This essay is one in a five part series addressing the issue of republicanism in Australia today
Today’s Australia is ruled by a class or elite that Nick Cater, in The Lucky Culture (2013), calls the bunyip aristocracy. This politically-correct elite control much of our public discourse, from the ABC and Parliament to the commentariat and professoriate. They – and their predecessors – have been hankering for a republic at least since the time of Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country (1964). Horne famously worried that we were too “second-rate” to contemplate such a brilliant and original idea as an Australian republic. But he was wrong – we did contemplate it. The Australian people, in November 1999, were invited by Malcolm Turnbull and the Yes Campaign to abandon our constitutional monarchy and endorse their idea of a republic, one that forbade us from directly electing a president. That role, naturally enough, would be assumed by our political class.
The reason for proposing a minimalist model, according Turnbull & Co., is that we would attain all the benefits of a republic with a minimum of fuss and aggravation. The effortlessness of it was plain to see in the directness and simplicity of the referendum question: “To alter the Constitution of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President by two-thirds majority of the Commonwealth Parliament.” What true blue Aussie could say no to that? An overwhelming 54.89 per cent of voters, as it happened. Republicans, if they were serious about forging symbols of national harmony and accord, would have shut up about their divisive anti-monarchism for a hundred years or more. But a victory is a victory for activists; defeat, merely a victory postponed. The drumbeat of republicanism will only grow louder under a Shorten administration.
The current chair of the Australian Republican Movement, Peter FitzSimons, is the kind of hail-fellow-well-met who would have served the Yes Campaign well back in 1999. FitzSimons’ unceasing entreaty that Australia “grow up” by becoming a republic is an old story. It began in the 1960s with Donald Horne and his Boomer acolytes seriously believing that the purging of all things British from our midst would cure the nation of its provincial derivativeness – not that this discouraged young Boomers from descending on Earls Court (a.k.a. Kangaroo Valley or Little Australia) in great numbers. I remember seeing a large billboard for Breaker Morant (1980) – or was it Gallipoli (1981)? – in Buenos Aires soon after the 1982 Falklands War, and wondering why Argentinians would be interested in out-of-date Australian movie. “You, too, hate the British,” a local knowingly explained.
Do we? Certainly, Australia’s emerging bunyip aristocracy, not least our literati, commentariat, trendy entrepreneurs, professoriate and PC-observant celebrities wanted to shake off our British heritage as if it hung over them like a curse. Malcolm Turnbull, we might note, not only chaired the Australian Republic Movement but joined the board of Ausflag in the 1990s. Would the adoption of the boxing kangaroo or the banner of the AMWU as our national flag somehow demonstrate to the world we had come of age? Boomers, in retrospect, were mistakenly conflating their cultural cringe with our British-generated Constitution.
Accordingly, Turnbull’s 1994 treatise, The Making of a Reluctant Republic, reads like a case of chronic inferiority battling it out with insufferable self-righteousness: “As long as we have the British Queen as our Head of State, other nations, not just in Asia, will regard us as somewhat less than independent.” Do we really need to change our Constitution, one that is older than those of China, Germany, Russia Japan, France, Indonesia, Malaysia et al, in order to mitigate the confusion of foreigners? Especially when some of whom, we might assume, think Sydney is our national capital and Canberra an agricultural community in rural New South Wales.
None of this is to argue that Australians should be Anglophiles in the sense of imitating (or even paying attention to) the latest trends in the United Kingdom. They can keep their Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, thanks very much. Brexit is relevant to us because it holds the promise of advantageous arrangements for Australian businesses, workers and travellers, and it would – paradoxically, perhaps, given the subject under discussion – return to the United Kingdom some of the autonomy it surrendered to the European Union. The UK and the Commonwealth of Australia are separate nations with their own distinct interests, which sometimes coalesce and sometimes diverge. Constitutionalist monarchists do not have to be Anglophiles any more than an instance of Anglophobia (or some kind of animus towards Britain) necessitates a republican stance. Sir Anthony Mason, Chief Justice of Australia from 1987-95, allegedly turned republican one evening after watching the Bodyline television program. Seriously?
There are challenges to Australia’s independence – Islamic revivalism and Sino hegemonism to name but two – but the monarchical aspects of our Constitution hardly fit that category. Being “a proud Australian nationalist”, as lifetime republican Bill Hayden observed in 1996, is not “compromised” by our status as a constitutional monarchy. Moreover, whatever republicans hope to achieve by overhauling our Constitution has to be weighed against not only merit of our current arrangement provides but also the discord engendered by the Australian Republican Movement (ARM). As Hayden warned his fellow republicans about their cause: “We should not waste time and energies trying to force-deliver it for there is a real risk that rough handling will only deform what we would otherwise want to be as whole and healthy as possible.”
Explain that to the ARM. Peter FitzSimon’s rugby union career and ubiquitous red bandana should not obscure the fact that he is a PC-observant Fairfax/Channel Nine journalist-activist rather than fair-dinkum straight-talker. Fair-dinkum straight-talkers, as Hayden intimated, are not obsessed with “ditching the royals”. Quite the opposite, I would have thought, considering the enthusiastic reception provided for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on their recent visit to the Land Oz. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe our bunyip aristocracy is anti-monarchy because it covets the adulation ordinary Australians bestow on each new generation of the Royal Family. It remains one of the few instinctive aspects of traditional Australian life that our PC elite cannot destroy or somehow manipulate for their advantage, along with Anzac Day attendance and religious observance at Easter and Christmas.
This would clarify why Malcolm Turnbull and our political class have been so hostile about the direct election republic model. They deride the idea of us choosing Kylie Minogue as our head of state, but what they really fear is a “people’s president”, somebody who might challenge their unencumbered authority. The constitutional arrangement in the Republic of Ireland, where a non-executive head of state is elected by the people, puts the lie to one of the scares promoted by minimalist republicans. In truth, some version of Ireland’s popularly elected president would probably work here, although not as well as the constitutional monarchy we already have and not without a great deal of acrimony.
An even bigger canard perpetrated by the minimalists is that erasing Queen and Governor-General from the Constitution and inking in President over the top would have no broader implications. Untrue. Take, as one instance, State-Federal relations. Where – in the referendum question back in 1999 – was the autonomy of governors or the sovereignty of our States addressed by republicans? Would governors, without a sovereign to commission them independently of the federal government, become virtual vice-presidents? Hal G.P. Colebatch, in “How a Republic Would Abolish the States”, persuasively argues that republican sentiment and centralist appetites are convergent. Unfortunately, we might not fully appreciate the worth of our constitutional monarchy until it is gone.
For many republicans, especially those who experienced first-hand the constitutional crisis of 1975, the intervention of Sir John Kerr, after a hostile Senate blocked the Whitlam government’s Supply Bills, was the clincher. The same is true for monarchists although for differing reasons. Both might agree that Remembrance Day 1975, unparalleled and momentous, was the decisive test of our Constitution. The denouement, which took place hours after Governor-General Kerr sacked Prime Minister Whitlam, is not always fully appreciated even now.
Those seeking a rationale for republicanism, according to anti-monarchists, need search no further than John Kerr’s letter of dismissal to Gough Whitlam: “In accordance with section 64 of the Constitution I hereby determine your appointment as my Chief Adviser and the Head of the Government. It follows that I also hereby determine all the Ministers in your Government.” Why was a representative of the British Crown able to sack the duly elected prime minister of Australia? The whole constitutional monarchy malarkey, according to a certain narrative, signed its death warrant that day; and we are only awaiting a propitious moment for the sentence to be carried out.
Political partisans such as Jenny Hocking will “maintain the rage” until their dying day. In 1975, as an indoctrinated undergraduate in the Politics Department at the Adelaide University, I (momentarily) believed John Kerr was a CIA operative imbedded in Yarralumla with the mission to bring down a Labor government, this despite the fact it was Whitlam who appointed Kerr. Some of the hysteria of the time is captured in Paul Kelly’s The Unmaking of Gough, published in 1976. One theory speculated that Whitlam was sacked on the morning of November 11 to prevent him spilling the beans in Parliament that day on the unlawful American spying operations at Pine Gap. Why he chose not to disclose this top-secret information when he returned to Parliament in 1976 as Leader of the Opposition remains top-secret.
Bill Hayden’s autobiography, Hayden (1996), contains a more temperate account of the constitutional crisis. The chapter titled “1975: A Heretic’s View” provides an even-handed evaluation, an impressive feat since Hayden was Whitlam’s Treasurer and the dismissal cost him dearly. Though proud of his time in Whitlam’s cabinet – and regretted Labor never had the opportunity to enjoy the improved economic circumstances of 1976-7 – Bill Hayden’s personal assessment of Governor-General Kerr’s intervention is mostly favourable: “It is my view that [Kerr’s] actions were legal and proper, although somewhat hasty…Our anger, and the angst caused by this experience, however, does not make our removal invalid. Its rightness, I restate, was confirmed by the overwhelming public endorsement of the Governor-General’s actions, implicit in the subsequent election result.”
Neither Gough Whitlam – “a patrician figure, a sparkling orator, mercurial, headstrong and full of pluck” – nor Malcolm Fraser – “a dour, stubborn Scot who would resolutely plod through the fires of Hell, tearing apart with his bare hands any attacking furies in the way of his goal or ambition” – come out of Hayden’s account unscathed, but they are not without redeeming qualities, either. There was a rightness about Sir John Kerr’s intervention, and wrongness in the way Labor devotees derided him and Coalition supporters disowned him. Nevertheless, Sir John Kerr’s rehabilitation won’t be forthcoming any time soon, since his intervention reflected poorly on the political class, on both sides of the aisles, whose machinations made vice-regal involvement necessary in the first place. Governor-General John Kerr’s effectiveness was rewarded with 16 years of ignominy (much of it spent abroad) before his mostly unlamented passing in 1991.
That said, Hayden, nevertheless, praises the office of the governor-general more than he does the man John Kerr. Himself governor-general between 1989-96, Bill Hayden expounds on the elusive assets of the post in the chapter titled “The Office of the Governor-General”. His elucidation of Bagehot’s call to “consult, encourage, warn” in the Australian context could serve as a primer for every new Yarralumla incumbent, providing insight on everything from being a legally-alert member of the Executive Council while Parliament sits, to overseeing “proper practice in executive decision-making” after Parliament is dissolved but before the election takes place – while all the time allowing matters of a partisan political kind to be sorted out through the electoral process.
Sir David Smith, Secretary to the Governor-General (1973-90) and author of Head of State: The Governor-General, the Monarchy, the Republic and the Dismissal (2005), was the public servant at the receiving end of Gough Whitlam’s “Kerr’s Cur” opprobrium after reading out the proclamation to dissolve the House of Representatives and the Senate on the steps of Parliament House. Whitlam’s wit and poise, always his strong points, did not desert him at his darkest moment, and yet his intemperate theme on that day tells us all we need to know about his misapprehension of our Constitution: “Well may we say, ‘God save the Queen’, because nothing will save the Governor-General”.
There are, assuredly, fault lines in our federal constitutional arrangement, not the least being that the voting system for the House of Representatives is distinct from the Australia Senate. This flaw or imperfection came to the forefront in 1975 when Fraser used his (newly and somewhat inaptly attained) control of the Senate to deny the Supply Bills of Whitlam’s government. We can agree with much of P.P. McGuiness’s savage critique of “The Whitlam Schemozzle”, even the charge that the notorious Loans Affair might have been something worse than unconstitutional, and still regret Malcolm Fraser’s unconventional parliamentary tactics. (Disclosure: I sported a Shame Fraser, shame badge in the lead up to December 13 election.)
At the same time, Whitlam had no great regard for the office of the governor-general; his jibe about “Kerr’s Coup” ignores the fact that the endpoint of John Kerr’s intercession was always a scheduled election. Some coup. Governor-General Kerr effectively fixed a political impasse generated by two grandiloquent politicians. He performed the role – to borrow from David Flint, leader of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy – of “constitutional guardian”.
But there is even more to be garnered from the 1975 constitutional crisis. Gordon Scholes was Labor’s Speaker of the House of Representatives on November 11 and, during that afternoon, he had the task of conveying the information to the Governor-General that the House – that is, Labor MHRs – had no confidence in Malcolm Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister. Kerr, not being a fool, declined to receive Scholes at Government House until after Parliament had been dissolved. In lieu of this development, Whitlam instructed the Speaker of the House of Representatives – a position Scholes held until February 1976 – to notify the Queen that Governor-General Kerr should be sacked. Her Majesty graciously declined. It was not her responsibility to meddle in Australia’s internal affairs. Jenny Hocking’s conspiracy theory about Buckingham Palace insinuating could not be further from reality.
Queen Elizabeth II does not even claim to be Australia’s head of state. Instead, she sees herself as our sovereign in the same way she remains sovereign of Canada, New Zealand and other member states of the Commonwealth (though not Botswana, Cyprus, Namibia and a number of other republics that recognise Her Majesty as simply the head of the Commonwealth). Buckingham Palace commissioned John Kerr in 1974 on the advice of Prime Minister Whitlam and, no doubt, would have dismissed him on Whitlam’s advice – so long as Whitlam retained the prime ministership.
She played a role in 1975 by not playing a role. That is the magic and mystery of constitutional monarchy, a political system that could never be created from scratch – or devised by an ARM committee – because it is a function of societal evolution. Our predecessors bequeathed it to us. Hopefully, we shall not allow ourselves to be dispossessed of it by a confederacy of unknowing zealots and an all-too-knowing bunyip aristocracy.
Our constitutional monarchy not only coped at a moment of immense stress, it clarified for all time that the British monarch is not Australia’s constitutional head of state. Her Majesty, crucially, did not revoke the decision taken by Governor-General Kerr to dismiss Whitlam because it was not in her remit to do so. Her constitutional responsibility had been to appoint John Kerr to his post, and even that was at the behest of her Australian prime minister. This had been the practice for a quarter of a century.
Prime Minister James Scullin, back in 1930, stopped King George V’s preferred choice for governor-general, Sir William Birdwood. Australian troops had been commanded by Birdwood at Gallipoli, but he was not Australian. Scullin held that Australian-born Sir Isaac Isaacs should be appointed, and the British monarch courteously acceded to his request. You could argue that the Commonwealth of Australia has, from that day forward, been a de facto republic while enjoying all the positive side benefits accruing to a constitutional monarchy.
Sir David Smith, in 1996, contended that Australia has, in a sense, two heads of state, with the Queen of Australia fulfilling a purely symbolic role and the governor-general a constitutional one. The nomenclature at the United Nations identifies both Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Excellency Sir Peter Cosgrove as our head of state, although the former name is in brackets, which might corroborate Smith’s claim. Either way, the Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Australia, as envisioned by none other than Queen Victoria, has always remained in the Commonwealth of Australia.
This has not prevented Professor Robert Manne and even republican Sir Anthony Mason, former Chief Justice of Australia, from insisting that Queen Elizabeth is our true head of state because, like Clark Kent and the Man of Steel, the monarch and the governor-general are never seen at the same time. The implication being that the Sovereign is our head of state and the governor-general merely a proxy during her (admittedly routine) absence from the Land of Oz.
David Flint, writing for Quadrant magazine, debunked this notion over ten years ago. Flint went on to argue that the High Court settled the matter in 1907 in one of its rulings. Consequently, the 2006 “Mate for Head of State” advertising promotion ignored the fact that, ever since Brisbane-born Richard Casey relocated to Government House, a “mate” has been our head of state uninterrupted since 1965. The Australian Republic Movement, to this very day, persists with the line that only by becoming a republic will “Australians be able to choose their own head of state”.
Turnbull’s assertion that some in the world “regard us as somewhat less than independent” is, if even true, a misconception on their part. The 1931 Statute of Westminster confirmed Australia’s legislative independence and self-governing status. Signing up to the Australia, New Zealand and United States Treaty (ANZUS) in 1951 was further proof that our foreign policy arrangements were of our own choosing. The Commonwealth of Australia, in reality, enjoys “a sovereign, independent status”. We are more self-determining than the United Kingdom while it remains in the European Union. Our total independence was verified by the Australia Act introduced into all the State Parliaments, the Federal Parliament and the UK Parliament in 1986.
Australia’s system of constitutional monarchy, then, allows us to be an independent and politically stable nation. Our Constitution saw us through the crisis of 1975 with the governor-general, as our chosen Australian-born head of state, performing the role of constitutional guardian to the best of his ability. Almost all of our governors-general have understood the responsibilities and protocols demanded of them, argues David Smith, because of “their sense of duty to the people and the Crown”. The very nature of their vice-regal position encourages them to do the job with discretion and steadfastness and put aside their personal politics.
The tenure of Dame Quentin Bryce, lasting from 2008-14, was an exception that proved the rule. Bryce spoke out publicly, during the 2013 Boyer Lecture, in favour of gay marriage (when it was not hate speech to hold a contrary view) and the republic. The Governor-General, also ex-Governor of Queensland (2003-08), denounced constitutional monarchy as archaic: “[M]y friends, one day, one young girl or boy may even grow up to be our nation’s first head of state.” This was the very same Australian who had travelled to Africa in 2009 in her official capacity of our head of state. Perhaps she failed to get Prime Minister Rudd’s memo.
Prime Minister Morrison, towards the end of 2018, announced that former general and Defence Force chief David Hurley would replace Sir Peter Cosgrove in 2019 as Australia’s governor-general. David Crowe, writing for The Age, informed us that the decision was considered by some observers to be “safe” and “solid” although these self-same anonymous pundits predicted Hurley’s appointment would “spur debate about whether a woman should have been named”. Jenna Price, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, turned up the PC volume a decibel or three: “The typical Australian is a woman. Let’s hope Hurley does the right thing and chucks it in soon and recommends his successor be drawn from their number. That would be one way of honouring women.”
Our political class and the bunyip aristocracy are in thrall to identity politics or correctism, even more so than they were in 1999. Our current head of state, usually restrained by the office’s “duty to the people and the Crown”, will be more unfettered in a republic to promote their activist and partisan politics. Dame Quentin Bryce gave us a glimpse of our republican future in her 2013 Boyer Lecture. Jenna Price’s censure of David Hurley’s appointment is another warning to the ordinary people of Australia. Jenna Price’s radical ideology induces her to speculate that Prime Minister Morrison made his vice-regal nomination because he “prefers history and privilege to shape our future”. Now everything must be politicised, from indoctrinating school students about Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warning to the appointment of a new governor-general. No stone must be left unturned in the war against white, heteronormative patriarchy.
Even some republicans must be alarmed by Jenna Price’s claim that David Hurley – in her own words “a man of some discretion and kindness” – was “too safe, too similar, too white” to fulfil the role of governor-general. What sort of reverse racism (which, of course, is still racism) demands that a person about whom “there is absolutely nothing wrong” – again, Price’s words – should be judged by the colour of their skin rather than the content of their character. Price also speaks about the “power and glory” of the office of governor-general when it is something very different from that, notwithstanding the obvious privileges and comforts of living between Government House and Admiralty House. Our head of state, to revisit Sir David Smith, is limited by the “sense of duty to the people and the Crown”. Prince Charles, along similar lines, has acknowledged that were he to become Charles III he would have to stop meddling in public affairs.
Discretion and non-partisanship, therefore, are two features of a suitable governor-general. Being “safe” and “solid”, as General Hurley appears to be, is more important than whether he is without sufficient melanin or XX chromosomes. Many Australians are not going to be thrilled if our political class, in the years ahead, starts choosing our governor-general on the basis of PC quotas. Our only consolation will be if the office itself, bound by the Sovereign and the sovereignty of the people, curtails the political activism of a vice-regal. An activist president would be a different matter altogether.
The fear we ordinary Australians have of our PC-observant political class and bunyip aristocracy is why a spontaneous alliance sprung up, before the 1999 referendum, between constitutional monarchists and direct election republicans. None other than Bill Hayden, a class warrior from way back and an old-style republican, came out in support of the No Campaign. I was, at the time, a little taken aback by this seemingly spur-of-the-moment coalition, not to mention the referendum outcome itself. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, without uttering a single word on the subject, won her 1999 Australian “election” very handsomely indeed, something Malcolm Turnbull never quite managed, either in 1999 or 2016. I should not have been so surprised by this turn of events. A pact – or covenant, if you like – between Sovereign and sovereign people is not unprecedented in the annals of modern history.