Examples Of The Use Of Vice-Regal Power In Australia Since Federation
Written by ACM   
Saturday, 21 August 1999

Australia’s first Federal Labour Government, led by Mr J.C. Watson, was defeated in the House of Representatives on 17 August 1904 on a vote 34-36 which the Ministry treated as one of confidence. Mr Watson advised the Governor-General, Lord Northcote, to grant him a dissolution. The Governor-General refused this request whereupon Mr Watson resigned. Lord Northcote then commissioned Mr G.H. (later Sir George) Reid who led the Opposition Free Trade Party to form an administration which was supported by all Free Traders and a section of the Protectionists.


A fate similar to that of the Watson Ministry was to befall the Reid-McLean administration on 30 June 1905 with its defeat in the House of Representatives when a majority carried an Opposition amendment to the motion for the Address-in Reply: by convention this was the equivalent of a motion of no-confidence. Mr Reid thereupon advised Lord Northcote to grant him a dissolution and resigned when this was refused. The Governor-General then commissioned Mr Alfred Deakin to form a Protectionist ministry and he then commenced his second term as Prime Minister.


The Governor of Queensland, Lord Chelmsford, who had held that office since 1905, refused the request of the Liberal Premier, Mr William Kidston, whose administration was supported by the Labour Party, to swamp the nominated Legislative Council with new appointments. He sent for the Conservative Opposition Leader, Mr (later Sir) Robert Philp, and asked him to form an administration. When Philp as the newly sworn Premier was defeated in the Legislative Assembly and was unable to persuade the Lower House to vote Supply to his administration he obtained a dissolution from Lord Chelmsford but lost the ensuing election. Lord Chelmsford then recommissioned Mr Kidston as Premier. This apparent setback did not affect Lord Chelmsford’s proconsular career. Although Dr Evatt in The King and His Dominion Governors treated Chelmsford’s handling of the matter sympathetically, officials in the Colonial Office at the time tended to be critical. Even so, they considered that his qualities overall outshone this instance of poor judgment as they saw it. He was appointed Governor of New South Wales in 1909 and established cordial relations with the Labour administration led by Mr J.S.T. McGowen which was elected in 1910; and these continued until he completed his term in March 1913 aged 44 and returned to England. In January 1916, while serving in India as a Captain with the 4th Royal Dorset (Territorial) Regiment, he was unexpectedly appointed that country’s Viceroy by the British wartime coalition government led by the Liberal, Mr H.H. Asquith. According to Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, the outgoing Viceroy, who had only just invited Chelmsford to take a mission of inquiry to the Persian Gulf on the medical mismanagement there, the names of four Tory peers had been submitted by leading Conservative Ministers for consideration as his successor. The Prime Minister, however, "would not look at them"; instead Mr Asquith preferred in Lord Chelmsford a quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, already on the spot. Apparently Chelmsford had the letter notifying him of his appointment in his pocket when his colonel told him he should be doing something more important than commanding a company.


The Governor of Victoria, Sir Thomas Carmichael (later Lord Carmichael), accepted the advice of the Premier, Sir Thomas Bent, that the Legislative Assembly be dissolved after his government had lost a motion of no-confidence. The Governor did this in the belief, which he was to explain at some length, that no other party leader in the Legislative Assembly as then constituted could have mustered the support enabling him to form a government. Bent’s administration was defeated in the subsequent election.


The Labour Prime Minister, Mr Andrew Fisher, was defeated in the House of Representatives on a motion of no-confidence by a combination of Protectionists, who had previously given conditional support to his government, and Free Traders (by then known as the Anti-Socialists) who had fused to form a single parliamentary party under the leadership of Mr Alfred Deakin. Mr Fisher asked the Governor-General, Lord Dudley, for a dissolution and resigned when this was refused. Lord Dudley then asked Mr Deakin to form a Fusion administration which remained in office until the Parliament expired in 1910. The Deakin administration was defeated in the subsequent election and Mr Fisher was commissioned to form his second administration. It was after this electoral defeat that the forces comprising the Fusion unified under the name of Liberal and continued as a party until 1917.


The Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, later Viscount Novar of Raith, refused to accede to the request of the Labour Prime Minister, Mr W.M. Hughes, to promise him in advance to grant him a dissolution when his own support in the Cabinet seemed to crumble on the eve of the first conscription referendum which was held on 28 October.


The Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, advised the Prime Minister, Mr W.M. Hughes, who by then was leading a Nationalist administration formed by the amalgamation of the National Labour Party and the Liberal Party, to honour his repeated promise to the Australian people that he would resign if the second conscription referendum were defeated on 20 December 1917. The Governor-General’s advice on this defeat was that Mr Hughes should resign and recommend another Nationalist to be commissioned in his place. Mr Hughes and his Ministers resigned on 8 January 1918 but Mr Hughes as the outgoing Prime Minister gave the Governor-General no advice as to what what should then be done. The Governor-General consulted the Labour leader, Mr Frank Tudor, and others, and made the almost preordained discovery that it was not possible to form anything but a Nationalist administration from the existing Parliament, and that as Mr Hughes remained the leader of the Nationalists he was thus the only person who could form such a government. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the Governor-General, bowing to the exigencies of war, felt disinclined to hold Mr Hughes to his earlier promise. Dr H.V. Evatt has claimed that it could have been open to the Governor-General to summon the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Frank Tudor, commission him as Prime Minister and then grant him a dissolution.


A Federal United Australia Party government had assumed office after inflicting a landslide election defeat in December 1931 on the Scullin Labour government which had already been defeated in the House of Representatives through the defection of a number of Labour members acting at the direction of the Labour Premier of New South Wales, Mr J.T. (Jack) Lang. (Mr J.H. Scullin, on sustaining this parliamentary defeat, could have resigned but he chose instead to advise the Governor-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs, that he could not see any likelihood of an alternative government being formed in the then turbulent state of parties in the existing parliament.) Apart from the Lang Labour government all governments in Australia had accepted the inevitable and were faithfully adhering to that programme to cope with the depression known as the Premiers’ Plan. At a meeting of the Loan Council held in January 1932 it was noted that New South Wales alone had failed to introduce economies on an appropriate scale; when in the following month Lang was again unable to meet overseas interest payments on State debts, the Loan Council refused to assist him to do so. To avoid the scandal of default, the Commonwealth took up the tab for the interest payments and immediately took legal steps to recover the money from New South Wales. The Federal Parliament passed the Financial Agreement Enforcement Act requiring that certain State revenues be paid to the Commonwealth in conformity with the Financial Agreement between the Commonwealth and States which had been inserted into the Constitution in 1928. The Act also provided that certain moneys held by the banks on behalf of New South Wales should be garnisheed. The application of the legislation was widened so that new classes of New South Wales revenue could be appropriated under it. Lang decided to defy the Commonwealth by attempting to frustrate the provisions of the Act. This action led him from defiance of the federal law to breaches of the law of his own State. The Premier arranged for a circular to be sent to all New South Wales departments instructing them to cease operating government bank accounts and to pay all moneys direct to the State Treasury instead. At the same time Mr Lang directed that the Treasury be barricaded so that Federal officers could not gain access to its records. The Governor, Air Vice Marshal Sir Philip Game, requested Mr Lang to withdraw the circular on the grounds that it placed the Crown in the position of breaking the law, specifically the State Audit Act. When Mr Lang refused, the Governor revoked his commission and commissioned as Premier the Opposition Leader, Mr B.S.B. (later Sir Bertram) Stevens, who obtained a dissolution of the Legislative Assembly and convincingly won the subsequent election.


In Victoria a United Australia Party—United Country Party coalition led by Sir Stanley Argyle faced a State election and campaigned as a composite Ministry with the Labour Party contesting it as the Opposition. Although the Country Party ran a campaign of its own as was customary, all Country Party Ministers sat with their UAP colleagues on the platform of the Malvern Town Hall when the Premier gave his policy speech. A peculiarity of the election, as it had been for a goodly part of the previous parliamentary session, was that the Country Party’s parliamentary leader was not himself a Minister. As it happened this was of no great moment in the events to be described. The government was returned with a reduced majority and nothing that had been said during the campaign by any Country Party Minister or the leader of that party, Brigadier Bourchier, could have suggested that the coalition would not continue into the next parliamentary session. Nor had anything been said by any Labour member during the campaign which suggested that that party would seek a working arrangement with any other party. After the election results were announced, the Labour leader, Mr Thomas Tunnecliffe, made an offer as a bolt from the blue to the Country Party that if it would join with Labour in ousting the United Australia Party from office his party would put the Country Party in office as a government in its own right and support it from the corner benches. The immediate reaction to this offer in the press was one of scepticism and this was widespread. Even The Age, which was for many years to support this accommodation after it was brought to fruition, had made a less than enthusiastic editorial comment on the content of Bourchier’s policy speech. In the event the Country Party did withdraw from the coalition but did this some days after Mr (later Sir) Albert Dunstan, the party’s newly elected leader, who had been a Minister in the Argyle government, had accepted the Deputy Premiership from Argyle. With the Country Party’s withdrawal, authorized by a majority at a joint meeting of that party’s Central Council and Parliamentary Party, Sir Stanley reconstructed his Ministry with UAP members filling the vacancies left by the departing Country Party Ministers. Parliament was formally opened with the new Government’s programme outlined by the Governor, Lord Huntingfield, in the Speech from the Throne. The Address-in-Reply debate was effectively suspended by a no-confidence motion moved by Mr Dunstan which was carried with Labour support. This situation, apparently having no precedent, seemed bizarre. The Governor, after some hesitation, agreed to commission a Country Party government with Mr Albert Dunstan as Premier but only after he had received a written assurance from Mr Tunnecliffe that Labour would provide the necessary support to give it a working majority. This Tunnecliffe gave by writing a declaration to that effect on the title page of the Country Party policy speech which had been delivered before the election by the then leader, Brigadier Bourchier.


The United Australia Party Prime Minister Joseph Lyons died on Good Friday of that year. The succession was complicated in that the office of Deputy Leader of the UAP was vacant due to the recent resignation of Mr R.G. (later Sir Robert) Menzies because the government had declined to proclaim the National Insurance legislation to which he had been closely committed. The Governor-General, Lord Gowrie, commissioned as Prime Minister the leader of the Country Party, Sir Earle Page, who had until Lyons’s death been Deputy Prime Minister. His Excellency did this on the understanding that Page would make way for any newly elected leader of the majority party in the coalition, the UAP. Lord Gowrie had been advised to do this by Mr W.M. Hughes, who had been Prime Minister from 1915 to 1923 and who had also served under Mr Lyons’s leadership in various UAP—Country Party governments from 1934. When the UAP duly elected Mr R.G. Menzies as its leader, Sir Earle Page resigned the Prime Ministership and the Governor-General invited Menzies to form a government.


As already recorded Mr Albert Dunstan formed a government confined to Country Party members in 1935. The Labour Party had supported it until 1942. From then until the 1943 election Dunstan’s Ministry remained in office with United Australia Party support. That election, like almost all elections in that period in Victoria, resulted in a Legislative Assembly in which no one party commanded a majority but in which the combined numbers of the Country Party and the UAP exceeded the Labour Party, the largest party. When his government was defeated in the Legislative Assembly by a combination of Labour and UAP members, Dunstan resigned and a Labour Ministry led by Mr John Cain Snr was commissioned. On patching up a coalition deal with the UAP, Mr Dunstan was able to marshal the two parties to defeat Mr Cain’s Labour Ministry within a matter of days. Refused a dissolution by the Governor, Major-General Sir Winston Dugan, Mr Cain resigned and Mr Dunstan was commissioned to lead a Country Party—United Australia Party coalition. The UAP emerged as the new Liberal Party in 1945.


When the Prime Minister, Mr John Curtin, died in office on 5 July, the Governor-General, HRH the Duke of Gloucester, commissioned the Federal Parliamentary Labour Party’s deputy leader, Mr Frank Forde, as Prime Minister. It was recognized that Curtin’s successor as party leader would be elected by the Federal Parliamentary Labour Party or Caucus and that the office of Prime Minister had to be filled immediately while that election was being arranged. When the Treasurer in the Curtin government, Mr J.B. Chifley, defeated Mr Forde in the Caucus ballot, Mr Forde resigned from the office of Prime Minister and the Duke of Gloucester commissioned Mr Chifley as his successor.


At the end of September, the Dunstan government was defeated in the Legislative Assembly, when it voted to refuse Supply to his administration. Five Liberals, two Country Party members and one Independent voted with the Labour Opposition, on the grounds of dissatisfaction with the government’s legislative programme and opposition to Mr Dunstan’s leadership. Instead of resigning, however, Mr Dunstan persuaded the Governor, Sir Winston Dugan, to grant him a dissolution. The terms on which this dissolution was granted drew fire from the Opposition who claimed that the Governor in his letter to the Premier had left himself open to the charge of instructing the Assembly to grant Supply to a ministry which had already been refused it and to no other. When it became clear that the Assembly would not grant Supply to the Dunstan Ministry, the Governor commissioned as Premier Mr Ian Macfarlan, the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, who had been Attorney-General in Mr Dunstan’s Ministry, on the production of written assurances of support from the Labour Opposition and from members of the Liberal Party, the Country Party and the Independents whose revolt had led to Mr Dunstan’s defeat. Mr Macfarlan formed a government, both Houses passed Votes of Supply, and the dissolution took immediate effect. At the subsequent General Election in November the Labour Party obtained a majority (with the support of two Independents) and formed a government. The state of parties was Labour 32, United Country Party 18, Liberals 13, Independents 2. Mr Macfarlan was one of the defeated candidates.


After the Victorian election in November 1947, which had been forced by a denial of Supply by the Legislative Council, a Liberal—Country Party composite ministry was formed with the Liberal leader, Mr T.T. Hollway as Premier and the leader of the Country Party, Mr J.G.B. (later Sir John) McDonald, as Deputy Premier. (Mr McDonald as the leader of the second largest party in the last Parliament had been Leader of the Opposition and the principal tactician in the events preceding the election.) Mr Tom Hollway was brought around by Mr McDonald to the very grudging acceptance of the former Premier, Mr Albert Dunstan, as a member of the Cabinet. Mr Dunstan was given the Health portfolio. This coalition fell apart in December 1948 with Mr Hollway claiming that Sir Albert Dunstan, as he had since become, was the principal disrupter with his compulsive intriguing. Mr Hollway reconstructed his Ministry from among his own Liberal supporters while most of the Country Party members supported that Ministry from the corner benches for the remainder of that parliament. Some Country Party members, sickened by the previous inter-party brawling and by Sir Albert Dunstan in particular whom they saw as its instigator, joined the Liberal Party, which then to confuse matters called itself the Liberal and Country Party. In campaigning for the May 1950 election for the Legislative Assembly, the LCP under the leadership of the Premier, Mr Hollway, made a bold attempt to destroy the Country Party as an electoral force. The results were disappointing. The LCP emerged from the poll as the largest party with 26 seats, Labour with 24 seats, and the Country Party with 13 seats. The Premier, Mr Hollway, still determined if he could to strike another blow against the Country Party, attempted to obtain Labour support by an offer of an electoral redistribution. When this offer was knocked back by the Labour Party, Mr Hollway sought a dissolution which was refused by Lord Dugan’s successor as Governor, General Sir Dallas Brooks. The Labour Party, still prevented by its own platform from entering a coalition or forming a minority government dependent on another party, undertook to support a Country Party ministry committed at Labour’s bidding to a specified programme of reform. Sir Albert Dunstan was no longer available for appointment to that ministry, having died the previous month.


In the Victorian Parliament on 22 July the Labour Party withdrew its support from the McDonald Country Party government which it had kept in office since 1950. A possible election was averted when the Liberal and Country Party (LCP) under new leadership (Mr Tom Hollway had been deposed in December 1951 and replaced by Mr L.G. Norman) undertook to support the McDonald government. As the political climate at the time was anything but propitious for the LCP it understandably had no wish to force an election. Mr Hollway’s obsession with redistribution had cost him his party’s leadership and it was to be the issue dominating the subsequent parliamentary crisis. Once again Mr Hollway approached the Labour Party with the offer they had rejected in 1950 of a redistribution if they would join him and six other Liberal rebels in defeating the McDonald government’s combined support of Country Party and LCP members. On this occasion the Labour Party agreed to support Mr Hollway and in September 1952 he challenged the Government with a motion of no-confidence based on the question of electoral reform. The voting was 32 for the Government and 31 against (comprising Hollway and his six supporters and the Labour Party) — these voting figures remained unchanged in every division of the Legislative Assembly for the remainder of that Parliament. Mr Hollway was then expelled from the LCP. Mr Hollway’s next move came on 21 October when the combined votes of his supporters and the Labour Party in the Legislative Council sufficed to deny Supply to the McDonald government. The purpose of this stratagem was to force the McDonald government out of office, to put Hollway and his supporters in office as a caretaker government supported by the Labour Party and committed to electoral reform which when achieved would be followed by a dissolution and an election held on the boundaries which provided for two State seats for every Federal seat in Victoria — the ‘two for one’ electoral scheme. On the very day Supply was denied by the Legislative Council, the Premier, Mr McDonald, sought a dissolution from the Governor, Sir Dallas Brooks. This was refused because the Governor could see no way that the McDonald government could obtain Supply. Mr McDonald accordingly resigned. The Governor then commissioned Mr Hollway to form an administration and with the support of the Labour Party his administration was able to obtain Supply on the vote of the Legislative Council. At no time, however, was the Hollway government able to obtain a majority in the Legislative Assembly. When, in the light of this, Mr Hollway advised the Governor to grant him a dissolution, Sir Dallas Brooks refused. Mr Hollway, instead of volunteering his resignation as convention required, had to be requested by the Governor to resign and he did so in the full knowledge that, if he had not acted as requested, the Governor would have been obliged to dismiss him. The Governor then commissioned Mr McDonald as Premier; Mr McDonald immediately advised a dissolution and the Governor accepted this advice. The Governor in so acting followed the advice of the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Sir Owen Dixon, and of the Chief Justice of Victoria, Sir Edmund Herring. At the election on 6 December, the Labour Party under the leadership of John Cain Snr gained a majority in the Legislative Assembly in its own right — the first time in the history of Victoria that that party was so favoured.


In the South Australian election the Premier, Sir Thomas Playford, lost his majority in the House of Assembly. The result was Labour 19 seats, Liberal 18 and Independents 2. The leader of the Labour Party, Mr Frank Walsh, waited upon the Governor, Lieutenant General Sir Edric Bastyan, claiming that with 54 per cent of the votes he had a mandate to form an administration. The Governor maintained that, as neither party had won a majority of seats, it should be left to the House of Assembly to resolve the crisis when Parliament met. The Playford government was able to obtain a working majority.


On the reported disappearance in the surf at Portsea of the Prime Minister, Mr Harold Holt, on Sunday 17 December, the Governor-General, Lord Casey, immediately sought advice from the Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Garfield Barwick, and from the Attorney-General, Mr (later Sir) Nigel Bowen QC. Lord Casey was of the view, with which they agreed, that he should wait a couple of days and then commission as Prime Minister Mr (later Sir) John McEwen, who as Parliamentary leader of the Country Party had been Holt’s Deputy Prime Minister, pending a Liberal Party ballot for that party’s successor to Harold Holt as leader. Lord Casey had thus decided to do this before he saw Mr McEwen that evening. This decision closely followed the precedent set in 1939 with the appointment of Sir Earle Page as successor to Mr J.A. Lyons on the latter’s death except that in 1967 there was no vacancy, as there had been in 1939, in the office of deputy leader in the senior coalition party. In 1967 the office of Liberal deputy leader was filled by Mr William McMahon. The tension between Messrs McEwen and McMahon was well known to the Governor-General. It follows that Lord Casey, subsequent to making this decision, was amenable to Mr McEwen’s own advice that he, and not Mr McMahon, should be commissioned as Prime Minister and perhaps Lord Casey was not altogether surprised to be told by Mr McEwen that he would not serve under Mr McMahon as Prime Minister, a decision Mr McEwen was later to make public. At all events, Mr McMahon did not stand for the Liberal leadership which was won when Senator John Gorton defeated Mr Paul Hasluck, who had earlier informed Lord Casey that he too would not serve under Mr McMahon as Prime Minister. Mr McEwen then resigned to make way for Senator Gorton. Quite apart from the circumstances which were peculiar to the situation in 1967, it can be argued that, when the leader of the senior coalition party dies suddenly and leaves the Prime Ministership vacant, it is better that any stop-gap Prime Minister should not himself be a contestant for the senior coalition party’s leadership. This was the case both with Sir Earle Page in 1939 and with Mr John McEwen in 1967.


In the South Australian election of March 1968 the ruling Labour Party lost two seats. An Independent, Mr Tom Stott, held the balance of power. On Mr Stott’s announcement that he would support the Liberals, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Raymond Steele Hall, declared that he was prepared to form a government, but the Premier, Mr Don Dunstan, with 52 per cent of the votes, advised the Governor, Sir Edric Bastyan, to let the House of Assembly determine his government’s fate. The Governor, rather than requiring Mr Dunstan to resign immediately (on pain of dismissal if he did not do so), accepted his advice that he should meet the Parliament and the Labour government was defeated on the floor of the House. The Governor then commissioned Mr Steele Hall as Premier. According to Professor Peter Howell’s entry on Sir Edric Bastyan in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the Governor admonished the incoming Premier "to brook no resistance from his party to electoral reform".


On 11 November the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the Labour government led by Mr Gough Whitlam after the Opposition-controlled Senate had voted on 16 and 25 October and on 6 November to deny Supply by deferring consideration of two Appropriation Bills. With the Government and the Opposition still maintaining their respective positions on this deadlock on the morning of 11 November, and with Mr Whitlam’s persistence later that day in an audience with the Governor-General in his refusal to advise an election for the House of Representatives or a double dissolution, Sir John Kerr revoked his commission. His Excellency then commissioned the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Malcolm Fraser, as Prime Minister and when the Senate had duly passed the Appropriation Bills he dissolved both Houses of Parliament on Mr Fraser’s advice. The Fraser administration was confirmed in office by a landslide and given a majority in the Senate at the election of 13 December.


The Premier of Queensland, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, advised the Governor, Sir Walter Campbell, that he wanted to resign and to form a new government. Aware that the Premier had lost the confidence of his own Cabinet, the Governor pointed out to him that if he did resign he might not necessarily be recommissioned as Premier. Thus advised, Sir Joh did not submit his resignation. Soon afterwards he had to resign on losing the leadership of his party. The Governor then commissioned the National Party’s new leader, Mr Mike Ahearn, as Premier.


The Tasmanian Liberal Government led by Mr Robin Gray lost its majority in the House of Assembly after an election although the Premier’s party still maintained its position as the largest party in the House. Mr Gray fully expected to be allowed to form a new government and there was some speculation which he did not discourage that he might even advise the Governor to call a new election. In the end Mr Gray was prevailed upon to resign and the Governor, General Sir Phillip Bennett, commissioned Mr Michael Field, the Leader of the Opposition, to form a Labour administration after he had satisfied himself from consultations with the party leaders that Mr Field could form a stable administration with the support of the Greens.