The late former Governor-General Paul Hasluck, when reflecting on the 1975 dismissal of Gough Whitlam, said that the issue wasn’t one of power but whether the circumstances justified the decision.
“The point at issue in the public controversy,” said Hasluck, “is not whether the Governor-General had the power but whether he was justified by the facts as he saw and interpreted them, and if he were justified by the facts whether he was wise to use the power.”
The modern republican lobbyist has become obsessed with power, specifically the powers of an Australian President, and not with improving Australian democracy.
Hasluck makes an important point – one that drives a cleavage between the republican movement and those proud of our constitutional monarchy and believing things should remain as they are.
Indeed, republican lobby groups rarely speak of the facts leading up to the dismissal, instead favouring royal scandal or Palace manipulation as a much easier explanation for our greatest constitutional crisis since federation.
- A series of politically disastrous gambles had seen Whitlam’s Senate position cave and his government unable to pass supply.
- He’d agreed with opposition leader Malcolm Fraser to keep spending bills alive by avoiding ‘extraordinary and reprehensible circumstances’.
- Whitlam broke this commitment after attempting to borrow money from a questionable Pakistani broker and not through the Commonwealth Treasury.
- Whitlam didn’t want to end the impasse and call a double dissolution election, or at least a general election for the House.
This all put the Governor-General Sir John Kerr in an impossible position.
But republican lobbyists move past these details, preferring instead to tar her Majesty the Queen in scandal and manipulation.
The release of the Palace Letters – a costly ploy for the Australian Republic Movement (ARM) in terms of money and reputation estimated at several million dollars which the taxpayer will have to foot – has not only vindicated Kerr but shown that her Majesty acted well above reproach.
“This is not about whether you like the queen personally or if you think the Whitlam government was a good one,” wrote the head of the ARM following the release of the letters.
But Whitlam’s performance – indeed his prime ministership – is exactly what this is about.
Whitlam had let things get so out of hand that the circumstances justified Kerr’s decision – a decision taken entirely by an Australian Governor-General, representing the Queen of Australia, and essentially putting the decision back into the hands of an Australian public.
Rather than acknowledge this, however, or temper any of their tactics, the ARM has doubled down on their obsession with Buckingham Palace, raging at ‘unelected English officials!’ and pushing forward with their designs for a (political) President.
Indeed, if one follows republican proposals closely, one sees a continued desire to shape, codify and divvy up powers in every possible way by removing power from the Queen and Governor-General and increasing the power of politicians.
This includes not just how a president would be appointed but when that person could dissolve parliament and from where legal advice could be obtained, not to mention a range of permissions, stages and other steps to work through.
In sum – a lot on powers, but very little on any improvement to Australian democracy.
Keeping Things As They Are
A key feature of our current arrangements is their relative simplicity. Reserve powers – to appoint and dismiss, and to dissolve parliament – can be applied by the Governor-General depending on the circumstances.
As Hasluck alludes, this enables decisions to be met by the facts at the time, not by anticipating every scenario that may arise.
Hasluck, but many others before him, had the foresight to appreciate this. And we’ll do well to remember this, and keep our current arrangements in place.
Image source: The Australian/Brett Thomson