Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 1 No. 2, December 1983

Constructing the Political in The Dismissal

Stephen Crofts & Jennifer Craik

This article analyses what it is about The Dismissal which enables it to represent a recent highly controversial political conflict as prime time television. Our concern is not whether The Dismissal was popular' (ratings would indicate huge audiences), nor how it was reviewed (with the enthusiasm reserved for films such as Gallipoli under the designation of 'great Australian' films), but rather with the terms of its construction. The construction of the text is here taken in two senses:

1. how 'politics' in The Dismissal is constructed and deployed through the film. Politics is here understood not as a single representation of the institutional entity of parliament, but as a dispersed set of practices and representational forms;

2. how the televisual form of combined elements of drama and documentary offers televisual conventions and capacities that could represent these diverse political practices. We assume no fixed entities called 'drama' and 'documentary', merely shifting sets of techniques associated with each under certain conditions. It is not, then, a question of whether parliamentary democracy (assumed to be the 'natural' form of politics) is represented, but how the category 'parliamentary democracy' is deployed to tag the events of the revocation of Whitlam's commission and represented in predominantly dramatic form.

Underpinning this article are the assumptions:

1. that there is no given entity called 'history', merely diverse constructions of sets of events; thus, there can be no true or real historical account;

2. that 'parliamentary democracy' is merely a theoretical construct and not a yardstick against which liberal democratic societies can be 'measured' as to whether they conform or not. Rather, each liberal democratic society constructs its own set of political practices which are then justified by the tag 'parliamentary democracy' . The pivotal feature of the events of November 1975 was the Constitution. Constitutions may specify legal conditions and limit conditions and define the parameters of institutional policies, but a Constitution operates only as the reference point in the adjudication of disputes within political practices. That is, the Constitution cannot specify all political behaviour: it is referred to for guidelines to resolve contestation.

The task, then, for The Dismissal was to transform a debate in constitutional law about parliamentary conflict into prime-time television. Drama-documentary enables a combination of representational techniques: on the one hand, the adoption of a voice-over commentary, which organizes newsreel footage and press material; and on the other, transformation of the legal-political dispute into a drama of individual protagonists involved in the events. This combinatory form clearly evidences a concern with accuracy which became an obsession with reviewers caught up with judging the success of The Dismissal's impersonations. Yet more significant is how the commentary both combines with the drama to set up and frame the political arena, and also proposes particular relations with the spectator.

Crucially, The Dismissal works to displace politics from the realm of parliamentary practices to the politics of individual behaviour, both at the level of the actions of politicians and at the level of their accountability. The characters are represented as having a range of accountabilities. The loans affair, for instance, is constructed around the Treasurer (Cairns) and Minister for Minerals and Energy (Con nor), and together they are placed in relation to Treasury, the inter national banking community, Cabinet, the press, and the public but the key sites of accountability are to the Prime Minister (Whitlam) and, in terms of the accessibility of the representations, to individual citizens-as-TV-viewers. By recasting politics from institutional prac tices to individual behaviours (ideas, whims, lobbying, etc.), the constitutional crisis can likewise be represented in terms of a rather sophisticated brand of soap opera and thereby meet the conditions of commercial television production and circulation.

With this predominant construction of politics in terms of in dividual characters, political accountability becomes that of in dividual accountability. And an equivalence is established between individual character and viewing subject. The equivalence is conceived less in terms of an ideal of institutional politics, but rather as a set of competing notions of accountability distributed across social practices, ultimately in terms of the viewer's decoding strategies. It is reinforced by the setting of almost all The Dismissal's major protagonists within a familial context: wives and secretaries are interpellated through various crises as key referent figures who situate the politics: even the granite face of Fraser is tempered by his phone calls to his wife.

Central in this collapsing of the range of practices across which political accountability is defined is the reassuring voice of the commentary and its retrospective interpretation of events. The political scene of the Whitlam years is represented at the outset of The Dismissal as a threat to precisely that kind of domestic location of television viewing:

But most of all it's an age of rebellion . . . It's a time of civil disobedience and urban terrorism . . . a revolution in thought and values (Part 1).

This introduction to The Dismissal establishes the rather unlikely scenario of the early 1970s as a major threat to political stability, indeed, to parliamentary democracy. It proceeds to address the viewer as homogeneously-conceived 'concerned citizen':

... for many Australians bitterness [about 1975] is never very far away. But maybe now we can begin to understand, and to understand is to forgive (Part 1).

Politics is set up as involving a response to, yet not a participation in, political practices. In this process, The Dismissal casts itself as the exorcist; through its revelation and dramatization, understanding and hence—somehow—'forgiveness' are assumed to follow. Through its six hours, The Dismissal operates as if political prac tices ultimately flow from the Constitution, so that, at the end, the only point of criticism which is advanced is a questioning of the Constitution:

The Australian Constitution, which allowed the events of 19~5 to occur, remains unchanged. A precedent now exists for a per son, elected by no-one, to dismiss a government elected by the Australian people. Those who forget the past are bound to relive it (Part 3).

This statement misses the whole point of the Constitution, that, as a programmatic encapsulation of Australian parliamentary democracy, it should precisely be a guarantee of that democracy, in the form of mechanisms whereby outside but legitimate agents, such as a Governor-General or a Chief Justice, can enter the arena of political actions in times of crisis. One may question this as a tenet, but given that this is one of the cornerstones of a parliamentary democracy, the question is not that Kerr entered, but is a matter rather of how serious the crisis really was, of how such seriousness should be measured, and, most of all, of the requirement that the actions of these outside agents be accountable to the nation. That is to say, under the Constitution a role of intervention is cast in the agent of Governor-General. However, the terms of such intervention (when to act, how to act, whose advice counts) are not spelled out. Such specification would seem to be a more legitimate and fruitful area of debate than the fact of Kerr's acting.

We now turn to the form of The Dismissal, which meshes together documentary and dramatic techniques in a mutually reinforcing manner. Documentary techniques authenticate the representation of historical events. Titles for names, dates and places not only identify, but also insist upon the 'reality' of politicians, historical moments, important buildings, etc. Newsreel provides a sense of actuality, of the past-in-the-present-for-us, picking up on an association which Barthes has argued for the photograph. Crucial is the voice-over commentary, a widespread documentary technique. But whereas in documentary a commentary will often have a vital role in restricting possible readings of a given set of images, the commentary here constantly reinforces readings already explicit in the dramatic material. It is far more closely aligned with the drama than is even a Greek chorus: it has the authority of a narrational metalanguage as well as of the particular history which The Dismissal constructs.

The commentary, then, frames the dramatic events by constructing itself as outside the drama, yet mediating between the drama and the viewer. To some extent it marks out a terrain of knowledge, like a chess board, in which the characters perform. Its present anterior tense maximizes empathy with the dramatic set of events whose outcome is already determined, not only as we know from 1983, but also avowedly by the text. For example:

Whitlam 's faith in his Governor-General will never falter. Estimable, perhaps, for its loyalty, it is to be a political mistake of the greatest magnitude (Part 3).

The sonorous tone here underscores the dramatic irony of Whitlam as a tragic hero: both the narrative form and the film's closure are overdetermined from the outset.

Throughout The Dismissal, this commentary constructs itself as a truth. It can thus close off, for instance, the question of CIA involvement in The Dismissal, by asserting that this cannot be known:

There will be allegations, deep suspicions, scraps of evidence. But the precise role of the CIA and Australia's own security organisations in the events of 1975 is to remain a mystery (Part 2).

The dramatic conventions adopted by The Dismissal are clearly more concerned with entertainment values than with those of historical analysis. All four plots of The Dismissal hinge on the notion of the dramatic crisis. The first, the ousting of Sneddon by Fraser, sets up the latter's credentials as worthy antagonist of Whitlam in the supply crisis. The second and third plots—the scandals of Cairns and Morosi, and of Connor over the loans affair—indicate Labor's weakness and prefigure its downfall. Finally, occupying all of the third part of The Dismissal, is the Supply crisis and the sacking of the Labor Government.

The dramatic mode clearly locates politics in terms of individuals' actions. Party politics is reduced to individual criticisms, deals and connivances, which are set in a variety of corridors and back-rooms of Parliament House, as well as in the more formal setting of the chambers. External political forces (such as the media and the CIA) are virtually excluded by this means of representation. Issues of politics are therefore presented in terms of the leanings, capacities, successes and failures of individual characters.

In this context, the quotation concerning Whitlam's 'faith in his Governor-General' instances The Dismissal's construction of politics in its final plot, the triangular drama of power plays between the flawed king, Whitlam, the scheming pretender, Fraser, and the (deeply humanized) deus ex machina, Kerr. The quotation marks out the distinction and discrepancies between the ideals of a parliamentary democracy (as epitomized in the Constitution and the job of the Governor-General) and its practices ('real', dirty politics such as those leading to Sneddon's replacement by Fraser, and to the blocking of Supply). The dramatic form represents this in terms of Whitlam being 'too trusting', that is, believing both in the ideals of parliamentary democracy (as a lawyer) and in the destiny of 'the common man' (as a Labor Party member). Such hubris contrasts with the characterization of Fraser as a patrician who understands the ruses and opportunism of political life.

Two factors in particular reinforce this individualization of politics through the mobilization of moral discourses. The first is the function of characters within the plot as its points of empathetic involvement for the spectator, and their consequent eliciting of primarily emotional relations and reactions from the spectator. This is not to deny that tension between emotional responses to different characters may generate critical thought about the political issues, but such thought is still limited by the parameters of those characterizations and of the plot. The second factor, supporting this, is the highly empathetic acting style adopted in The Dismissal (which in the production went even to the extent of keeping actor John Meillon isolated from the rest of the cast so that he would 'experience' Kerr's isolation). Such acting militates against the possible interposition of any Brechtian critical distance between performer and character, and thus between character and spectator. The Dismissal dwells long and empathetically on Kerr's protracted decision-making, in which, significantly, Lady Kerr—like a Lady Macbeth opposite Kerr's Hamlet—is afforded far greater prominence than is Barwick's letter of constitutional advice to Kerr. And when Kerr turns to the camera as he ponders 'Do I impose a solution?', this is a tragic soliloquy rather than any appeal to the spectator to think in terms other than those set by the plot and the characters. Moreover, empathy with the isolated, incorruptible man taking the tough decision precludes consideration of other, non-familial factors which may have been involved in the decision. Witness the playing down of Bar wick's advice and the tidying away of the question of CIA involvement in the events at the end of Part 2. The Dismissal's principal dramatic elements—its crisis-centred plots and its empathetic characterization—naturalize the history which it constructs.

The Dismissal, then, constitutes one possible representation of the Whitlam revocation of November 1975. It succeeds in representing something of a complex legal debate and its still disputed antecedents in a highly accessible mode of television. It is to be welcomed as the first attempt to produce a 'history' of those events: principally, the widespread view of an inept Labor Government wasting tax payers' money and generating wild inflation and the Supply crisis itself. But it must be emphasized that, despite its engaging realism, The Dismissal does not exhaust the possible representations of the demise of the Whitlam Government. It could be argued that the production, reception and debate of The Dismissal have opened up a space for other televisual excursions into contemporary politics. These may entail different forms of television programmes (perhaps relying less on individual drama), which could extend debate to displace the conception of Australian politics as a privileged and separate domain almost immune to extra-parliamentary forces and ultimately supervised by the Constitution, thereby shifting debate to consider the forms and the actual conditions of existence of political practices which are enacted in relation to the Constitution.

Griffith University


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