Every time proponents for an Australian republic cite the Whitlam dismissal as a case for it – as they did this week in spades – they set the cause back, for the simple reason that it reminds many Coalition voters that the monarchy enabled them to get rid of a Labor Government so let’s keep it.
Unless the republican movement can get wide support, including Abbott’s “Team Australia”, the cause will remain elusive.
It is not a left-right or Labor-Green vs Coalition-One Nation matter. It is a matter of national pride and identity.
The release of the correspondence between Governor-General John Kerr and the Queen via her private secretary, Martin Charteris, was truly demeaning. The foreigners in Buckingham Palace should have had nothing to do with government in Australia. But they did.
However, much too much can be made of the correspondence. It shows Kerr as a social-climbing sycophant, but it hardly shows Charteris as a conspirator to get rid of a nasty pro-republic, socialist Government in Canberra.
The evidence of that is that Charteris at one stage suggested that Kerr sign the Appropriation Bills into law without the Senate’s approval. True, he also suggested that Kerr had the power to dismiss a Government. But that is unremarkable. It is what the Constitution says.
The real question is not whether the power is there or even the circumstances under which it should be exercised. The question is: why should the Australian Constitution provide for an unelected Governor-General representing the Queen (in London who is not an Australian) to be able to dismiss a government; call on someone to form a government; agree to an early election or double dissolution; or sign (or not sign) Bills passed by the Parliament into law?
Remember, too, there is a solid argument that the Vice-Regal position also cost the Coalition government once. In 1983, Governor-General Ninian Stephen required Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser to go away and provide more detailed reasons as to why he should grant a double dissolution.
In the meantime, Labor changed leader from Bill Hayden to Bob Hawke and Hawke won the election. Hayden argued that a drover’s dog could have won that election for Labor, but there is a good case for the contrary view given Hawke’s broad popularity.
The correspondence reveals, also, that Labor was not above involving the monarch in Australian politics. After his dismissal, Whitlam telephoned Charteris telling him that he had had a vote of confidence in the House of Representatives and that the Appropriation Bills had passed the Senate so the Palace should tell Kerr to reinstate him, Whitlam, as Prime Minister. Nothing came of it.
The whole sorry episode was one of power: usurping it, getting it, keeping it, getting it back or, in the case of Kerr, exercising it.
The lessons have been clear for 45 years. We should redraft the Constitution so everything is self-exercising and there would be simply no role for a Governor-General, President or Head of State other than as Chief Mourner, Chief Celebrator and Chief Encourager.
How do you do that? Well for more than 30 years the ACT has worked without a Governor, Head of State or Administrator. At the federal level it would work in a similar way. The Electoral Commission would declare who had been elected to the House of Representatives.
The Clerk of the House would swear them in. They would then elect a Speaker and a Prime Minister before any other business.
Elections would be fixed, say, on the third Saturday in November every three years. There would be no early elections or double dissolutions. If the Senate blocked legislation, that legislation would be able to be passed after the subsequent election by the House alone. The voters would have, in effect, voted for that legislation if they re-elected the government.
If a new Supply Bill were blocked by the Senate, the previous year’s appropriation would continue indefinitely until a new appropriation was passed, so government would not grind to a halt.
If a Government no longer had the support of a majority of the House of Representatives it could be removed by a vote of no confidence which must name the new Prime Minister before it could be put to the House.
With those things, there would be no political role for the Governor-General.
As to the Governor-Generalship, it should not be the gift of the Prime Minister. Simple interim legislation could require approval by a joint sitting before the Prime Minister would be lawfully permitted to put a name to the Queen. Ultimately a referendum could enshrine the process without regal involvement.
And while we are at it, the people’s representatives should have more oversight over judicial and statutory appointments and over whether the nation goes to war. And Freedom of Information law should expunge the sort of secrecy that kept the Kerr correspondence documents from the Australian people so long.
The correspondence and the existing words of the Constitution reveal another important point. The continued actual or symbolic constitutional role for the monarchy is a perpetuation of the power (actual or symbolic) of the British invaders.
The disgraceful, offhand rejection of the Uluru Statement by the Coalition Government should be reversed. Again, it should be a matter of national pride to reconcile. For example, why can’t the original Indigenous people of Australia have the same representation in the Australian Senate as the five original states?
People who identify as Indigenous could have a choice of either voting for the 12 state Senate seats or for the 12 Indigenous Senate seats.
Eventually, Australia must resolve these entwined matters of national identity which go hand in hand. We must remove the last vestiges (whether symbolic or real) of imperial monarchical power from our Constitution and nsert both real and symbolic power for Indigenous Australians.
That should be the lesson from the 1975 correspondence.
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Several respondents to last week’s article and people commenting on similar articles in the media about the decline of the US’s power and influence wrongly assumed that the commentary was gleeful. To the contrary, the commentary was made in sadness that, the way things are going in the US, government of the people, by the people, for the people, is less likely to flourish on the earth.
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Re Covid: Alas, necessarily, the price of eternal vigilance is freedom.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 18 July 2020.