December 12

Dismissal irrelevant to republic debate

The recent attempts by some republican politicians, meeting in an alcove -yes, and alcove – in Parliament House Canberra, failed to revive any interest whatsoever in republicanism.

But just when we thought we were in for a quieter period over summer, I received an invitation to take part in a debate on the republic on the ABC’s Radio National on the evening of Wednesday, 14 December, 2005 from 10 PM to 11PM.

It is good to see the national broadcaster is willing to present both sides of the debate.


In the meantime, my attention was drawn to the editorial in the December, 2005 issue of  Quadrant . This remains, as its advertisements declare, “Australia’s leading intellectual magazine”. I say this not because an article of mine is included in this issue. (It has nothing to do with the constitution – it is on the trial of David Hicks, who is detained at Guanatanamo Bay.)

My reason in supporting the proposition that Quadrant is indeed the nation’s leading intellectual magazine is this. Argument, in depth, on the great issues of the day is to be found there, without any editorial insistence that the pieces comply with the received fashionable orthodoxy of the day. That this is not the case in much of the nation’s ”serious” media must remain a matter of concern.

The editorial by PP McGuinness in this issue demonstrates such an open mind. Mr. McGuinness was a republican well before this became the preserve of fashionable celebrities and the like. His subject is the dismissal of the Prime Minister, EG Whitlam, in 1975, the thirtieth anniversary of which was recalled on 11 November, 2005. He does not see the dismissal as justification for some constitutional change.

(Some challenge the use of the word ”dismissal” or “sacking”, arguing that the correct description of the events of 11 November, 1975 is that the Governor-General merely withdrew Mr Whitlam’s commission.)

Under the heading, “ The Dismissal-All Passion Spent”, he observes that only “silly republicans”, are still influenced by the dismissal . “Serious republicans” he says have long since set aside the Dismissal as irrelevant to any current political issues.

All that remains, he writes is the “fairly jejune” debate as to whether the Governor-General is the de jure as well as the de facto Australian head of state. He says that the “stupid republicans” are still hiding their real intentions by talk about the need for an Australian head of state.

According to PP McGuinness, whether the head of state is to be called governor-general or president has nothing to do with whether we maintain or sever all connection with the British crown.

His suggestion relating to nomenclature recalls a proposal by the cabinet minister and prominent constitutional monarchist , Tony Abbot, prior to the Constitutional Convention in 1998 that the title of President be conferred on the Governor- General and that he be formally declared Head of State. This was intended to end the constitutional battle to the satisfaction of both sides , but predictably, it was misrepresented by some in the republican media, resulting in this untruthful headline in the Sydney Morning Herald, “ Monarchists Dump Queen.”

Mr McGuinness proposes: “There is in fact absolutely no reason in principle why we should not simply rename the Governor-General the President, and forget about the rest. We already have what has been felicitously termed a ‘crowned republic’ ”.

Returning to the dismissal, he asks how justified is Mr Whitlam in his continuing bitterness thirty years after the event. He says it is in his interest to continue to misrepresent exactly what happened, and to pretend that Kerr deliberately misled him. He writes that Mr Whitlam is encouraged by the “ mythology” which has grown up around the events, and by” the errors, or outright lies, which were told by a number of the journalists who wrote about the events at the time and whose versions continue to be retailed by those who do not really want to reassess what actually happened.”

He says there is an audience for this “wilful misreading of history” contained in the spate of books issuing from or reissued by publishers in connection with the thirtieth anniversary there is for example a reissue of Whitlam’s polemical account, The Truth of the Matter. He makes the telling point that no one has chosen to reissue Sir John Kerr’s own account of the events.

The only corrective, he says, is Sir David Smith’s book, Head of State, described in this column on 11 November, 2005.

It will surprise no one that, as Mr McGuinness notes, that the book has received little or no notice. This could surely have nothing to do with what the editor describes as Sir David’s list, in his penultimate chapter, of “some of the lies or inventions of contemporary reporters.”

The editor refers to one example:” Whitlam and his acolytes have largely succeeded in perpetuating the myth that Kerr was smelling of whisky when he met Whitlam on the fateful morning; Smith, the only other person in a position to know, flatly denies this. This is part of the character assassination which has pursued Kerr ever since, even after his death. Whitlam in particular has extended this even to Kerr’s wife, whom he delicately refers to as ‘Fancy Nancy’.”

The editor says that as with many of the more lasting but absurd debates in the Labor Party, like anti-conscription, the obsession about the dismissal is merely “a hangover of ancient Irish Catholic hatreds of Britain.” It was this, not his so-called “ratting”, which forced Labor’s best early prime minister, Billy Hughes, out of the Labor Party. He says Hughes acted as he saw it in Australia’s national interest; as he did in the post-war negotiations when he put Australia unmistakably on the map as an independent regional power.” This the Irish republicans could have never done.”

The editor’s conclusion is that the dismissal is no longer of any significance in contemporary politics. “It was a conclusion to one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Australian Labor Party, the shambles of the last year of the Whitlam government. Bob Hawke understood this lesson (although in an attempt to retain his place in the pantheon of Labor, created by the intellectual mediocrities of the Left, he sometimes pretends otherwise) and made sure that he repeated none of Whitlam’s mistakes while in office. But Paul Keating, one of the Bourbons of the Labor Party, learned nothing from them.”

The issue also contains an excellent review of Sir David’s book by Peter Coleman, entitled ‘The Official Secretary’s Story’. Mr Coleman says that Yarralumla was lucky to have had David Smith. So is the Australian nation. This opens with these memorable words from Shakespeare’s Richard II:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings:

How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,

Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos’d,

Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d;

All murder’d: for within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court, and there the antick sits…

Until next time,

David Flint


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