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Fraser Calls An Early 1977 Federal Election; Whitlam Responds

Malcolm Fraser called an early federal election at the end of 1977, just two years into his first term as prime minister.

FraserFraser’s announcement of the December 10 election was made in the House of Representatives on October 27.

In 1975, Fraser had won the largest majority of any government in Australia’s federal political history. As of 2013, no government has ever gained a larger majority.

However, the 1975 election was a double dissolution in which the terms of senators were backdated to July 1, as prescribed by Section 13 of the Constitution. As a consequence, a half-Senate election had to be held by May 1978, whereas the House election wasn’t required until the end of 1978. Indeed, the House election could have been delayed until early 1979.

Since Senate elections can be held anytime in the 12 months leading up to the expiry of senators’ terms, Fraser chose to hold the Senate election at the end of 1977 and held a House election simultaneously, a year earlier than required. In this way, he avoided separate House and Senate elections.

Presumably he chose to go in December 1977 rather than May 1978 because he had every reason to believe he would be re-elected easily, especially since Gough Whitlam remained leader of the ALP. As it happened, Fraser’s victory in 1977 was nearly identical to his 1975 win.

Fraser’s statement is one of the rare occasions in recent decades that a prime minister has announced the calling of an election in the House of Representatives. Immediately after, Gough Whitlam responded and criticised the political build-up to the announcement. He also argued that the election should have been held after a redistribution of electoral boundaries had been conducted.

The election is the second and last granted to a prime minister by the retiring Governor-General, Sir John Kerr.

In opting for December 10, Fraser ensured that date became the single most popular date for a federal election. Elections were also held on December 10 in 1949 and 1955.

  • Listen to Fraser’s announcement (8m)
  • Listen to Whitlam’s response (11m)
  • Election Announcement – (includes two clips above) (27m)
  • Listen to Whitlam’s later comments to the media (incomplete – 3m)

Hansard transcript of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s election announcement to the House of Representatives.

Mr MALCOLM FRASER (Wannon) (Prime Minister) – by leave- Mr Speaker, I wish to inform the House that the Government has recommended to His Excellency the Governor-General that the House of Representatives be dissolved on 10 November next and that a general election for members of the House of Representatives be held on Saturday, 10 December. His Excellency has accepted my recommendation.

The places of one half of the members of the Senate will become vacant on 30 June next. If their places are to be filled by 1 July 1978, an election to fill them must be held no later than May. Under the second paragraph of section 13 of the Constitution an election to fill vacant Senate places may be held within one year before the places become vacant. Members of this House were elected on 13 December 1975. Their term expires on 16 February 1979. However, section 28 of the Constitution enables the House of Representatives to be dissolved before then. It was the general practice prior to 1963 to hold elections for the House of Representatives and for half the Senate at the same time. Indeed, in 1955 the Governor-General, Sir William Slim, on the advice of the then Prime Minister, dissolved the House of Representatives much earlier than its three-year term to synchronise the elections for the two Houses. In that case the election for both Houses was held some 18 months after the previous election for the House of Representatives.

In May this year the Government put to the people a referendum proposal which was intended to ensure that elections for both Houses would have to be held simultaneously. The proposal was supported by all political parties in the Parliament and the arguments in favour of it were widely canvassed. It was approved by a significant majority- 62 per cent- of all voters and by a majority of voters in three States. It is the view of the Government that at the next election for half the Senate an election should also be held for the House of Representatives. This clearly accords with the view of the majority of the Australian people as reflected in the referendum vote. It is a view shared by the Opposition. Indeed, on a Monday Conference interview on 1 November 1976 the Leader of the Opposition (Mr E. G. Whitlam) thought that it would be entirely appropriate to have a combined half Senate and House of Representatives election at the end of 1977. 1 quote the words he uttered almost exactly a year ago:

In a year’s time, which I would think would be about the earliest that there could be an election, although quite a likely time for the election, it would be a perfectly reasonable time to have a half Senate election and one could have the whole of the House of Representatives at the same time to synchronise the elections.

Those were the words of the Leader of the Opposition. If the elections are not held together it will mean that there must be an election for half the Senate at least by May 1978, an election for the House of Representatives before April 1979, another election for half the Senate before July 1981 and so on- a major Federal election every one or two years. A situation in which a government is constantly concerned with the holding of elections is not conducive to sound government and hence is not in the public interest. If the elections for both Houses are to be synchronised, the question arises as to when they should be held. In practical terms this means: Should they be held in December this year, or before the end of May next year? The Government has come to the conclusion that the elections for both Houses should be held in December 1977, and I have recommended accordingly to His Excellency.

Mr Bryant – Do you think that Wannon is safe?

Mr MALCOLM FRASER (WANNON, VICTORIA) – It is appropriate that I should tell the House what considerations have led the Government to this decision. At the time the Government was elected in December 1975 Australia was in a state of severe depression marked by rapid inflation, rapidly rising unemployment and declining output. Since that election the Government has pursued policies designed to correct the situation. These policies have required steady and resolute action. There are now encouraging signs that they are succeeding. The economy is strengthening, there is now indisputable evidence that we are winning the fight against inflation. Interest rates are falling for the first time in years. Investment is rising and confidence is returning.

Mr Bryant – I think that confidence is returning because he is going.

Mr SPEAKER -Order! The honourable member for Wills has kept up continual interjections. After the statement is finished I will ask for a withdrawal of certain of them. In the meantime I call upon him to remain silent.

Mr MALCOLM FRASER (WANNON, VICTORIA) – Mr Speaker,generally the people of Australia have an opportunity only of hearing how the Opposition behaves. On this occasion they will also have an opportunity of seeing how it behaves. If they need any additional stimulus to a proper judgment, that will certainly provide it.

The conditions under which real economic growth can proceed are being restored and the Government takes much satisfaction from these encouraging developments. Nevertheless, there is still much to be done. The reduction in the rate of inflation, the achievement of real economic growth and the progressive reduction of unemployment, which is a vital part of the Government’s objective, can be sustained only by the continuation of these policies. A fundamental requirement for their success is an atmosphere of certainty and confidence in the Australian community. We have acted firmly to make sure that that confidence continues to return. To have further progress Australians must be convinced that the current economic recovery will continue, not just for months but for a number of years ahead. While uncertainty as to an election persists, investment is likely to be held back, confidence could be eroded, and a significant growth in employment opportunities is unlikely. All this is highly undesirable at a time when school leavers will shortly be seeking to enter the work force. An election in December will provide an early opportunity to end election speculation and the resulting uncertainty as to the policies that will be followed after that election. It will enable the Government to seek from the people an expression of their will.

Let me also make it clear that an election in December would be in keeping with the pattern over many years for elections to be held for half the Senate in the latter months of the calendar year. In fact, December would be the usual time for a Senate election to take place. Since 1949, and leaving aside double dissolutions, elections for half the Senate have been held in November or December on seven occasions and in May on only one occasion. For the reasons I have stated, there is ample justification for both elections to be held together at this time. The timetable I have proposed to His Excellency is as follows:

Issue of writs- 10 November 1977

Close of nominations- 18 November 1977

Polling date- 10 December 1977

Return of writs- on or before 8 February 1978.

His Excellency has agreed to communicate this timetable to State Governors with a view to adopting it for elections for senators in each of the States. When replies have been received from the States, I shall inform the House.

Hansard transcript of statement to the House of Representatives by the Leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam.

WhitlamMr E G WHITLAM (WERRIWA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Leader of the Opposition) – by leave- At last the farce has ended. Since August, when the Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) told the editor of the Australian that he might ‘spring an election’- interpreted by that gentleman as a Spring election – the Australian economy and the Australian political system have been needlessly subjected to the stresses and uncertainty deliberately created by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister himself and his office, acting under his authority, have deliberately fuelled the speculation and deepened the uncertainty. What a charade it has been! The weeks of rumour and speculation culminated in the Nareen spectacular last Sunday. There was an urgent summons to the inner seven and heartburning amongst the senior Ministers for whom the bell did not toll- the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Peacock), the Minister for Defence (Mr Killen) –

Mr Killen – I was playing golf.

Mr E G WHITLAM (WERRIWA, NEW SOUTH WALES) – You were spending your time better. Also excluded was the Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs (Mr Fife), the self-proclaimed senior member for New South Wales. There were dramatic dashes across the continent at the taxpayers’ expense, not in VIP aircraft but in aircraft specially chartered with, of course, government warrants, all converging on the western district of Victoria, a natural habitat. In characteristic fashion the lord of the manor lorded it over the serfs. As a result we have had this week the ultimate refinement in election rumour mongering. There has been speculation not just on the election date but speculation on the date the election date would be announced. The uncertainty deliberately created by the Prime Minister by his pathetic cat and mouse game has been economically damaging and damaging to sound and stable administration.

No public service can operate effectively in the atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty which has now prevailed for more than a month. The Prime Minister could have ended it with a sentence, to use his own words when, for the first time, he stabbed the Leader of his Party in the back six years ago. He chose rather to continue his cat and mouse game. It was a game played not against his political opponents; he was playing cat and mouse with the Australian community, not least with his Party’s traditional supporters in the business community. All that the Prime Minister has achieved so far as the Labor Party is concerned is to get us off to a flying start. He created an immediacy, and urgency, for the organisation of a campaign which could not have been achieved in a normal mid-term year. We thank the Prime Minister for it. His childish charade has damaged the Australian community; it has not damaged the Australian Labor Party.

The Australian people will place only one interpretation on the Prime Minister’s decision. When all the confusion created by the Prime Minister is swept aside, it becomes clear that there is one reason and one reason only for wanting an election now rather than at the proper time- nearer the term which the Prime Minister demanded from the Australian people less than two years ago. The reason is that next year the economy will deteriorate even further. One of the Government’s own economic advisers, Professor Warren Hogan, has predicted half a million unemployed by the middle of next year. The most optimistic forecast puts unemployment next year no lower than 450,000. The appalling prospects for 100,000 school leavers will have become not just a threat but a grim reality- scores of thousands of young Australians with their career opportunities dashed at the very outset of their working lives. Production will decline even further. The false dawn of the September quarter consumer price index figures will have faded.

In an address to the convocation of the Australian National University a week ago Professor Warren Hogan pointed out that far from being won, the battle against inflation, or rather the Government’s policies, had inflicted profound, perhaps permanent, damage on the economy, and that far from the September CPI figures being a sign of recovery they are the proof of deep economic sickness. The September figures are not a tonic; they are a symptom of disease.

It will indeed be seen that the Government’s economic policies are working- they are working to put further thousands of Australians out of work and to delay further any hopes of economic recovery. The desire for a premature election is the most complete and open admission there could possibly be that the Government has failed and that it knows it has failed. If the Prime Minister believed for a minute that his economic policies were working properly, why on earth would he want to risk all now to place 30 or 40 of his supine supporters in jeopardy? Obviously if he believed that the economy was recovering, if he believed he had really beaten inflation, he would have waited till the proper time and reaped the political rewards.

It is all too transparent. Blind Freddie can see it. And the people of Australia will certainly see through it and make their judgment accordingly. To seek a renewed mandate in December is the clearest possible admission that this Government has failed utterly to carry out the mandate for recovery which it claimed less than two years ago. And now it seeks a mandate for even higher unemployment. It has already achieved a rise of 32 per cent in unemployment since it was installed in office. It now seeks a mandate for an even deeper recession.

The justification for a December election rather than a May election given by the Prime Minister now and hinted for some weeks past is that he is heeding the call by the majority of the Australian people last May for simultaneous elections. Last May 62 per cent of Australian electors supported the proposal that whenever there was an election for the House of Representatives there should also be an election for half the Senate. This great majority showed that the electors wanted not only the elections for both Federal Houses to be held at the same time, but also the terms of both Houses to commence at the same time.

That is the great difference from the times when Menzies used to have elections for the House of Representatives in December and for half of the Senate, although half of the Senate would not take office until the following July. The position has been changed in the most convincing and authentic way- by the people. Some 62 per cent of the people have said that they want not only elections to be simultaneous but also that they want the Houses of Parliament to be contemporary.

The result of the Prime Minister’s rush to judgment before next year’s jobs crisis and economic decline is that the incoming government will, for the first seven months of its term, face a Senate elected two years ago. When the new Senate is seated it will be a Senate reflecting a view already seven months old. The only proper time for an election which would give expression to the people’s demand for both simultaneous elections and a contemporary Parliament is May next. The people will clearly see why the Prime Minister is flouting their wish for the Houses as well as the elections to be synchronised. It is a desperate attempt to get in before the crunch next year.

The people will not be hoodwinked this time. In particular this time they will subject the Prime Minister’s policy speech to the closest scrutiny, a scrutiny which they were unable to give to his policy speech last time. They now know the worth of a promise from this Prime Minister. This is the Prime Minister who said in his policy speech two years ago: ‘Only under a LiberalNational Country Party Government will there be jobs for all who want to work’. This is the Prime Minister who said in his policy speech two years ago: ‘We have a comprehensive strategy to restore prosperity’, and who said: ‘Spending on essential education, health and welfare programs will be maintained’. This is the Prime Minister who declared: ‘We will maintain Medibank’, and who said: ‘We will continue urban programs’. This is the Prime Minister who promised: ‘We will work positively in cooperation with trade unionists’. This is the Prime Minister who promised: ‘The Government will support wage indexation’. This is the Prime Minister who promised: ‘We will be generous to those who cannot get a job’. This is the Prime Minister who said: ‘A Liberal National Country Party Government will initiate a new deal for migrants ‘; who said: ‘We will maintain present levels of assistance to Aborigines’; who said: ‘We shall ensure no person is denied legal aid because of lack of means’; and who said: ‘Only under a Liberal-National Country Party Government will there be a return to business confidence’.

As a result of this decision Australia is to have its fourth House of Representatives election in five years. This is symptomatic of a political system in a deepening sense of crisis. These intolerable stresses to the stability of parliamentary democracy have been imposed entirely by the action of conservatives, the self-proclaimed upholders of stability, the self-ordained champions of the system. The largest single cause of this instability, the chief architect of the collapse of the system has been throughout that periodall those five years- and still remains the present Prime Minister. Not the least important task of the Labor Party is to stop this man breaking up our nation, a man who by his obsessions and his schoolboy prejudices and obsessive psychology has divided this country class against class, section against section, region against region in a way never before attempted in Australia’s history.

Mr Chipp – I seek leave to make a statement on the subject of the general election.

Mr SPEAKER – The honourable member for Hotham has made a request to the House for leave to make a statement. Is leave granted?

Mr Sinclair – No.

Mr SPEAKER – Leave is not granted.

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