Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser Dead At 84

FOLLOWED BY CONTROVERSY throughout a career in public life that spanned seven decades, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser died in Melbourne early this morning, aged 84, the day before what would have been the 40th anniversary of his election as leader of the Liberal Party. A dour and divisive figure from privileged roots, Fraser will be forever remembered for engineering the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975.

If readers will permit me a personal reflection, Malcolm Fraser was central to my first outing in active politics, aged 5; accompanying my mother to vote in the safe Liberal Queensland seat of Petrie at the 1977 federal election, I proceeded to entertain polling officials and other voters with a reasonable rendition of the Liberal Party’s election pitch; at the end of my remarks — and this is the only part of the episode I recall clearly — a polling official with big black glasses knelt down in front of me to look me in the eye. “But why would you vote for Mr Fraser?” he asked. “Because he’s got better policies than Mr Whitlam and a fistful of dollars,” I replied solemnly.

The polling official — as my father reminded me last night, ironically as we recounted the incident just hours before Fraser’s demise — confided to my mother once I was out of earshot that I had made more sense than Whitlam and Fraser, too.

Time changes all manner of things, and this wealthy scion of Australia’s landed squattocracy and descendant of Federation pioneer Sir Simon Fraser will largely not be remembered by the wider public with any affection or warmth; despite achieving the two biggest election wins in Australian political history and spending seven and a half years as Prime Minister, Fraser — famously a loner, and nicknamed “the Prefect” by his colleagues — was never personally popular, and despite his stature as a political titan in the 1970s led a government lamented by liberals and conservatives alike to this day as an opportunity squandered.

Fraser is rightly acknowledged as having presided over the restoration of economic and social stability in Australia in the aftermath of the brief and turbulent tenure of the Whitlam government, and his government is credited with several notable achievements — the establishment of the Federal Court and the Australian Federal Police, the creation of SBS, the introduction of child endowment allowances, opening Australia for immigration by refugees from Vietnam, the return of powers to the states, as well as measures in environmental policy and Aboriginal land rights, to name a few.

But despite commissioning the Campbell report in 1981 — which paved the way for extensive deregulation and opening of Australia’s economy and financial system — Fraser refused to allow his Treasurer, John Howard, to implement its recommendations: the report would instead form the basis of the eventual reforms introduced by Hawke government Treasurer Paul Keating.

It is this failure to reform, coupled with the related criticism that it did nothing to substantially reform industrial relations laws during its tenure in office, that earned the Fraser government scathing criticism after its defeat that it had been a do-nothing government that persists today.

Yet Fraser will be remembered forever, with his name etched deep in the events of October and November 1975 that saw the Whitlam government dismissed from office; I have made the case in this column sporadically in the past that the Dismissal was, at heart, a constitutional law case, and that Governor General Sir John Kerr acted in accordance with the only constitutionally valid course open to him in withdrawing Whitlam’s commission as Prime Minister on 11 November 1975 so a deadlock between the Houses of Parliament could be resolved by a double dissolution election.

(We most recently looked at it in the aftermath of Whitlam’s death late last year, and readers can access that piece here).

Those tumultuous and controversial events divided Australia, and Fraser was at their epicentre as their driver and their beneficiary; there is a school of thought that quite plausibly ascribes the thin record of reform achieved by his government to a latent sense of illegitimacy in view of the manner by which it arrived in power, and whether readers subscribe to such a theory or not, it doesn’t change the fact that whilst Fraser led a competent government in the broadest sense, as a right-wing reformist outfit — unlike its contemporaries in the UK, the US, later in Canada and in parts of continental Europe — it was a failure.

But reform or no reform, Fraser was controversial, and controversy and division dogged his political career almost from the time he became a minister in the 1960s; he spectacularly resigned from Cabinet in 1971, accusing Prime Minister John Gorton of “gross disloyalty” and interference in his discharge of ministerial responsibilities and accusing Gorton of being “unfit to hold the great office of Prime Minister.” This outburst ultimately led to Gorton being replaced by William McMahon: scarcely an improvement, whatever Fraser might have thought of Gorton.

With the Dismissal and the thumping 1975 election win out of the way, Fraser led an unhappy government that was racked by scandal and resignations throughout its tenure; by 1981, he faced a challenge to his leadership from heir apparent Andrew Peacock — which he easily saw off — but having made many enemies in a political career even then 25 years long, it was evident that Fraser’s grip on the Liberal Party had started to slip: and as it did, so too did the bond between the Coalition and the electorate, as a severe recession in 1981-82 and the arrival of Bob Hawke in the parliamentary ALP eventually saw the Fraser government trounced at a double dissolution election early in 1983.

Controversy has followed Fraser ever since, conferring some notoriety upon him two years later as Australians awoke to the news that “Big Mal” had been found wandering around a hotel in Memphis, wearing only a bath towel, and unsure as to the whereabouts of his trousers and other personal effects. For some, it seemed for the first time that the oft-detested Fraser was almost human.

Yet one of the paradoxes of Malcolm Fraser is that this good, decent man, with a reputation among those who knew him for great warmth and personal compassion, was so coldly regarded by Australians generally: one of the favourite themes of political cartoonists of his day was a portrayal of Fraser in the statuesque manner of an Easter Island precipice — carved and hewn by bitter winds out of granite.

But a solitary childhood spent on the rolling agricultural properties that underpinned his family’s wealth and privilege meant that Fraser never connected easily with people, although when he did he was renowned for his loyalty and generosity.

He enjoyed great loves, two of the best-known being a fondness for cars and motor racing and a passion for the Carlton Football Club, and it was particularly pleasing to me today — as I went about my business in and around Melbourne — to hear a number of key Carlton figures from the club’s heyday during Fraser’s Prime Ministership (especially the coach, David Parkin) pay tribute to him on Melbourne radio for the devotion and hospitality with which he repaid the club’s attention to “a fan” as it won three Premierships in four years between 1979 and 1982.

And in later years, he reconciled with Whitlam — spawning an unlikely but truly great friendship — with the pair working alongside one another to advance a number of causes, the best known being their advocacy for a republic at the (thankfully) doomed referendum on the issue in 1999.

I would like to offer my sincerest condolences to Fraser’s family, and I acknowledge his widow Tamie — who, as the country’s First Lady, brought a grace and elegance that so often served as a foil to the more abrasive antics of her husband, and who rightly remains warmly regarded and popular by millions of Australians even now. Our thoughts are with her at this painful and difficult time.

Those who know me know I have spoken dismissively and harshly of Fraser, particularly where the failure of his government to utilise the colossal mandate it held to reform Australia is concerned and in view of the apparently increasing leftward trajectory of his views, and especially in the years since he deserted the Liberal Party that had nurtured his career for so long in 2009.

I would emphasise that these criticisms only ever applied to Fraser’s ideas and actions, or the lack of them as the case may have been; personally I liked Malcolm enormously, for he was a good and decent man in spite of whatever criticism may have been levelled at him, and even if not perhaps having truly achieved the greatness that his promise might have heralded.

In the end, Fraser was a man and a politician of his times: and the views he held that are roundly decried as left-wing, bleeding heart poppycock today are almost unchanged from those he held 40 or 50 years ago that earned him the contrary description of right-wing authority figure and anti-democratic tyrant.

Time, indeed, changes all manner of things.

Yet in a final irony, it changed Fraser little as the years passed, and as Australia (and the world) evolved around him: for a man whose utterances suggest a profound distaste for conservatism his life has been a virtual embodiment of it, and the man dismissed 50 years ago as wanting to “Put Value Back Into The £” (sic) and on a mission to restore Australia to the “golden age” of Sir Robert Menzies and the 1950s has remained as relevant, and as controversial and divisive, as the continuing beliefs and ideas he propounded have proven more enduring than anybody could probably have dared to believe when he was pilloried for them.

VALE, John Malcolm FRASER AC CH (21 May 1930-20 March 2015), 22nd Prime Minister of Australia, 1975-1983.

Revisionism And Whitlam, Exhibit #1: The Dismissal

IN THE AFTERMATH of the death of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, sections of the Left have wasted little time bombarding the country with inaccurate, debased versions of the “legacy” of the Whitlam government, and the alleged wrong it suffered on 11 November 1975 as the exercise of S64 of the Constitution saw it ejected from office. As conservatives pay tribute, the Left rekindles a fight it could not win in 1975 and will not win now.

Ignorance — in this case, of the law — is a potent weapon for those on the Left who would mould public opinion; hypocrisy, too, is a virtue, as too often those on the Left are either complicit in and/or openly commit the very sins they incite public outrage over when such actions are undertaken by their opponents.

I should make the clear point at the outset that my remarks today are not aimed at Gough Whitlam nor, in the main, to those Australians who hold him as an idol or a hero, despite the fact I do not share that judgement of him; rather, I want to talk about the “mythology” that has always existed in any public discussion of the former Prime Minister, and specifically, a legend that is at best highly embellished and bookended by a refutation of the Dismissal that has always been sorely wanting for any basis in fact.

It strikes me as an exquisite irony that as conservatives fete Whitlam in death with praise ranging from the moderate to the effusive — and this column quite happily did the same thing on Tuesday afternoon, as quickly as I could publish comment after learning Whitlam had died — the militant Left across Australia is railing against conservatives who might take advantage of Whitlam’s death to revel in his passing, and tear at their great leader’s legacy.

Presumably, they had in mind something resembling their own (gleeful, exultant, triumphalist) conduct last year when Margaret Thatcher died.

And just to ram their point home, countless manifestations of the Whitlam “legacy” — replete with decades-old embellishments, omissions, and outright fabrications — have leapt from the bunkers of the ABC, the Fairfax press, The Guardian, and all the other branches of the media and the commentariat given unquestioningly to the Left and the sanctity of its version of the country’s past.

It is fortuitous that some journalists, and some media outlets, remain intellectually honest enough to shoot these fictional stories down, and to call them for what they are and were; and without diverging down the tangential path of rehashing them, two excellent pieces from today’s press, by Miranda Devine at Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Greg Sheridan at The Australian, use hard, cold facts to blow so many holes in the Whitlam “legend” constructed over four decades by his disciples that if it were the Titanic, there would be no need for any iceberg.

But I have had a first-hand taste overnight of the peculiar savagery the ceaseless rewrite of history in Whitlam’s honour is generating, thanks to a vicious exchange on social media involving acquaintances welded to the political Left and centred on that “nuclear weapon” of alleged misdeeds against Whitlam and his government: the Dismissal.

The fracas (which I am hoping will continue no further, in the interests of decency) centred on an article, penned by the outspoken left-wing journalist David Marr and published in The Guardian, which leapt adroitly at the throats of both conservatives and former Governor-General Sir John Kerr over the “ruthless clawing down of Gough Whitlam.”

Appearing less than three hours after news of Whitlam’s death broke, it seems an odd tribute, to say the least.

But — such is presentation — Marr weaves a story of lies, deceit, illegal conduct and sheer bastardry that he claims “the verdict of both the law and history has been savage” to. It is a compelling story. It is also unmitigated and misleading rubbish.

(And to be clear, that description applies to the version of these events adhered to by the Left generally, which is merely reflected in Marr’s representation of them).

As anyone with a basic knowledge of political history knows, early in 1974 — armed with a majority in the Senate — the Coalition parties under the leadership of Bill Snedden moved to block supply to the first-term Whitlam government to force an election; Whitlam capitulated, calling a double dissolution, and was re-elected: albeit still lacking a majority in the Senate, with Labor and the Coalition each winning 29 spots, with two Liberal-leaning Independents.

In October 1975, under the leadership of Malcolm Fraser — with the scandal-plagued Whitlam government limping in opinion polls, and evidence to hand that one of its ministers, Rex Connor, had continued to pursue loans negotiations with Tirath Khemlani after the revocation of his authority to do so, placing the Australian government in breach of US law over other loan-raising activities — the Coalition again moved to block the budget and force another election.

It was aided in this enterprise by two casual ALP Senate vacancies, one in Queensland and one in NSW; in Queensland, Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen appointed an obscure ALP member known to be hostile to Whitlam personally in the knowledge he would be expelled from the Labor Party for accepting the Premier’s nomination. In NSW, Premier Tom Lewis appointed an Independent. It meant that the Coalition controlled the numbers in the Senate.

As it happened, the supply bills of the budget were indeed blocked: the result was that had the government run out of money it would have ceased to be able to function, with wages, rents, and other expenses unable to be paid as the money to do so would not legally be available to the government.

Ultimately — as provided for in section 64 of the Constitution — the deadlock between the Houses was broken by the Governor-General terminating Whitlam’s commission, and appointing Fraser in a caretaker capacity until elections could be held.

(That’s the quickest version of the Dismissal I have ever seen 🙂  )

I understand why this event caused (and causes) so much outrage in ALP circles. After all, this government — which its supporters had waited 23 years to see arrive — was terminated after just three, and by spectacularly unorthodox means.

But there are ample precedents for the legal use of regal and vice-regal constitutional powers in Australia and elsewhere; in fact, Labor itself was a willing cheer squad to the intervention of the Queen in 1977, when Bjelke-Petersen wanted to extend the term of his favourite Governor in Queensland, Colin Hannah — and the Queen said no.

The hypocrisy — with 1975 representing an outrage, and an abuse of power by an unelected representative of a “foreign” power refusing to accept advice from her Prime Minister — is compelling. In 1977, the ALP was cheering the same “foreign” power on for refusing to accept the advice of her Premier. Revenge is not an adequate justification. It is merely naked opportunism.

Even so, much of the bile Marr spouted on Tuesday is ridiculous.

What “verdict” of law has ever condemned the Dismissal? The matter was never taken to the High Court; Labor (and Whitlam) sensibly allowed it to stand, perhaps advised privately that seeking to overturn the decision was an enterprise unlikely to succeed. The Constitution is open to interpretation. But S64 is explicit that the Prime Minister holds office “during the pleasure of the Governor-General,” and it is generally accepted on all sides that the Constitution confers upon the Governor-General the ability to sack an elected government: even if, in Labor’s case in 1975, it did not like it.

The conspiratorial bent of Marr’s story fails to stand up; even with the emergence last year of the fact former High Court Justice Anthony Mason advised Kerr — as did another judge, Justice Barwick — it has been well documented that this advice was to confirm the constitutional integrity of the course of action on which Kerr had already determined, not to influence or “plot” it.

Whitlam was outraged that Kerr sought this advice, pointing to the convention that the viceroy should only be advised by the head of his government. But Kerr — in discharging a constitutional obligation of the office — quite properly sought advice to ensure the legality of his intended actions, and was perfectly entitled to do so.

It didn’t matter whether Bob Menzies was urging the Liberal Party to back down; he no longer held a seat in Parliament. Assertions the Coalition Senators were about to “crack” were and are not worth a can of beans; they didn’t. And far from Kerr being some anti-Labor, anti-Whitlam villain whose ill intent was calculated to “claw Whitlam down,” he “struck” — to use Marr’s term — at the last possible time to do so, and after every avenue for compromise and resolution had been tried, and had failed.

Marr is right that 11 November held no particular constitutional significance; it was, however, the last day on which an election could practicably be called prior to Christmas.

The fact the government had two weeks’ worth of money left on 11 November is part of the problem that forced Kerr’s hand; elections in 1975 required almost five weeks between the announcement and polling day, and the government had insufficient funds to make it that far. Or to Christmas. Or past the “silly season.” Without decisive resolution, tens of thousands of public servants would remain unpaid, as would all other government outgoings. The country would grind to a halt.

Whitlam’s plan to call a half-Senate election, contrary to Marr’s assertion, offered virtually no prospect whatsoever of Whitlam winning enough Senate seats to control the chamber. In fact — so far behind in published polling was the government at that time — it was far likelier the government would go backwards. Such judgements are, of course, subjective. But a deadlocked Senate after a half-Senate poll would have triggered utter chaos.

Whitlam’s other plan (which Marr conveniently fails to mention at all) was to get the country’s big banks to advance credit to the government indefinitely to fund its activities, thus circumventing the Senate and allowing it to stay in office despite its inability to pass its budget. The legality of this plan remains unclear to this day. It may have been legal, as Whitlam maintained; it may not. But it was certainly undemocratic, and a contempt of Parliament to boot.

The spectre of Kerr’s refusal to receive the Speaker of the House of Representatives is a red herring; the advice to dissolve the Houses of Parliament had been offered by Fraser and the proclamation to do so posted. Yes, the House of Representatives refused to adjourn for some time. But ultimately, the action that dissolved it usurped this last-ditch stand.

Most of the remainder of Marr’s article is melodramatic, biased twaddle designed to appeal to people’s hearts rather than their brains. It does not matter, incidentally, what Malcolm Turnbull told Marr. Turnbull, like so many of the other irrelevant bystanders Marr tries to drag into his argument, quite literally has nothing to do with it.

And his attempt to link any defence of the events of 1975 to “this ugly coup” remaining alive — and blaming conservatives for this fact — is simply an exercise in the provocative semantics of a partisan hack who seeks to continue to flog a dead horse decades after it died. It isn’t the Right that keeps dredging the Dismissal up, or disputing the facts surrounding it.

For all the high-minded piety of Marr’s piece, it fails to mention that the following Labor government of Bob Hawke fiddled the Senate by enlarging it, in a blatant attempt to ensure the Coalition could never again control the upper house (which it did — for one term — at the 2004 election). It never ceases to amaze me that the “anti-democratic” Dismissal = bad for the Left, whilst the anti-democratic structural distortion of a house of Parliament itself = good, sound, appropriate policy. Again, the hypocrisy of the Left fails to surprise in its consistency.

If Marr wanted to crucify the real villains of the piece, he would take aim at Bjelke-Petersen and Lewis, whose interventions undoubtedly made the difference between Fraser being able to block supply or not. But this features in Marr’s article as a virtual afterthought.

But whilst the Constitution has since been amended to dictate future Senate vacancies be filled by a member of the same party, what the two conservative Premiers did — whether you like it or not, and whether it seems decent or not — was completely legal and constitutional, if not perhaps done in good faith.

In the end, the Dismissal (as I have said in this column in the past) and ongoing debate on it are matters of constitutional law, not partisan politics, although it goes without saying that their ramifications were entirely political.

And Kerr, despite his (many) faults, took the only appropriate course open to him, and after exhaustive efforts to find an alternative resolution that was legal, functional, and — unlike Whitlam’s half-Senate election — likely to be workable.

Marr’s arguments (and countless others like them) pander to “the man on the street” who has scant interest in the constitutional and legal niceties of such matters, let alone any knowledge of them, and that makes this kind of hypocritical partisan rant all the more telling for its intellectual dishonesty.

On one level, the fact Whitlam’s government was annihilated at the 1975 election is irrelevant to this discussion, although it provides a clear indication of the mood of the public, and had there been outrage against the act of the Dismissal that Marr insinuates, Whitlam might have been re-elected or, at the very least, defeated far less heavily.

Of course, none of this is convenient for the Left.

And it sits perversely with the demands for respect that Whitlam acolytes who claim to be “grieving” and “in mourning” make that the vocal elements within their own ranks now seek to rekindle — and stoke — divisive matters such as this at the time of Whitlam’s death, supposedly in his defence, yet with a complete disregard for both the full facts of the event and its constitutional integrity.

This has been merely one look at the debased version of the history and legend of Gough Whitlam, as represented by his ageing surviving warriors. As night follows day, there will be plenty of others.

 

It’s Time: Gough Whitlam Dead At 98

AUSTRALIA HAS LOST a political colossus, with the death this morning of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at the age of 98; one of the most deeply divisive, controversial and reviled figures in the country’s history, he will be remembered for the dysfunctional and ramshackle government he presided over that was terminated by the events of 11 November 1975. Whitlam leaves a legacy whose worth will continue to be debated for many years.

It is a quick post from me this afternoon, as I am on the run today; but I wanted to note the passing of Australia’s 21st Prime Minister this morning, and recognise that whatever people think — or thought — of him, an extraordinary Australian who inspired and divided in equal measure has gone.

Contrary to ALP legend, Gough Whitlam was not a god, or in fact the God; and despite the mythology that has sprung up around him since the dismissal of his government in 1975, his reputation for reform was neither as far-reaching as credit often insinuates, nor his government as visionary as is often boldly proclaimed.

There can, however, be little doubt that Whitlam was an agent of change at a time of great upheaval in Australia and, indeed, across the world; his ascension to office came as the baby boomer generation became eligible to vote for the first time, and was framed against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the free love movements of the 1960s, and the age of Watergate and investigative journalism.

Yet Whitlam’s government — framed in hindsight as revolutionary by his adherents, and destructive verging on ruinous by his detractors — is as notable for the mythology it has generated as it is for any legacy of reform it left behind.

Certainly, the notion of socialised medicine and healthcare, manifested first as Medibank (now a health insurance fund) and later as Medicare is arguably the Whitlam government’s most enduring legacy, with the concept only becoming truly uncontested in the past 20 years, and forming a government service that is accepted as the norm today.

But other Whitlam reforms — such as free universities that had largely been implemented by the government he followed, ending Australia’s commitments in Vietnam, which has all but been discontinued when he reached office, or ending the White Australia Policy, which in 1972 continued to exist in name only — are more mixed, and in the case of the universities in particular had already begun to be unpicked by the Hawke government by the 1980s.

The platform provided to minorities, the arts, and the cultural elites by the Whitlam government persist to this day; in some cases to the country’s betterment, and in some cases otherwise.

Yet the notion Whitlam’s government was an inclusive one, or that it governed for all Australians, has provoked passion and debate since it ended almost 40 years ago, and probably always will.

The Whitlam government — often held out by conservatives as the worst in Australia’s history, a mantle I contend was usurped by the Gillard regime — was a mediocre and incompetent administration, often mired in scandal and riven with dissent, and which sought to excuse illegal actions in the name of its “mandate” with the Australian public.

It will be remembered for the Khemlani affair, which sought to plunge the country recklessly into debt on the word of an obscure Middle Eastern loan shark whose bona fides were later proven to ring hollow.

It will be remembered for incompetent ministers who sought to circumvent established convention and the law, such as Rex Connor and Jim Cairns, and whose activities tarnished the image of Whitlam’s government as the damage to Australia’s reputation grew.

But it will forever be remembered for the events of Remembrance Day in 1975, when constitutional power vested in the Governor-General were used to break a deadlock between the Houses of Parliament, with Whitlam’s commission withdrawn and a double dissolution election called by caretaker Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

Conspiracy theorists of the left will forever argue these events were a violence against Australian democracy; opponents rightly argue the Dismissal to not only have been legal (which it was) but a proper course of action that rescued Australia from the social damage that would follow the attempt to evade the constitution Whitlam had sought to realise with his proposal that commercial banks fund government in order to circumvent the Senate’s attempts to block his budget and force an election.

The public verdict, of course, was the overwhelming repudiation of Whitlam Labor in what still stands today as the ALP’s greatest-ever electoral defeat: a judgement repeated two years later, when Whitlam was again beaten by Fraser in a similar result to the first.

There can be little doubt that Whitlam and his acolytes were genuinely committed to what they saw as the best interests of this country, although that vision was widely disputed in its day and remains hotly contested now.

And his drastic expansion of the role of government in most areas, but notably in spheres such as the scale and breadth of the welfare state, underpin political debates that persist today: and in the case of the welfare industry, Whitlam’s legacy — however well-intentioned — has arguably bequeathed lasting damage and endless division where, if taken at face value, it sought to heal.

In retirement Whitlam found rapprochement with many of his former adversaries, most notably Malcolm Fraser; yet the “rage” he promised to maintain (and which persists with a flicker rather than a fire) was maintained in his own mind to the day he died in terms of the events of 1975 and toward the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, who will forever be viewed as a “Labor bastard” for his actions.

Whitlam, whose wife Margaret died two years ago, is survived by three sons and a daughter.

I extend my condolences to his family and those around them at this difficult time, and note that the great anger and hostility that followed Whitlam from Parliament 37 years ago has, in true Australian fashion, largely dissipated over time.

And whilst I feel no fondness at all for the memory of his government or most of what it did or purported to do, Whitlam himself was a likeable enough figure whose wit and intellect tower over Australia’s polity: so it was in life, and so it will continue to be in his death.

It’s time: Whitlam has now passed, and it would befit his wry humour to ponder whether that passage has been upstairs or downstairs.

Much debate and discussion of Whitlam and his legacy to Australia will now ensue, and to this end — with more time to hand in the next few days — we will likely add to its stocks in this column.

VALE, Edward Gough Whitlam AC QC (1916-2014), 21st Prime Minister of Australia, 1972-1975.

ALP Leadership: Could Quentin Bryce Do A John Kerr?

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!