“If you don’t withdraw what you said, we’ll lose the referendum.” It was an angry Dr Glen Sheil on the telephone during the 1999 referendum campaign. I was reminded of this by news of the sad passing of Dr Sheil in Brisbane at the age of 79. In the heat of the campaign, I had told a journalist that nobody knew what would happen if a prime minister were to advise The Queen to dismiss a governor- general when it was obvious this was being done to save himself from dismissal.
The relevance of this was the extraordinary provision in the proposed republican changes to the Constitution which would allow a prime minister to dismiss a president without giving any reason, without giving any notice and without allowing any appeal which could lead to reinstatement.
The republicans claimed this was no different than the present constitution. This was patently untrue.
If the 1975 situation were to be repeated in such a republic, the prime minister could have easily dismissed the president, something not available to Mr. Whitlam.
Now it is generally agreed that The Queen would not act on advice unless it were provided in an original document, so there would be a delay. But would The Queen immediately accept any such advice, as the republicans claimed?
I referred Dr Sheil to a precedent which I believe to be persuasive.
(Incidentally when I tried to tell the parliamentary committee examining the referendum bill in 1999 about this, I was told by one republican that the committee was only interested in what had happened in Australia. I thought, but did not say, that it was just as well our Founding Fathers did not demonstrate such a provincial attitude.)
The precedent concerned King George V, who had certainly not “rubber stamped” advice from a prime minister that the governor-general be dismissed.
Instead The King suggested the governor-general be allowed the dignity of resigning. This did in fact occur – almost two months later.
It was also made very clear to the prime minister not to advise The King to appoint the chief justice, a committee or indeed, the prime minister himself.
Dr Shiels responded to my explanation by saying that I was effectively suggesting foreign interference in our affairs.
I replied “Not at all; we are talking about The Queen of Australia.
“We have no idea whether HM would ask questions, offer advice or even whether she might see it as her constitutional duty to reject the advice.
I pointed out that the highly regarded constitutional authority, Dr Vernon Bogdanor entertains this distinct possibility in such circumstances.”
This is an example of the advantage of an evolving constitutional system. As I believed I was correct, I indicated I had no intention of withdrawing my comment. So on that note, we agreed to disagree.
…Senator for Queensland…
By profession a medical practitioner , Dr Sheil strongly opposed the changes made to the health system by the Whitlam government , and successfully stood for the Senate as a National in 1974.
After the return of the Fraser government in 1977, he held office briefly as a member of the Federal Executive Council in anticipation of his being sworn in as minister of veterans affairs in the Fraser government after the 1977 election.
As Damien Murphy recounts in his obituary in The Sydney Morning Herald on 15 October, 2008, Dr Sheil told a reporter the night before he was to have been sworn in that Australia had a lot to learn from policies in South Africa and the former Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
When he saw this, Malcolm Fraser ensured not only that he did not become a minister and that his position as executive councillor was revoked, an unusual measure.
In 2007, Dr Sheil said he had been removed because Malcolm Fraser could not brook his criticism of Robert Mugabe.
"Mugabe, when Fraser handed him Rhodesia on a plate, embarked on a round of retribution killings which have never let up. Many people have suffered needlessly because of this tyrant," he said.He remained a senator until 1981, then returned to the Senate in 1983.
Dr. Sheil was a strong supporter of the “Joh-for-Canberra” movement, a campaign to make the Queensland Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the leader of the conservative parties in the federal parliament instead of John Howard.
Some argue that as this divided the Coalition, it led to the return of the Hawke Labor government in 1987. Dr Sheil lost his senate seat in the 1990 election.
…Queenslanders for Constitutional Monarchy….
In 1998, he was elected the Constitutional Convention as the leader of Queenslanders for Constitutional Monarchy, one of five constitutional monarchist groups.
Notwithstanding the disparity in size – ACM had 24 delegates, the Australian Monarchist League three, Queenslanders for Constitutional Monarchy and Safeguard the People two each and the Christian Democrats one – all of the constitutional monarchists worked together harmoniously, in contrast to the republican groups who were at one another’s throats.
Dr Sheils’ fellow QCM delegate was Lady Bjelke-Petersen, the wife of the former Premier. Both were formidable in their defence of the constitutional system.
Both rejected – as did every other constitutional monarchist delegate- the proposal that the least popular republican model should be supported so it would be the model in the referendum.
It was this decision which earned ACM the praise from Cardinal Pell that the monarchists had behaved with honour. Dr Sheils continued his strong defence of our constitutional system, particularly through the group’s web pages.
Dr. Sheils was an honourable man. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth.