Issues from Gough Whitlam’s 1975 dismissal lie dormant until the republic debate revives

The 40th anniversary of Gough Whitlam’s dismissal this week has us all looking back, and academic columnist Michelle Grattan opens
Fans finally get to say goodbye to Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher.

The 40th anniversary of Gough Whitlam’s dismissal this week has us all looking back, and academic columnist Michelle Grattan opens the box on it today, declaring that the issues from his dismissal will potentially lie open until Australia becomes a republic. Do you agree with her perspective?  Do you believe the double dissolution was appropriate at the time? 

In comments reported in a new book to mark the 40th anniversary of the Remembrance Day dismissal of Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott offer sharply differing views on the actions of Governor-General John Kerr.

Turnbull is bluntly critical. “I was surprised and shocked that Kerr did it,” he said in an interview with the book’s co-author Paul Kelly in July. “Kerr should have given Whitlam full notice of what he was proposing to do.”

Kerr told Turnbull, when they met in London sometime after, that if he’d warned Whitlam, the prime minister would have sacked him. “I think that’s a very poor excuse,” Turnbull says. “You know, you have got to do your job … all of us should be fulfilling our duty and not having regard to self-interest like that.” Turnbull also says with the benefit of hindsight he would probably not have followed Malcolm Fraser’s strategy of blocking supply.

In contrast, Abbott, also interviewed in July, when he was still prime minister, had no reservations about the actions of Kerr or Fraser.

This anniversary of the most tumultuous event in Australia’s federal political history has produced two new accounts: The Dismissal – In the Queen’s Name by Kelly and Troy Bramston, which Turnbull will launch on Wednesday, and Jenny Hocking’s The Dismissal Dossier. Kerr comes out in a bad light in both.

Coincidentally, Prince Charles will be in Canberra on Wednesday – that notable 1975 Remembrance Day might feature in the chit-chat between the Prince and Turnbull.

The dismissal at the time seemed to suggest great dangers for the future, putting the political system at long-term risk.

But as things have turned out, the consequences have been limited. No opposition has contemplated threatening supply in the four decades since – anyway, the Senate make-up would not have allowed it.

Many in today’s young generation might find it hard to get their heads around the passions of the politically aware in 1975; they might indeed be more inclined to a neutral view about what Kerr did rather than the intensely polarised opinions of that time.

The events of 1975 were the product of institutional factors – the extraordinarily powerful Senate that Australia has, and the governor-general’s sweeping reserve powers – and the particular circumstances and individuals.

The personalities of Kerr, Whitlam and Fraser were crucial. For a recent panel discussion on the dismissal I was asked to imagine a hypothetical: if in 1975 the governor-general had been Quentin Bryce, the prime minister Julia Gillard and the opposition leader Tony Abbott, could we have seen such a scenario played out?

I could match Abbott to Fraser – and this is reinforced by his observations to Kelly, insisting that it was “right for Fraser to do what he did with supply”. But Gillard would have been much less likely than Whitlam to take a confrontational route in face of the opposition’s action, more likely than he was to adopt a consultative approach with the governor-general.

And, from all we know of her, it is impossible to imagine Bryce plotting behind the back of the prime minister and then, without warning, wielding the axe. It is easy to see her trying to find a way through the crisis as mediator.

While the issues around the dismissal are now in the history basket rather than the “for action” one, they will revive whenever Australia again considers whether to become a republic. They could not be avoided in discussion of an Australian head of state.

The head of state’s powers to dismiss a prime minister would need to be addressed, and a decision taken either to codify the reserve powers or leave them, as now, not spelled out.

One result of the failure of the 1999 referendum – when Turnbull as chairman of the Australian Republican Movement spearheaded the “yes” case – was that the best chance to get up a model in which the president is appointed rather than popularly elected was lost. The unsuccessful question sought “to alter the constitution to establish … a republic with the Queen and the governor-general being replaced by a president appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth parliament”.

Next time round, there will be a stronger push for the president to be directly elected, giving him or her a mandate from the people. That would sharpen the need to clarify the president’s powers – and indeed the circumstances in which a president could be removed.

The situation could arise where the public wanted a popularly elected president, but that model also strengthened the hand of those opposing a republic because it lent itself to a fear campaign. And it is not hard to defeat a referendum, which must win in a majority of states as well nationally to pass.

Two republicans will face off at next year’s federal election – but only one is interested in promoting the republic as an issue.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten does not believe Australia should wait until after the Queen’s reign to renew the debate. “Let us make this the first decade where our head of state is one of us,” he told the ALP national conference.

Despite his 1990s fervour – he accused John Howard of breaking the nation’s heart after the defeat of the referendum – Turnbull these days kicks the republican issue well down the track. Asked about it after he became prime minister, he said: “My own view for what it is worth … is that the next occasion for the republic referendum to come up is going to be after the end of the Queen’s reign. While I am a republican there are much more immediate issues.”

Turnbull is not making furthering a republic one of his prime ministerial KPIs.

[Do you think Turnbull should be making becoming a republic more of a priorityThe Conversation?]

By Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra.  This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

  1. No, I agree much more pressing issues. I would be happy if it stayed well out of our lives all together.

  2. NO REPUBLIC FOR AUSTRALIA. Leave it the way it is. We voted against it. All we need now is some decent, honest politicians that have Australia and Australians their first priority, not trying to be egotistical maniacs and feathering their own nest.

  3. Ian Stocks  

    For those of us who were around in 1975, the sacking of Whitlam didn’t come soon enough. We had massive inflation, record unemployment and the country was so broke that Whitlam’s mob were looking to borrowing money from Arab nations to get by. All this after only thee years of Whitlam’s Government. His dismissal didn’t come soon enough. And let’s not forget that Fraser returned to power with a landslide election win at the election that took place shortly afterwards.

    As for the Republic issues, if they were evident then, they were small issues compared to the state of the Australian economy.

    Yes we will become a republic one day and the sooner the better but don’t tie it to Whitlam and his gross mis-management.

    • Susan Bell  

      Senate refused to pass supply bills. Never been done before and against all conventions. Kerr was planning to make his name by destroying Whitlam as soon as got into office. He started talking to CIA, Fraser and the royal family. This was absolutely the wrong thing to do, against all conventions and the constitution. Joh Bejelk Peterson again broke all convention when a senate seat from Queensland needed to be filled. He rejected the three Labour nominees (a vacancy has to be filled from the party that held it when it became vacant). He promised the snivelling turncoat Field the world if he nominated. Fields agreed to stand as Labour but only vote with the Liberals. Fields was still employed by the education department when he was nominated, another broken convention.
      On the day of the dismissal Whitlam was preparing to go to the GG and call an election. Fraser was already there. The GG takes views from the Prime Minister not the opposition. Parliament continued sitting in the afternoon, supply was passed by the Senate and Whilam/Labour held the confidence of the lower house. This was a day of great infamy.
      I have never respected the Royal family, the only reason we lost the vote on a republic is because the way the question was formulated by Howard, no one could support it.
      Do not comment on the way the parliament, executive and constitution work unless you have actually studied Australian history, government and administration.

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