Features Australia

Have republicans no shame?

Notes on Turnbull’s treachery and Whitlam being ‘wronged’

14 November 2015

9:00 AM

14 November 2015

9:00 AM

So all that plotting and leaking, all that destabilisation, was just for this. Tony Abbott was knifed so Malcolm Turnbull’s one original and entirely new policy could emerge, an end to knighthoods. Even then its delivery was ham-fisted. Instead of following NZ Labour and changing the name of the award for new appointees, Turnbull kept knighthoods but ruled out conferring any more.

He could have continued granting knighthoods as many republics do, but make the accolade and therefore the title optional or even withhold it.

Driven by the same republican obsession which led to the defeat of his seriously defective model in 1999, Turnbull shot himself in the foot, denying the government a cost-free diplomatic tool. They can now hardly confer a second level award on some distinguished world leader or great achiever.

As for the New Zealanders, they soon realized their error. Given the choice between meaningless letters of the alphabet and something internationally recognizable, their leading athletes, scientists and artists overwhelmingly chose knighthoods. Thus their favourite son, the magnificent All Blacks Captain will on his retirement become Sir Richie McCaw.Just as we once did when we recognized our greatest soldier, Sir John Monash, our greatest cricketer, Sir Donald Bradman and our greatest singers, Dame Nellie Melba and Dame Joan Sutherland.

But as with their superannuation, there’s a very different rule for some politicians whose lives are as different from rank and file Australians as the aristocracy under the ancien régime.

Some will even accept knighthoods from any president, prelate or prince, while denouncing those from the monarch to whom they so regularly swear allegiance. Yet on retirement they will plead with HM to remain ‘The Honourable’. Honourable indeed.

During the referendum campaign, we monarchists could not believe our luck with two retired politicians. We used to meet in a sort of high command national telephone hook up early every morning. These were usually serious meetings, but on one occasion we were briefed about a new republican advertisement. This one featured Whitlam saying to Fraser: ‘Malcolm, it’s time.’ Fraser treacherously replies: ‘it is’.

This was rolled gold for our cause, an own-goal by the Turnbull-led republicans. As Sir David Smith writes in his magisterial book Head of State, these two ‘stubborn and arrogant men’, had been prepared in 1975 to see the collapse of our system of government and of our economy in ‘their respective struggles for dominance over the other’.

Which brings me to the 40th anniversary of the dismissal, so marked by an avalanche of material, much of it regurgitating the rejected argument that Whitlam was somehow wronged.

This was always a political and not a constitutional crisis. Sir David sums up the results. He says that with nothing more than some signatures on a few pieces of paper, a prime minister was removed and another installed. And unlike the in-house knifing of Abbott, the issue was immediately referred to the rulers in our democracy, the people. One month later they delivered their decisive verdict.

Hardly anyone now believes that the CIA was behind this, and except for one academic, nobody believes that Buckingham Palace was implicated.

Notwithstanding Bob Carr’s eccentric view that Gough Whitlam had destroyed the reserve powers, nobody seriously argues that a viceroy does not have the discretion to deal with political crises similar to those in 1975. Probably the world’s greatest authority on the reserve powers, Labor leader Dr H.V. Evatt confirmed this long ago in The King and His Dominion Governors.

Not only that, Labor since 1949 tried 170 times to withhold supply and force a prime minister to resign or recommend an early election. Whitlam’s shadow Attorney, Lionel Murphy, was so proud of this he even tabled the full list. When Smith reminded Fraser of this, he had forgotten all about it.

The argument that Kerr should not have consulted the judges just does not stand up to scrutiny. Even Whitlam admitted that one former governor-general did this, ignoring that at least five others at the federal level and many in the states before Kerr did. A British law lord, Lord Wilberforce, confirmed to me that in the birthplace of the separation of powers, the Palace regularly consults with the judges. An exercise of the reserve powers is not, as the lawyers say, justiciable.

The latest attack on Sir John Kerr is based on Fraser’s spurious claim made years after the event that he was tipped off by Kerr about the dismissal in a Whitlam-authorised telephone conversation on the morning of 11 November. He later told Paul Kelly he claimed to have a note of this, but took another 18 years to produce it. But on the very day of the dismissal, Fraser told the doyen of political journalists, Alan Reid, that he didn’t know why he was being called to Government House.

Moreover Fraser didn’t protest when Reid quoted his denial in his book, nor when Kerr confirmed this in his memoirs. If Fraser’s subsequent claim were true, he had been lying for years, hardly a credible witness. Fraser’s note claims to set out the conditions Kerr imposed on Fraser for appointment. But it includes one condition Kerr never required and never asked Sir David Smith to include in the letter Fraser signed before being appointed. If the piece of paper is genuine, it probably lists the likely conditions Fraser and his advisers assumed would be likely to be imposed.

Whitlam of course full well knew the rules and knew he was courting dismissal. He told the visiting Malaysian Prime Minister as much when he said the supply crisis would probably end in a race between himself and Kerr to see which one of them could sack the other first. He had already asked the Queen to sack the Queensland governor. The only question is why Kerr moved against Whitlam on 11 November. Whitlam had arranged the meeting to advise a half senate election. He knew this was no solution. It was well known that some governors would have refused to issue the necessary writs and any new senators would not have sat until July 1976. Pensions, salaries and debts would soon go unpaid, and the time for a 1975 election was running out. If Kerr rejected this advice he would have added a constitutional crisis to the existing political crisis.

Whitlam could have gone to the election as Prime Minister. He chose not to do this and thus chose 11 November to seal his fate and to play the martyr.

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