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Grattan on Friday: Issues from Gough Whitlam’s 1975 dismissal lie dormant until the republic debate revives

New insights into the dismissal of Gough Whitlam highlight the lingering complexities of any future effort to make Australia a republic. NAA, CC BY

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.

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