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40th Anniversary Of The 1974 Joint Sitting Of Parliament

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Joint Sitting of the House of Representatives and the Senate, held during the term of the Whitlam Labor government.

The Joint Sitting, the first and only ever held, took place over two days, August 6 and 7, 1974.

Gough Whitlam described the sitting as “a last resort to enable the democratic will of the Australian people to prevail over blind obstruction”.

Joint Sitting
Gough Whitlam addresses the Joint Sitting on August 6, 1974

The proceedings took place in what is now Old Parliament House. They were chaired by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Jim Cope. The Liberal Opposition Leader (and future Speaker) was Bill Snedden. The Governor-General was the just-appointed Sir John Kerr.

The only member of either house who attended the Joint Sitting and is still serving is Philip Ruddock. Now the member for Berowra, in 1974 he was the 31-year-old Liberal member for Parramatta and still in his first year as a member of the House.


The Six Bills

Six bills were submitted to the Joint Sitting, all of which had been first passed by the House of Representatives in 1973, following the election of the Whitlam government.

The bills were for significant electoral reform, the establishment of Medibank and an authority to administer the exploration and development of petroleum and minerals.

  1. Commonwealth Electoral Act (No.2, 1973) – changed the allowable variation in voter numbers in House of Representatives seats from 20% to 10%, thus introducing one-vote-one-value and eliminating the weighting given to rural electorates, which had advantaged the Country Party.

  2. Senate (Representation of Territories) Act 1973 – granted the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory two senators each, with terms to be concurrent with the House.

  3. Representation Act 1973 – precluded the population of the territories from being included in the formula for determining the number of seats in each state.

  4. Health Insurance Commission Act 1973 – established the Health Insurance Commission to administer Medibank.

  5. Health Insurance Act 1973 – the main bill that established Medibank, a system of universal health insurance, now known as Medicare.

  6. Petroleum and Minerals Authority Act 1973 – established a statutory body to control petroleum and mining exploration and development.


Background to the Joint Sitting

Each bill had been initially passed by the House of Representatives in 1973 and rejected by the Senate. After an interval of three months, each bill was again passed by the House and rejected by the Senate. As allowed under Section 57 of the Constitution, the bills were then used to procure a double dissolution of the Parliament.

An election was held on May 18, 1974. The Whitlam government was returned in the House of Representatives, securing 66 seats to the Coalition’s 61. The Senate split 29-29 between the ALP and the Coalition. Senator Steele Hall from the Liberal Movement, a former Liberal premier of South Australia, sat on the crossbenches, as did Senator Michael Townley, an independent from Tasmania.

The six bills were again passed by the House of Representatives and rejected by the Senate, thus triggering the first and only joint sitting of the Commonwealth Parliament since 1901.


Historic Passage of Medibank and Electoral Reform

On August 6, the first day of the Joint Sitting, the electoral reform bills were passed, two by 96-91 and one by 97-90. The Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, assented to the bills the next day.

One coalition member, Sam Calder, the member for the Northern Territory, supported the bill to give the territories their own senators, even though he opposed allowing the Australian Capital Territory to have senators.

On August 7, Medibank became law, with both bills passed by 95 votes to 92. The Petroleum and Minerals bill was passed 95-91. The bills received Sir John Kerr’s assent the next day.

The Petroleum and Minerals Authority Act 1973 was later ruled invalid by the High Court, on the grounds that it did not satisfy the requirements of Section 57. It was argued that the requisite three months had not elapsed between its first Senate rejection and its resubmission to the House.


Broadcasts of the Joint Sitting

The Joint Sitting was broadcast on ABC television. It was the first time the proceedings of the Commonwealth Parliament were ever televised. As had been the case since 1946, the debates were also broadcast on ABC radio.

  • Gough Whitlam’s opening speech to the Joint Sitting – edited (8m)
  • Full text of Whitlam’s opening speech to the Joint Sitting
  • Opposition Leader Bill Snedden’s response (6m)
  • August 6 – Afternoon proceedings from 2.15pm (82m)
  • August 6 – Fred Daly (23s)
  • August 6 – The first vote is taken (3m)
  • August 6 – Withers, Daly, Murphy and Killen (12m)
  • August 6 – Channel 7 News (2m)
  • August 7 – 6pm ABC News (1m)
  • August 7 – ABC late news (2m)
  • August 8 ABC AM program (2m)

Just One More Challenge

As an indication of the aggressive opposition of the coalition parties, a High Court challenge to the Joint Sitting was launched by Liberal Senator Sir Magnus Cormack, just days before the sitting took place.

Whitlam’s Attorney-General, Senator Lionel Murphy, appeared in the High Court on behalf of the government.

The challenge was dismissed by the High Court on August 5.

Five months later, Murphy was appointed a Justice of the High Court.

This article is from The Age, August 6, 1974.


The Age

The House Comes To Order

This is an article from The Australian on August 7, 1974, reporting on the first day of the Joint Sitting. It is written by Niki Savva, who went on to work for Liberal Treasurer Peter Costello and is now a columnist with The Australian.


The Australian

Hansard – The White Cover Edition

The Hansard records of parliamentary proceedings in 1974 were issued with a green cover for the House of Representatives and a red cover for the Senate.

The Joint Sitting Hansard was issued with a white cover, shown below.

An inside page of my copy was autographed by Gough Whitlam, also shown below.



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Malcolm Farnsworth
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