Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Follow Up: The Night of the Long Prawns


In the list of 2016 celebrity deaths I mentioned the breaches of parliamentary convention by Tom Lewis and Joh Bjelke-Peterson in refusing to appoint replacements of the same political party to fill casual parliamentary vacancies. In the latter case Joh’s appointment of Albert Field led to the blocking of supply (ie blocking money to run the country), eventually leading to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government.  I also mentioned that Gough Whitlam was not an innocent in such matters.

The Gair Affair is a prime example and an interesting footnote to Australian history.


Gough Whitlam and the Australian Labor Party were elected to government in 1972 after 23 years in the political wilderness. 

That election gave Labor control of the House of Representatives by 9 seats but it did not control the Senate, where it was 5 seats short. The next election for the House of Representatives was due in 4 years; elections for the Senate however were staggered, whereby half of the Senate went to elections each 6 years, with the next half-Senate election due in 1974. As an added possibility, where the Senate twice rejects a Bill, the Prime Minister can dissolve both Houses (known as a double dissolution) and call a general election for both houses.

Vince Gair:

Vincent Clair Gair was a former member of the ALP, a member of the Senate and a member of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), a group hostile to the ALP. The DLP usually voted with the Coalition, the alliance of the Liberal Party and the Country Party. Gair had been rolled as leader of the DLP shortly before the events described below. At the time that the ALP was elected to government in 1972, the DLP had 5 Senate members, Gair’s term of office being due to expire in 1977. He had announced that this would be his last term, that he night well leave before his term was up and that he felt that he had been illtreated by the DLP.

More background:

At the time, the Constitution provided that a casual Senate vacancy was filled by an appointment made by the relevant state parliament (as is still the case), but under Section 15, the appointed senator's term came to an end on the day before the next election for either the Senate or the House of Representatives, or both. (Since 1977, a replacement senator continues for the remainder of the original senator's term.)

Labor’s offer to Gair:

Knowing that Gair was disgruntled and receptive to leaving the Senate before the end of his term, Gair was offered the post of Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland. This would require him to resign his seat in the Senate.  Labor wanted this to occur before the writs for the impending half-Senate election were issued. This would have the effect of causing writs to be issued for the election of 6 senators from Queensland, not the 5 as would otherwise have been the case (at that time, each state had 10 senators, and 5 of them were elected at each half-Senate election). In a normal half-Senate election, Labor could expect to win 2 of the 5 seats in Queensland. However, if 6 seats were up for election, Labor could expect to win 3, and this would give it the bare majority it needed in the Senate to guarantee passage of future legislation. 

Gair accepted the offer on 13 March 1974. The Irish Government accepted the appointment on 19 March. It cabled its approval to Canberra, where it was received on 20 March.

On 21 March 1974 Whitlam advised Parliament that he was calling a half-Senate election on 18 May 1974 and that this had been approved by the Governor General. The issue of the writs for the election was to be discussed between the Governor General and the State governors.

It was intended that Gair would tender his resignation to the President of the Senate on 2 April 1974 when it returned from a break, that resignation being before the writs were issued, and that the matter would remain confidential until then.

The Night of the Long Prawns:

On the morning of 2 April, The Sun News-Pictorial newspaper broke the news of Gair's appointment to Ireland. In Parliament, the Leader of the Opposition, Billy Snedden, asked Prime Minister Whitlam to admit the appointment, which Whitlam did.

Billy Snedden.

The Leader of the National Country Party (NCP), Doug Anthony, phoned the NCP Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, urging him to have the writs for the Queensland Senate seats issued immediately, before Gair had a chance to see the Senate President and resign.

Doug Anthony

Whilst various Coalition members made attempts to get the writs issued before Gair tendered his resignation, Country Party MP Ron Maunsell and other members entertained Vince Gair in Maunsell's office, keeping up a supply of alcohol and prawns.  Maunsell regularly brought batches of prawns from his home base in Townsville to share with his parliamentary colleagues in Canberra. Ian Wood, a tee-totaller, had no problems in keeping up the alcohol supply to Gair.  Maunsell later advised Parliament that, Gair not having eaten all day and the dining room staff being on strike, he was simply extending hospitality to a fellow Queenslander.

To forestall any suggestion that Gair had effectively resigned in March when his appointment as ambassador had been approved, Gair had to be seen to vote in Parliament. The Senators drinking with Gair propped him up in the Senate on the evening of 2 April for a vote on the Petroleum and Minerals Authority Bill, then took him back to the office for more whisky and prawns.

The Senate sat until 12.30am. Gair left for home at 3.00am without having tendered his resignation to the President of the Senate At 11.00pm on 2 April 1974 the Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen announced to the Queensland Parliament that the Governor had, on his recommendation, issued writs for the election of five senators.

Labor had been out-maneuvered in what became known as "The Night of the Long Prawns" thanks to a newspaper headline in The Australian of 4 April 1974

On 3 April, Vince Gair was expelled from the DLP. He tendered his resignation to the President of the Senate the same day.

The resignation prompted considerable debate and argument as to when Gair had actually resigned and the effect of his voting in Parliament, even to the Government seeking legal opinion from the Solicitor-General of Australia.

Double dissolution and aftermath:

The whole matter became academic when, on 10 April 1974, Gough Whitlam advised the House of Representatives that he was calling a double dissolution election, the election for both houses to be held on the already announced date of 18 May 1974. The Parliament was dissolved on 11 April. 

According to the official record of the Senate, Vince Gair remained a senator until 11 April 1974, at which time he retired.

At the election, all five Senate seats held by the DLP were lost, that being the end of the DLP.

The Labor Party was returned with a reduced majority of five in the lower house, and it remained without a majority in the Senate. 

Vince Gair took up his post as Ambassador to Ireland in early May 1974, but his behaviour there was often considered inappropriate and he was recalled by the Liberal-National Coalition government of Malcolm Fraser in early 1976.

Journalist Jenny Hocking has said of the affair: "The government's attempts to effect an additional Senate vacancy through Gair's resignation was constitutionally sound, strategically brilliant and an unmitigated political disaster."

It is also worth also quoting Vince Gair’s remark to his parliamentary DLP colleagues at the time of his expulsion from the party: "I've carried you bastards for years, and now you can all go to buggery!"

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