The United States’ self-imposed federal government shutdown has a way of making people around the world shake their heads in bewilderment. As Georgetown professorErik Voeten wrote for The Washington Post’s new Monkey Cage political science blog, “I cannot think of a single foreign analogy to what is happening in the U.S. today.”
But there actually is one foreign precedent: Australia did this once. In 1975, the Australian government shut down because the legislature had failed to fund it, deadlocked by a budgetary squabble. It looked a lot like the U.S. shutdown of today, or the 17 previous U.S. shutdowns.
Australia’s 1975 shutdown ended pretty differently, though, than they do here in America. Queen Elizabeth II’s official representative in Australia, Governor General Sir John Kerr, simply dismissed the prime minister. He appointed a replacement, who immediately passed the spending bill to fund the government. Three hours later, Kerr dismissed the rest of Parliament. Then Australia held elections to restart from scratch. And they haven’t had another shutdown since.
Here’s how it happened. Australia, like the United States, has both a Senate and a House of Representatives. In 1975, the chambers were controlled by different parties. The House had passed an appropriations bill to fund the government, but the Senate refused to pass it because it believed that the government was spending too much money on unworthy programs during an economic downturn. The opposition party that controlled the Senate said it would not pass the spending bill unless the government met its somewhat outlandish demand. Does this all sound familiar so far? In the Australian case, though, the opposition’s demand wasn’t repeal of a health-care law — they wanted early elections, which they believed would unseat the ruling party.
Prime Minister Gough Whitlam rejected the opposition’s demands but couldn’t bring the parties to a compromise, and the federal budget went unfunded. Then, on the morning of Nov. 11, Whitlam announced he would hold early elections not for the House but for half of the opposition-controlled Senate (typically, only one half of the Senate goes up for reelection at a time). Kerr, as the the official representative of the queen, who is technically still sovereign over Australia, summoned Whitlam to his office and fired him at 1:15 p.m.
Fifteen minutes later, Kerr appointed the leader of the opposition Liberal Party, Malcolm Fraser, as Whitlam’s replacement. By 2 p.m., before most even realized what had happened, Fraser got his allies in the previously deadlocked Senate to push through the government spending bill. Then everything kind of fell into chaos. When the ruling Labor Party, in the House, learned about Whitlam’s firing and Fraser’s appointment, its members revolted with a no-confidence vote against Fraser. At 4:50 p.m., Kerr dissolved the rest of Parliament, essentially firing everyone, with a formal proclamation that ended with the words “God Save the Queen.”
This sort of thing, of course, could never happen in the United States. The fact that Australia could pull it off is a quirk of its history as a former British colony that, unlike the United States, never fully broke away.
Australia’s governor general does not typically fire prime ministers, or do much of anything. It’s a largely ceremonial position and a legacy, as the colonial title suggests, of a time when Australia was a far-flung possession of the British Empire. It’s now an independent country but still a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, which means it recognizes the British monarchy as technically in charge. That monarch still has formal power over Australia’s government but almost never actually uses it. The 1975 crisis was the exception.
The governor general technically acts solely on behalf of the monarch — the office was established before telephones existed, after all. This means that, legally speaking, the 1975 Australian government funding crisis ended because Queen Elizabeth II dismissed everyone in the government. In practice, the governor general did in the actual firing.
You might find yourself wishing that the United States could follow Australia’s example: Fire everyone in Congress, hold snap elections next month and restart from scratch. But we can’t, because we haven’t recognized the British monarchy or had a London-appointed governor -general in more than two centuries. Maybe, if we ask nicely, Britain will take us back?