November 24

Mr. Whitlam and the reserve powers

24 November, 2005

Paul Kelly ( Lion on Road to Republic, The Weekend Australian, 12-13 November, 2005) writes that Mr Whitlam believed that the Governor –General had at some time, and in some place, lost his discretionary powers, and could only ever do what he, Mr Whitlam, wanted.

This is hard to believe.


Sir David Smith’s authoritative study, Head of State, demonstrates that until 1974, both Mr Whitlam and Senator Lionel Murphy were fervent believers in the Senate’s right to refuse supply and to force a government to an election.

They and their predecessors tried to do this 170 times from 1950 to 25 August 1970. On that day, Mr Whitlam said his purpose was to destroy the budget and destroy the government.


But in 1975 he was miraculously converted into believing the direct opposite!

I sent this letter to The Australian:


It is difficult to understand why Mr Whitlam concluded the reserve powers had vanished (Paul Kelly, 12-13 November).

He would have been well aware of the fact that the ALP had argued that Sir William McKell, the former NSW Labor Premier, should exercise them in 1951 by rejecting Sir Robert Menzies advice to grant a double dissolution.

At the request of the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Labor’s celebrated authority on th ereserve powers and staunch monarchist, Dr HV Evatt, the advice was tabled; at no point did Sir Robert argue the Governor-General was bound to accept his advice.

Mr Whitlam had also seen the reserve powers used regularly in the states, and especially in Victoria, as well as recently by Lord Casey on the disappearance of Harold Holt.

Recently, as Paris burned night after night, the French state was paralysed for almost two weeks as the three politicians fiddled, worrying mainly as to how their words and actions and those of their opponents would affect their ambitions to be the next president.

These three are the Minister for the Interior Sarkozy, Prime Minister de Villepin and the incumbent President, M.Chirac, whose office drips with the unbridled reserve powers of dismissal and dissolution.

The difference in the French Fifth Republic is that the Head of State is always a politician and uses his reserve powers for political and not constitutional reasons.

The President is directly elected, as he or she would be in the model favoured by Mr Latham, and now Mr Beazley. But he also used his powers for political purposes when he was elected by a college of politicians, as in the 1999 model Australians overwhelmingly rejected.

As the late Dick McGarvie used to say, Australians are a wise constitutional people.

Yours Sincerely,

David Flint, (A.C.M)


Mr Kelly says to forget any hope of creating a Liberal-Labor bridge in support of the republic.

The dismissal’s legacy remains, he says, for all republicans. He seems pessimistic. He writes that the easy debate on the republic is over. That was the debate that led to the failed 1999 referendum. The coming debate on the republic will be a lot more difficult, a reality disguised by popular support for direct election.

I suspect that he knows, as Mr Turnbull and Professor Craven do, that in a referendum on direct election, the republicans and especially the media and the republican politicians will be far more divided than they were in 1999.


Until next time,

David Flint


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