Features Australia

Whitlam’s solution

Go to the people

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

The republican movement is in disarray. It is split several ways: whether to promote an elected or appointed president with or without reserve powers, whether to campaign against the Queen, whether to campaign on a single fake issue and most importantly, those who are dismayed by all this and demand a more serious approach.

The latter are led by the grand vizier of the Nineties republican campaign,  Paul Kelly. Enthroned on a powerful bandwagon and with all the mainstream media rendering dutiful obeisance, most of the politicians had either clambered abroad or kept their heads well under the parapet. Only the brave honoured their oaths of allegiance.

Forget 1975 as a casebook for change. Kerr did exactly what the constitution prescribed and Whitlam reiterated in 1970 (when Labor was trying to block supply). And while all demand a republic, twenty years after the ‘No’ landslide, where are the detailed amendments?   And how will they significantly improve governance?

Over a decade ago at a debate at Sydney’s Trades Hall, I revealed that not only had I been a union delegate there but that just before he was sacked in 1932, Premier Jack Lang hid there a fortune in cash drained from state government  accounts. Lang even considered arresting the governor, a view similar to that of Indonesian dictator Suharto who asked, an excited Paul  Keating once reported,  ‘Why didn’t Whitlam have Kerr arrested?’

As to the debate, the other member of the ‘No’ team was Jai Martinkovits, successor to Tony Abbott, Kerry Jones and Thomas Flynn as Australians for Consitutional Monarchy’s then and current executive director. ACM neither changes its director every couple of years as the Australian Republican Movement does, nor its reasons for opposing the ARM’s sole justification for massive constitutional change, to obtain an Australian as head of state. We already have an Australian as head of state, the governor-general. Even Malcolm Turnbull agrees.

The ARM recently publicised a poll which asked, as Paul Keating once proposed, a trick question:  whether respondents want an Australian as head of state. Calling their bluff, ACM said it would advise a ‘Yes’ vote. Just before this, the ARM ignored a YouGov poll predicting the death of republicanism―— only one third of young Australians want a republic.

Returning to the 2009 debate, Professor George Williams and the current ‘shadow assistant minister for the republic’ (previously for ‘an Australian head of state’), Matt Thistlethwaite, spoke for the ‘Yes’ case.

When the Palace Letters exploded,  the ARM’s long and unbelievable obsession that the Queen was implicated in the sacking of Gough Whitlam — something which neither Whitlam nor any serious observer believed — Thistlethwaite and Shadow Attorney-General and Queen’s Counsel Mark Dreyfus seem not to have read the letters. Only this can explain their bizarre accusation that the Queen advised ‘the governor-general on how to remove our elected prime minister’ and of not telling Whitlam ‘what was being planned.’

Whitlam, who later admitted to the Palace that Kerr had acted according to the Constitution, knew precisely what he had to do constitutionally. Addressing parliament in 1970 on Labor’s 170th attempt to block supply, he said that ‘if a money bill is defeated the government goes to the people to seek their endorsement of its policies.’

Incidentally, Whitlam telephoned me at the time of the referendum to obtain a copy of The Cane Toad Republic, which historian Professor Geoffrey Blainey said was the best book on the referendum. Whitlam added, ‘Of course, I’ll have to turn it to the wall in my bookshelf.’

The mainstream media usually report as undisputed fact that Kerr never warned Whitlam about the use of the reserve powers. But Kerr says they discussed them on four enumerated occasions. Whitlam denied three but accepts that at a dinner for Malaysian PM Tun Abdul Razuk, he did say, he claims flippantly, that it all  depended on who got to the Palace first.

Interviewed recently by David Pellowe for goodsauce.news, I was reminded that Kerr was troubled by the legality of Whitlam’s scheme to issue bank warrants to creditors. Then there was the approval of a massive loan through an unorthodox source, Pakistani commodities trader Tirath Khemlani, at a meeting of the Executive Council of which he should have been forewarned, but was not. All of this reminded me of the Lang affair.

Kerr is also criticised for seeking advice from judges, but this was always considered proper. Indeed, Lord Wilberforce told me that his opinion and those of other senior British judges were frequently sought by the Palace.

As to his ultimate advice to hold a half-senate election, Whitlam knew this was no solution. Some state governors would be advised against issuing the writs and in any event, new state senators would not take office for eight months.

While the Queen’s former secretary,  Sir William Heseltine, told both an ACM National Conference in Perth and more recently the Australian that if consulted, he would have suggested a short delay, Kerr was assured 11 November was the last day on which an election could be called in 1975.

If Whitlam was surprised by anything, it was Kerr’s courage. As he had told parliament in 1970, an election was the only solution. Otherwise why did he go back to the Lodge and have a large steak for lunch, no doubt rehearsing one of the most memorable lines in Australian history ‘Well may we say…’.

And why did he not contact his Senate colleagues to block supply and thus stop the dissolution?

Whitlam knew Kerr had done Labor a great favour in two ways. Labor was to keep 35 seats; without the dismissal they would have been lucky to have kept half of these. Not only would it be easier to regain office, but Fraser would also be so fearful of stirring up further division,  he would refrain from  unwrapping many Labor policies.

1975 was a political and not a constitutional crisis. The constitution operated as Whitlam argued. The decision was with the people. What is the problem?

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