MELBOURNE, Australia: Australian has only experienced a government shutdown once, in 1975, and it left the nation’s political system in turmoil for years. When the country’s political leaders couldn’t agree on a new budget and so shutting down the government, Queen Elizabeth II’s Australian representative simply stepped in and dismissed Australia’s prime minister and then dissolved Parliament when its members complained.
Politics Down Under may often be ridiculed as a below-average performer in terms of stability, but the episode left its mark. Australia has seen 10 new prime ministers since then, but not a single new government shutdown.
The 1975 shutdown, said Monash University emeritus professor Jenny Hocking, still serves as a warning against “using chaos to achieve political change” today.
“It was deeply divisive and enormously polarising. Opinion polls quickly showed that voters didn’t accept this,” she said.
Meanwhile, in the United States, there have been more than 20 budget impasses since. Every time, hundreds of thousands of federal workers have to halt their work in a tradition that has become a metaphor abroad for US polarisation and government dysfunction.
At first glance, Australian budget votes would actually appear to be more risky than the United States, where opposition parties less frequently control one of the two chambers in Congress.
But whereas at least 60 per cent of all US senators need to approve new budgets, many other countries — including Australia — only require a majority. Defeat is technically still possible in Australia, but there is an unofficial agreement to not risk such a stalemate again.
Even if, despite all this, Australian lawmakers voted against the budget, funding would not immediately stop and payments to employees would only halt after a longer period of time.
In 1975, the measures in place to prevent shutdowns broke down when Australia’s ruling party Labor Party was challenged by the main opposition Liberal Party in the Senate. On paper, the Liberal Party argued that the proposed spending programs were too expansive, especially as the country was heading into a possible recession. But the Liberal Party’s demands weren’t supposed to ever be actually met — it was instead eyeing new elections to topple Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
“Whitlam at that point was operating in a deeply troubled and chaotic manner,” said Australian politics researcher John Doyle, who believes that Whitlam bears some responsibility for the escalation. But things really went downhill when his opponent, Malcolm Fraser, began to “act with great political ruthlessness and complete disregard for conventions for political system.”
When Whitlam failed to negotiate a compromise, the budget went unfunded. As part of their plan to gain power, the opposition Liberals then urged Whitlam to hold elections for half of the House of Representatives to solve the deadlock, not-so-secretly hoping that it would take full control. Instead, Whitlam followed his own script and announced elections for half of the opposition-controlled Senate.
That’s when the queen’s Australian representative, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, came in and suddenly fired the prime minister and appointed opposition leader Malcolm Fraser in his place. The new Liberal prime minister immediately and successfully held a new vote in the Senate to pass the budget, but when the Labor-controlled House of Representatives learnt of the rapid moves, they launched a no-confidence vote against the new prime minister. In the end, the queen’s representative dissolved parliament in a quick succession of events, but kept the Liberal Party’s leader in power on an interim basis. “It was the opposite of a perfect storm,” said Doyle.
The extent of the queen’s involvement in those decisions is still not fully understood. While Buckingham Palace maintains that Queen Elizabeth II was unaware, recently revealed records have suggested the opposite. A lawsuit to make the communications between Buckingham Palace and Kerr public is currently pending. The secrecy indicates how controversial Kerr’s decisions were at the time, who was serving in a role that is usually ceremonial. They also show how explosive the details surrounding the incident remain today, amid demands from some in Australia to fully break free from the British Crown.
Australia never fully terminated its dependence on British monarchy and remains a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. As an independently governed country, the queen’s powers have almost never been used, except in 1975. The queen remains the head of state and theoretically has still retains certain powers over Australian politics — much like her powers in Britain, which she is never meant to exercise.
Despite the questionable legal basis for Fraser’s path to power, he governed until 1983. For him, the budget impasse was a short-lived success, which swept his party to power but tainted his premiership.
“His government was often indecisive in the following years, which has been explained by the controversies surrounding the way he came to power,” said researcher Doyle.
Both he and Hocking agreed that another budget impasse wasn’t entirely outside the realm of possibility. “But in practice, it isn’t something that is ever being considered,” said Hocking.
“The outcry would simply be too big.”