Electoral law considerations and the dismissal
Written by John Paul   
Thursday, 01 December 2011
Image [In this eighth instalment of his essay on the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government, John Paul examines the way in which proposed changes to the electoral law affected the political debate. They were well aware of the way the law was changed to ensure that a coalition Government newly elected in 1949 would have to confront a Labor-dominated Senate.] 



In 1974 the Whitlam Government presented as one of four referendum proposals a scheme for ensuring that the electoral boundaries of the House of Representatives would be based not on the number of electors in each division, as had been the case since Federation, but on the population in each electorate. 

The deliberate intention behind this proposal was that, if carried, it would entrench within the Constitution itself a malapportionment strongly favouring the Labor Party.  This referendum proposal was defeated as were the other three. 

The coalition parties were satisfied, however, that the redistribution still before Parliament in 1975 had been deliberately designed by the Whitlam Government to achieve a malapportionment in their favour by other means.  Hence their rejection of that redistribution twice so far! 

Image
[ William Hogarth's depiction of an election victory ]

The Opposition under Fraser’s leadership feared that that redistribution was so skewed in Labor’s favour that it would prevent the coalition parties from winning an election even if they gained a very comfortable majority of the two-party preferred vote.  The coalition parties were determined that they should avoid, if possible, being reduced to a near permanent Opposition. 

Providentially the Loans affair re-emerged with the claim that its principal proponent, Rex Connor, had so misled Whitlam as to beguile him into misleading Parliament and he was forced to resign.  Presented with this “extraordinary and reprehensible” circumstance the Opposition parties moved in their own protection to force the Whitlam Government to an election for the House of Representatives on the existing boundaries. 

Their determination to avoid an election for half the Senate alone was what guided their subsequent dealings with the Whitlam Government over the denial of Supply.  In passing I should mention that when the Hawke Government took office in 1983, the Minister whose responsibilities included the Australian Electoral Commission was known, with grim determination among Government members and with gallows humour among their opposite numbers, as the Minister for keeping Labor in office. 

In the 1990 Federal Election Labor was returned to office despite being narrowly outpolled by the Coalition parties in the two-party preferred vote.