PRIOR TO the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975, even Labor MPs joked about Governor-General Sir John Kerr “doing a Philip Game;” in view of a possible result of the latest ALP leadership stoush, we consider whether G-G Quentin Bryce, in the proper performance of her duty, might “do a Kerr.”
It’s funny how things run in threes.
Game, of course, was the Labor-appointed Governor of New South Wales who dismissed the state Labor government of Jack Lang in 1932; Sir John — another ALP-appointed viceroy, becoming Governor-General in 1974 — resolved the constitutional crisis caused by a deadlock between the Houses of federal Parliament by dismissing Whitlam’s government.
Now, 38 years later — and depending on the outcome of leadership ructions again swirling around the Labor Party — current Governor-General Quentin Bryce may very well do something similar.
And this suggestion isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem at first glance.
Something we alluded to last week — in an article, ironically, about key Labor powerbroker Bill Shorten — was the possibility that any change in the ALP leadership is likely to come at the end of next week: when sitting days scheduled for the House of Representatives are concluded.
This is an important point.
Another lies in the fact that Shorten’s wife — the Governor-General’s daughter, Chloe Bryce — is the president of the board of Women for Gillard, an organisation set up to campaign for present Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
(And for expediency and ease of distinction between mother and daughter — with no disrespect intended to either — I am going to refer to Bryce Jr, simply, as “Chloe”).
There has been a lot of (mostly unfounded) chatter over the past few years, centred on a perceived conflict of interest Quentin Bryce may face in the hypothetical event of a Labor leadership change resulting in her son-in-law becoming Prime Minister.
But I have been thinking about a different scenario which I will outline, and I just wonder — especially if there are any constitutional lawyers in the ranks of our readers — whether I might have hit upon something that could detonate the Prime Ministership in Kevin Rudd’s face if he is able to wrest back the leadership of the ALP.
Let us suppose that a special meeting of the Labor caucus is convened for next Friday morning, 27 June; the House will have risen, as Thursday 26 June is the final sitting day scheduled before the election slated to be held in September.
It has to be a special meeting for the leadership to be considered; both Rudd and Gillard will be attending the funeral of former first lady Hazel Hawke when the next ordinary caucus meeting occurs on Tuesday.
Assuming such a meeting occurs next Friday, let’s go one step further and suppose that Kevin Rudd emerges as Labor leader.
There will be no motion of no-confidence, simply because there will be no parliamentary sitting at which the Liberal Party could move it.
The pact between Gillard and the Independents, technically, will be void; the arrangement pertains principally to matters of confidence and supply, and with the budget through the House and no scope for a no-confidence motion, whether Tony Windsor and/or Rob Oakeshott back or desert the Labor Party and its new leader is irrelevant.
However, as new Labor leader, Rudd would be obliged — in calling upon Her Excellency — to advise whether or not he had the confidence of the House of Representatives, and whether or not he could guarantee supply to his government.
Clearly, he would be unable to answer in the affirmative.
There would (to my mind) be an additional issue: unlike the whisperings of a conflict of interest about a potential Shorten Prime Ministership, on such an occasion Bryce would be in the invidious position of meeting a Labor leader whose sworn opponent had been publicly supported by her own daughter in a public and bitterly partisan political fight.
This is where things become a grey area legally that I would encourage readers with proper constitutional knowledge (NOT opinions of what they want to transpire) to enter the discussion on.
In light of Chloe’s role at Women for Gillard, it is difficult to see how Bryce could offer Rudd a commission as Prime Minister, with Chloe a key member of an organisation pledged to defeat him, and to advance his opponent’s interests politically.
I would think Rudd’s inability to test confidence in a government he formed would magnify such a consideration, and in light of the role of Independents in confirming or withholding confidence in a Rudd government, the vice-regal office could be seen to have sided with one combatant over another in an internal partisan issue if Bryce did commission him.
In 1975, Sir John Kerr dismissed Whitlam, despite the latter having the numbers to form a government; the issue was inability to guarantee supply to that government.
Now, the question of supply is irrelevant; whoever becomes Prime Minister in the short term will have no problems there.
But how can Rudd be commissioned to form a government when his numbers are unknown?
Sir John set a precedent in 1975, by commissioning then opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as a caretaker Prime Minister until elections could be held for both Houses of Parliament, providing voters the opportunity to break the deadlock and elect a government.
As history shows, they elected Fraser and the Coalition by a record margin.
Now let’s go back to the sequence of events.
A special meeting of the Labor Party caucus is convened and takes place next Friday.
By whatever mechanism, Kevin Rudd is elected as leader of the ALP at that meeting.
In the proper performance of her duties, my question is this: Quentin Bryce (or any lieutenant, for that matter) would surely politicise the office of Governor-General by commissioning him as Prime Minister.
What would happen?
My guess — given someone must be commissioned as Prime Minister — is that Bryce would have no constitutionally allowable alternative than to send for Tony Abbott, as leader of the opposition, and to commission him as caretaker Prime Minister until an election could be held for the House of Representatives and half the Senate.
Were that to occur, the 14 September election date would likely be abandoned in the same meeting in favour of 3 August: the earliest date possible under the Constitution.
Rudd, in this scenario, would be forced to campaign as opposition leader.
Does this sound far-fetched?
It is only far-fetched if a) Rudd does not become Labor leader, b) my educated guess on the constitutional niceties and the precedent set in 1975 is awry, or c) Bryce opts to politicise the vice-regal office by commissioning Rudd, implicitly intervening in party politics in so doing.
I should point out that I still don’t really think it will come to that; I doubt Rudd commands the majority of caucus votes his supporters have been telling the media he has in the bag, and if he doesn’t have the support of his colleagues, next week will pass without a murmur.
But if Rudd does have the numbers — and Gillard refuses to resign — I have no doubt whatsoever that Rudd will activate whatever loophole he has built into his promise not to challenge for the leadership, and do precisely that on Friday week.
As the late, respected political journalist Peter Harvey said just before he died of Rudd, as long as Rudd “has breath in his body” he will seize the opportunity to be Prime Minister again at any time it is possible to do so, irrespective of timing or political climate.
And if that happens, the Governor-General — as was the case on 11 November 1975 — will most certainly have “a role to play.”
Please feel free to comment, but note there is a distinction between the Governor-General’s course of action within her responsibilities and what any of us, individually or collectively, might wish. My personal preference — overwhelmingly — is for Gillard to lead Labor to the election and for the latest leadership banter to dissipate, so I’m certainly not pushing my own barrow in raising this scenario!