December.
After we marked the exam papers, the marks were entered (by hand!) and added up (in my head!) on individual 5×3 inch student cards, and transferred to a dot matrix printout of student names and numbers. It feels like I’m describing horse and buggy days.
My direct superior was Dr Denis Murphy. He was an excellent lecturer in Australia history, while also moonlighting as an important reformist member of the Australian Labor Party in Queensland. During November 1975, Denis was up to his eyeballs in the political upheavals going on around us.
As part of the election campaign, Whitlam held great rallies of the faithful in all the major cities. He had run a chaotic government, and Labor was expected to lose the election, but Kerr’s dismissal had turned him into a martyr, improving his chances a little. The Whitlam government had done a lot that affected me personally: for women, for universities and – sadly – I was about to become one of the first beneficiaries of their no-fault divorce law.
I attended one of the candlelight rallies in King George Square (long loose hair, long floral dress with flounce, a flickering flame in the twilight – what on earth was I thinking?) but although my heart was with the Whitlam government, my head said it was a goner. Denis, ever the party loyalist, was offering bets of $10 on an ALP win – but I wouldn’t take his money.
A couple of weeks after the dismissal, we tutors were all in Denis’s office, collating results in Australian History. We relied on a card index of students, so there were always a few missing marks to chase up, which meant phone calls (often to parents who had no idea that their kids had stopped attending lectures 6 months earlier).
The meeting took all day, and was grindingly slow and boring. During one coffee break, I was on my own in the room when the phone rang. When I answered it, it wasn’t the expected student or parent with an essay mark – it was Gough Whitlam. No doubt he was ringing Denis for an update on the political fortunes of Labor in Queensland, or to arrange transport or whatever for his next visit north.
Sadly, I have no idea. This, surely, was my closest brush with history in the making – but I was so startled to hear his voice, I hung up on him!
(There’s a video of the 1975 rally in Brisbane, converted from Super 8 film, in the collection of the Fryer Library here)