Government shutdown? Australians might suggest the nuclear option

In a 1975 government shutdown, the Queen's representative simply dismissed Parliament.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
The sun rises behind the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013.

Some Australians watching the US federal government shutdown unfold will be feeling a sense of deja vu – that is, those old enough to have lived through the supply crisis of November 1975, when the Australian government also shut down. 

At the time, the blocking of the government’s supply bills by the opposition-dominated Senate here triggered a chain of events that led to greatest crisis in Australia’s political history – the dismissal of Parliament by the Queen’s representative.

Late on the morning of Nov. 11, 1975, Australia's Governor General John Kerr, unelected and answerable only to the Crown, fired then- Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, whose government had deferred the passing of two appropriation bills, which effectively left the government out of pocket by about $4 billion a month in adjusted US dollars. 

Mr. Kerr then appointed an opposition leader, willing to pass the bills, as prime minister. But when Mr. Whitlam's members revolted and passed a no-confidence motion in the new prime minister, Kerr wielded the "nuclear option": He dismissed both the Senate and the House of Representatives, triggering a double dissolution election. It all happened in just a few hours. And there has never been a government shutdown in Australia since.

The controversy over whether the unelected Kerr should have counseled Whitlam before sacking him remains the single most debated political event in Australia. 

Elected in a landslide just three years earlier, Whitlam believed he would have the public on his side with a radical solution to replace government expenditure with bank credit. To keep things running, employees and suppliers of government goods were to be given IOUs guaranteed by banks. 

Although there are similarities between Canberra in 1975 and the crisis unfolding Washington in 2013, there are significant differences as well. 

The most important of these, says David Smith, lecturer in American politics and foreign policy at the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University in Darlington, Australia, is the ability of Australia’s prime minister to resolve deadlocks between the Senate and House of Representatives by calling on the governor general to dissolve both houses of Parliament. Unlike in a normal election, a double dissolution, or the “nuclear option” as Dr. Smith calls it, means that the entire Senate is re-contested rather than just half the seats. 

"If there was a mechanism like double dissolution in Australia this budget crisis would be resolved a lot more quickly because there would be this 'nuclear option'. If the president could dissolve the legislature and go to an election that’s exactly would Obama would be threatening to do at this point," says Smith. 

Smith acknowledges that many political systems function perfectly well without an upper house. But he argues that in Australia’s case, the Senate ensures that a majority in the House of Representatives does not become an elected dictatorship.

"Australians look back at November 1975 as a very traumatic period in Australia's history. But it is actually an example of the system working. There was a crisis and it was resolved pretty quickly," he says.

With the US having the most rigid fixed-term system in the democratic world, Americans, he says, don’t have that luxury.

"In the United States we’ve seen four of these standoffs in the last three years. We now have the very serious possibility that the United States will default. It seems like this will drag on as long as Barack Obama is president and as long as there is a Republican majority in the House of Representatives."

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