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Gareth Evans maintains the rage

Sir John Kerr was the worst of Australia’s Governors-General and his legacy was to delay the emergence of an Australian republic…

Professor Gareth Evans believes the political wounds from the actions of Sir John Kerr are yet to heal completely. AAP/Lukas Coch

Sir John Kerr was the worst of Australia’s Governors-General and his legacy was to delay the emergence of an Australian republic, former Labor minister Gareth Evans will tell a seminar today.

Professor Evans will say that Sir John, who dismissed Gough Whitlam from the prime ministership, had a “catastrophic” tenure.

It was not marked by dignity, competence or effectiveness. He showed “far less dispassionate non-partisanship than any politician incumbent of the office [of Governor General].”

Professor Evans, Chancellor of the Australian National University, will open the seminar on “Values and Visions of Australia’s Governors-General,” at ANU.

Recalling that he has written and edited books on the dismissal period in his previous incarnation as a constitutional lawyer, he says: “My views on Kerr’s values, vision and understanding of the office have not mellowed - either as a Labor politician, with all the emotional baggage that might be thought to go with that, or as a lawyer, being as intellectually objective as I can.”

The bitter political divisions generated by Sir John’s action have barely healed to this day, Professor Evans says.

“One interesting side effect of the Kerr legacy is that it has delayed the emergence of an Australian republic rather longer than would otherwise have been the case, given the majority sentiment which has long existed for having a home grown head of state,” he says.

Such a change would not mean in practice doing away with the office of the Governor-General, “but rather transforming it from a representative position to a fully fledged head of state one in its own right.”

Professor Evans says the 1999 referendum on a republic failed essentially because of divisions in the republican side between those wanting the head of state to be popularly elected and those - including him - who feared this would, unless the formal constitutional powers of the position were also curtailed, create a situation where an incumbent might feel emboldened to misuse their powers in the way that Kerr had done.

Evans says Sir John was followed by several of Australia’s very best Governors-General, including his two immediate successors, Sir Zelman Cowen and Sir Ninian Stephen, “who rose magnificently to the task of healing national divisions over 1975 and restoring… respect for the office.”

Join the conversation

60 Comments sorted by

  1. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    On the brighter side, Kerr, by his actions,confirmed that Australia is a de facto Republic not a monarchy.
    The Queen did not act as the Head of State then nor subsequently; the Governor General is the Head of State.

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    1. Peter Dawson

      Gap Decade

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Unless the only reason he acted was because he recieved encouragement and permission to do so from the Americans.

      That then would make us a de facto colony of America, not a de facto Republic.

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  2. Philip Howell

    Solicitor

    If Gareth Evans views on the republic are as limited as indicated in this article, then he remains a considerable disappointment.

    As far as future governance is concerned, Kerr is not the main issue. He was a traitor to democracy, but our democracy should have been strong enough to withstand his deceit. The problem is that the democratic base in our written Constitution is very weak. If you read our Constitution, you find it is based on monarchy, democracy and federalism. The latter two are principles…

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    1. Trevor Kerr

      ISTP

      In reply to Philip Howell

      A complete re-draft of the Australian Constitution? Why not try something a bit easier, for a start, like knocking the Crown off the Victorian & Queensland State flags?

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    2. Josephine Colahan

      Peripatetic traveller

      In reply to Philip Howell

      Read the first comment: "The Queen did not act as the Head of State then nor subsequently; the Governor General is the Head of State."

      Democracy won the day - the election that followed Whitlam's dismissal showed the will of the people.

      Our head of government stepped in when other elected representatives spoke. You may notice that that head of government also put his political and personal position at risk - and new Governor Generals are appointed on a regular basis.

      The last thing Australia…

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    3. Henry Verberne

      Former IT Professional

      In reply to Josephine Colahan

      I have some problems with this Josephine. If "the election that followed Whitlam's dismissal showed the will of the people" is seen as justification to remove an elected government then you would argue that John Howard could have been removed in 2001 before the Tampa incident as his popular support was low.

      I much prefer Philip Howell's view that "The Crown’s power to appoint and remove Governments would be vested in the House of Representatives, along with the power to call elections".

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    4. Josephine Colahan

      Peripatetic traveller

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      The election that followed Whitlam's dismissal is not a "justification" to remove an elected government, it is the result of the removal, In our democratic country the people choose which politicians speak for them. The result of the election in Nov 1975 could just as easily have been to reinstate Labor if the people had voted that way.

      I am very pleased that my Head of State is at such a remove from politics that they can act with impartiality. That, to me is the perfect balance found by the people and the sovereign over the pivot of politicians.

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    5. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to Josephine Colahan

      Oh dear, Josephine ... I think that an objective retrospective review of the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government will show that it was anything but impartial.

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    6. Michael Hay

      retired

      In reply to Philip Howell

      Thank you, Phillip. Best piece of sensible writing I have ever read on the subject. This could work and work well.
      So, what do we do about party politicians and their need to massage their egos rather than discuss such republican matters in a quiet and deliberate manner - as if they were actually sensible people instead of their determination to present themselves as a rabble ?

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    7. Michael Hay

      retired

      In reply to Josephine Colahan

      Josephine, you hit the proverbial nail fair on its scone. The problem is in the word "politics". You say you are pleased that your Head of State is at such remove from politics ...., but not from government !.
      Your thoughts are immured in the present stupidity of the fight for political power, but would hardly apply if our government was a a jury - unlimited scope for thinking about serious problems and acting in unison.
      But our rabble in every one of our many governments have been seduced by the Pursuit of Power and are ineffective as governors. So we must change our foolish system which we inherited from Mother England and install a system that suits an egalitarian society rather than a hide-bound class structure which gave us the Westminster System.

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    8. Josephine Colahan

      Peripatetic traveller

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Impartial in respect of the fact that although that particular governor general was appointed on the advice of the prime minister, he subsequently dismissed that prime minister. No bounds of loyalty to the party, only to the people of Australia whose sovereignty he represents.

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    9. Josephine Colahan

      Peripatetic traveller

      In reply to Michael Hay

      Not so foolish, Michael, is our system. Yes, we inherited it from Mother England - and look at the history of the rise of democracy in that country. It has taken centuries from the initial wresting power from monarch to the aristocracy with Magna Carta; a revolution and a republican government for 20 years because the monarch divorced the pope, reversion to a monarchy because of the ineptitude of the republic after the first forceful leader died; the glorious revolution which re-enacted the bill…

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    10. John Harland

      bicycle technician

      In reply to Josephine Colahan

      The appointment of the Leader of the Opposition to the position of caretaker Prime Minister meant that there was no chance of a fair election.

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    11. Josephine Colahan

      Peripatetic traveller

      In reply to John Harland

      Who do you think should have been appointed to the caretaker position, John - and why would they have been a better choice?

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    12. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to Josephine Colahan

      Hi Josephine ... did you miss the interference of the US General Black chief trouble shooter for the CIA? Alan Read, long standing Canberra Press Gallery person, did. Honi Soit didn't.

      Or, what about the "Fourth Man" recently outed as Mason CJ? So, perhaps Kerr's megalomania was an irrelevance unlike his taste for a tipple.

      Almost 40 years on and sadly Australia still remains under the blanket of cultural cringe of this earlier time.

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    13. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to John Harland

      John H, how do you figure that? How was the electoral process corrupted by the appointment of the caretaker government? Do some research on the wonders of Jim Cairns, Juni Morrosi and the fabulous Kimlani loans affair - you might be surprised at exactly how bloody hopeless Whitlam's mob were.

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    14. Josephine Colahan

      Peripatetic traveller

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      No, Jack Arnold, I didn't miss it - or, rather, I'm not particularly interested in that type of information. I like the broad picture. For example, did you miss what happened to Kerr? Would another GG take the risk? Think of Tolstoy's comment about battles in war - it is the simple chance of the moment that delivers a particular outcome. Have you thought about what Whitlam did or didn't do on the fateful day? And his actions that brought such concern to even contemplate this rather drastic response…

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    15. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to Josephine Colahan

      An interesting point of view Josephine. A bit of a pity that you are prepared to ignore what many consider to be relevant information in this matter.

      Your skepticism regarding law is likely well founded. However, Phillip Howell has some relevant comments.

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    16. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to John Phillip

      No "all" a CIA conspiracy; only that Black was despatched to Australia between 1972 and 1975 to "monitor" the situation where the Whitlam government had slipped the chain of US domination.

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    17. Philip Howell

      Solicitor

      In reply to Michael Hay

      Dear Michael, I don't have a solution for everything. Thanks for your support though.

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  3. Comment removed by moderator.

  4. mark delmege

    self employed

    Gareth Evans talks of independence as if it means something to him but he worked for many years for the International Crisis Group which as far as I can tell is just another front for Empire.

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  5. James Walker

    logged in via Facebook

    If Kerr had been a bad GG that would have *sped* transition to a republic, by increasing dislike for the office.

    Whitlam chose Kerr. Labor has never forgiven Kerr for being inpartial, rather than a bought stooge.

    Kerr sacked Whitlam because the government didn't have supply, and forcing an election allowed the general public to resolve the stalemate. It was the right decision.

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    1. mark delmege

      self employed

      In reply to James Walker

      Not so simple James Walker. Kerr was just the final cog in a multi-faceted black bag operation. Was it Pres Carter who promised the USofA would never interfere like that again in Aussie politics?

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    2. Mitch Dillon

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to James Walker

      Lets get this straight. The twice popularly-elected reformist government of the time was merely witheld supply by an opposition who, from day one in December 1972, denied the validity of that government.
      In November 1975, the opposition manipulated parliamentary proceedings so that a vote denying supply was not taken, because some members on the opposition side had a conscience, and therefore could not be relied upon to deny the government of the money needed to run the country.
      The oppositions…

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    3. Henry Verberne

      Former IT Professional

      In reply to Mitch Dillon

      Spot on in my view and you know what... the conservatives would do it again if they see the opportunity. There are some indications of this in the antics of the current opposition.

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  6. Simon Black

    logged in via Twitter

    Evans is right. The chance of a republic was sqaundered by the morons calling for a popularly elected president, asking for too much and ending up with nothing. Also didn't help having the referendum under Howard, who was able maniupulate the referendum question to make it almost impossible to say yes to.

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  7. Jack Arnold

    Director

    Well done Michelle. A nice short piece regurgitating the Evan's script and displaying little of your personal animosity or deep bias against the Gillard government. This approach may have been dropped because Prime Minister Gillard is not part of the story.

    Oh, for some detailed analysis of LIberal Notional Coalition policies and costings.

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  8. Phil S

    Physics PhD Student

    Every. single. paragraph. of. this. article. is. quoting. someone. ELSE.

    Seriously, this is not the quality of articles I expect to read on the conversation. On the left side of every article, this statement is made:

    "The Conversation provides independent analysis and commentary from academics and researchers."

    Do tell, how is this article providing commentary of analysis from the author?
    Ironic given the article yesterday on academic doping. Apparently repeatedly quoting someone over and over again is fine on the conversation? Perhaps I could submit a piece where I just quote bits from this article and it will get published??

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    1. Sunanda Creagh

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Phil S

      Hi Philip, thanks for reading. This is a news story by Michelle Grattan, which is why it appears in the Research and News column. It's reporting the contents of the Gareth Evans speech.

      It is not an Analysis and Comment piece. Analysis and commentary appears under the Analysis and Comment section or under the columnists section. Hope that answers your query. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

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    2. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to Sunanda Creagh

      Hi Sunanda. Thank you for the clarification. It is sometimes difficult to determine when Ms Grattan is writing for the Liberal Party or The Conversation.

      Would you be so kind as to request Ms Grattan to interrogate her extensive network of Liberal Party contacts to discover the Liberal Party's policies proposed for the 14 September 2013 election and write an "Analysis and Comment" piece in the immediate future, rather than in the three day run-up to the election. Health, Education and Defence would be three possible, but not exclusive, areas of interest.

      Thank you for your assistance in this matter.

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    3. Phil S

      Physics PhD Student

      In reply to Sunanda Creagh

      Thanks for the reply Sunanda.

      I would still question:
      A) Whether there is any point posting such "news" stories on the conversation. Are you really looking to branch out into reporting general news?
      B) Whether it would have been more effective to have someone just copy and paste his entire proposed speech into this article, since that is basically what happened anyway.

      Does Michelle get paid for doing this article? How long did it take her? I really hope the answer if "about 5 minutes…

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    4. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Jack, your lunatic left paranoia is astonishing. Face it, Whitlam was incompetent, Gillard is incompetent and the only productive labor govs were hawke's and keating's.

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    5. Sunanda Creagh

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Phil S

      Hi again. We have been reporting general news since the site's inception. The first news story we posted is dated May 6, 2011. Our news reports are written by journalists and quote academics. We cover topics we think may be of interest to our readers - mainly new research findings but we also do news stories in which we ask academic experts to reflect on more general breaking news, such as changes in the higher education sector, the federal budget, political news, breaking business news. Have a browse through the Research and News column sometime, I hope you find something of interest there. https://theconversation.edu.au/pages/home-page/news

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    6. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      heheheheh .... edited to remove the editorial indiscretion of "overlooking" the disclosure statement.

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    7. Bernie Masters

      environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Jack, Grattan's article is very lightweight and really shouldn't have been printed here. But, if she is pro-Liberal, it would make her a member of a very tiny minority compared to the left-leaning, overwhelming majority of authors who contribute to The Conversation. On that basis, you should be prepared to accept her as someone providing just a tiny bit of balance in what is becoming more and more a political rather than a general, broad-ranging academic website.

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    8. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to John Phillip

      Hi John ... your faith in Liberal governments is ill-founded when you consider the financial waste of the Howard government and its predecessors. Indeed, a retrospective historical analysis of the period 1977 to 2007 will likely show that Howard was personally responsible for at least initiating the financial policies that resulted in the loss of much public infrastructure and accrual of government debt. Some cynics may even conclude that the real reason that Telstra was sold on the casting vote of Barnaby Joyce (Notional Party for a 19th century future) was to fund Howard's retirement pension.

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    9. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Uhm ... Bernie ... we have been berated by Ms Grattan almost every morning on ABC RN and this development of two way communication allows thinking voters to express their opposition to the obviously biased outpourings from this author.

      Who was the journalist who called for the resignation of a Prime Minister? When did journalists have the right or role of overruling the electorate? Both the ALP and the LiberalNotional Coalition showed that that role was for the party caucus. Q&A last night showed that Turnbull was the preferred Liberal Party leader, as do successive previous polls.

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    10. Bernie Masters

      environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Simple solution, Jack. Stop listening to RN! More seriously, you haven't addressed the issue I raised that Gratten is one of Australia's few right wing journalists amongst the dozens of left wingers. I rarely read her writings but I take comfort from the fact that she's providing some balance. Of course, we could go down the dictatorship route and cause all journalists with whom we disagree to disappear but I doubt whether this is what you're advocating.

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    11. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Oh Jack, really? You want to compare Howard to the Gillard/Rudd disaster? You've heard their failures before. Howard manged the economy successfully, Gillard has bled it dry.

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  9. Corinne Cowper

    general layabout

    We all acknowledge in this forum that we live in a democracy - right? Okay, whatever you may think of the right or wrong of Kerr's dismissal of the Whitlam government, the people of Australia endorsed the decision. As far as I am concerned, that's the end of the discussion. The people spoke.

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  10. Rory McGuire

    Science commentator

    All this hankering after a republic is merely a distraction from real changes needed in our Constitution. For example, may I suggest a change that will NEVER happen: adopt the American practice of nominating, vetting and appointing qualified outsiders to take on roles such as Defence Minister, Foreign Minister etc. Call them Secretary for whatever as the Americans do.
    This would give us (hopefully) people with talent and training, preferably untainted by party politics, who would have a head start…

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    1. mark delmege

      self employed

      In reply to Rory McGuire

      Anyone offering the outrageously corrupt American political system as a model for Australia seriously needs their head read.

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    2. Rory McGuire

      Science commentator

      In reply to mark delmege

      The American system may be corrupt, as you say Mark, but what corruption there is is usually the product of their politicians, not of those they appoint as Secretaries. I am arguing that the power of politicians should be reduced. This would lessen politicians' opportunities for corruption.
      Generally I would recommend very little that comes out of America. Their foreign policy, for example, is disgraceful. Think back to George Bush's invasion of Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to prevent it, but was finally overwhelmed by pressure from Congress and those in the White House tweaking Bush's tail. At least Powell tried. His career had been in the military, not in politics, and he knew better than the politicians did.

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  11. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    I lived through the Whitlam era, having voted for him twice in 1972 and 1974, and I believe that Kerr was one of the best GGs we've ever seen as Kerr helped to remove one of the most corrupt and incompetent federal governments we've seen in our 112 year history.
    I doubt that Kerr's actions had any impact on our desire to become a republic or not. I'm a supporter of an Australian republic but, on a scale of 0 to 10 measuring the urgency of this happening, I rate this issue as having a -2 value: it's just not important compared to the other big issues facing our national government at present.
    Sadly, therefore, Gareth Evans' views remain as lacking in relevance today as they have for most of the last 40 years - think East Timor, for example.

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    1. Mitch Dillon

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      It's off topic of course, but would you care to define 'corrupt' and 'incompetent'?

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    2. Bernie Masters

      environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

      In reply to Mitch Dillon

      Happy to oblige. A number of ministers were sacked by Whitlam during his 3 years as PM but the worst case of corruption was Rex Connor and his attempts to borrow a billion dollars or so from the the Pakistani con man Khemlani after he (Connor) has been told to not do so by cabinet. Incompetent? Where to begin but Rex Connor's price controls on selected mineral exports effectively locked some Australian companies out of the international market, giving a free kick to overseas mineral producers. For the company I was working for at the time, it took almost 10 years to recover from this.
      Then there's Jim Cairns having an affair with Juni Morosi. To be honest, I've tried to expel 1972-75 from my memory after having voted for Whitlam twice in 72 and 74. Mind you, the Fraser govt that followed was almost as incompetent but at least I can't accuse it of having been corrupt.

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    3. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Hi Bernie ... don't forget the Ainsley Gotto matter or the other "affairs" by successive Federal Ministers of both sides of Parliament ... was Gareth Evans entangled this way?? What about Ian Sinclair (Notional Party)??

      Then I disagree that digging up Australia to export it overseas without primary or secondary processing here in Australia is in any way acting in the best interests of the Australian people or the Australian economy.

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    4. John Harland

      bicycle technician

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      In my opinion, Cairns was bewilderingly incompetent both in policy and in his assessment of people.

      However to raise the subject of his personal relationship to Juni Morosi remains the depths of sleaze. If it was okay with David Morosi and Gwen Cairns, why the hell is it any business of yours, or anyone else (including Rupert Murdoch)?

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  12. Philip Howell

    Solicitor

    The comments on this article follow a course which is typical of discussions on 1975. Too many people feel obliged to justify what their side did in the crisis.

    Step back from your political views and ask what it says about our system if nearly 40 years after the event there is no consensus on whether Kerr was right. (In legal circles, there are few prepared to defend him on legal grounds). The reason for the controversy is that the rules are not clear.

    We, the people, make the rules. Are we…

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    1. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to Philip Howell

      Hi Phillip. I commend you for your brave step into the future and your timely warning about how governments bend the rules to suit their financial sponsors.

      Perhaps the optimal alternative is to reconsider the historical state boundaries on a fresh provincial model like Canada based on modern communities of common interest so that government jobs may be more evenly distributed geographically in this time of the NBN.

      Back in 1967 there was a referendum in northern NSW to determine whether a…

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    2. Josephine Colahan

      Peripatetic traveller

      In reply to Philip Howell

      (Also in reply to Philip Howell) No, Jack Arnold, I didn't miss it - or, rather, I'm not particularly interested in that type of information. I like the broad picture. For example, did you miss what happened to Kerr? Would another GG take the risk? Think of Tolstoy's comment about battles in war - it is the simple chance of the moment that delivers a particular outcome. Have you thought about what Whitlam did or didn't do on the fateful day? And his actions that brought such concern to even contemplate…

      Read more
    3. Philip Howell

      Solicitor

      In reply to Josephine Colahan

      In reply to Josephine:
      I think there’s a misunderstanding here. It is not correct to say that the Advancing Democracy model would tie us up in even more rules. The opposite is the case.

      Chapter 1 of the Rationale for Advancing Democracy says this:
      “[The Constitution’s] great flaw is that it actually provides for two sets of rules, with one set contradicting the other. The written rules grant extensive powers to the Queen and her representative, the Governor-General, while in practice unwritten…

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    4. Josephine Colahan

      Peripatetic traveller

      In reply to Philip Howell

      Just as Bernie Masters does, I rate the issue of whether Australia becomes a republic or not at -2 in urgency on the scale of 0 to 10. Unlike him I would prefer the status quo. The value of Thomas Hobbes’ view for accepting the monarch as head of state – that, as it is accident of birth that provides for the selection of the monarch, it is a fair election - cannot be denied. This method ameliorates the problems of ‘populism’ and ‘presidentialism’, as is often negatively experienced in many republics…

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  13. John Phillip
    John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Grumpy Old Man

    WOW, Evans totally failed to mention that Gough got slaughtered at the resulting election! Forty odd years on and he is still sulking. Lol.

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