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The dismissal


 The dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975, followed by an election, changed the republican debate. What was a curious academic school, the obsession with a cultural cringe, suddenly had legs. It is worth recalling the immediate causes of the 1975 crisis.

They were Leader of the Opposition Malcolm Fraser's impatience for government and the determination of the Whitlam government that it would try to govern without supply, that is without the authorisation of funding by parliament. It was the Governor-General's decision to act before supply ran out that brought the crisis to an end.

The crisis was in no way caused, provoked or exacerbated by The Queen. But logic is not necessarily a guide for political action, and many blamed the monarchy, rather than the politicians who had actually caused the crisis. So the dismissal provided a new source of republican sentiment.

 Until then the Labor Party had been as monarchist as the Liberal and Country Parties. Labor leaders such as John Curtin, Dr H.V. Evatt and Ben Chifley were as royalist in sentiment and in action as R.G. Menzies. After all, it was our great wartime prime minister, John Curtin, who recommended that a Royal Duke be made Governor-General.

A new Labor Platform 

 But in July 1981, six years after Whitlam's dismissal, a national conference of the Labor Party voted to support a republic. There were in fact two motions, this one from the floor, and another from the executive, asking for an inquiry on the subject and a report. According to the historian Alan Atkinson, the motion from the executive should have been put first, but Neville Wran, the national president, gave priority to the motion from the floor. It was carried unanimously. Labor was committed to a republic without any form of consultation or discussion within the broader party.

A motion in 1991 for a public education campaign, culminating in a referendum to make Australia an "independent" republic on 1 January 2001 was carried - but "not very vigorously", according to the then ALP president.

What then are we to make of something being official ALP policy? The first platform of the ALP aimed for the total exclusion of "coloured and other undesirable races". For many years Labor was committed to the widespread nationalisation of industry and the banks. Both of these policies have not only been abandoned, but reversed. Will republicanism stay as ALP official policy?

Before he endured the indignity of dismissal, Gough Whitlam was asked whether it was correct that he wished to transform the office of Governor-General into a presidency.

He replied: “No, I do not think that is said. I have used the term that the Governor­General is viceroy and some people seem to think that is an extraordinary concept but constitutionally it is quite obvious. He is the stand-in for the Queen when she is not in residence here. He can do everything that she can do as head of state. The system ... works quite well.

“After all, no government of any political complexion can be better pleased than with a system where the head of state, the ceremonial head, holds the position for a certain number of years on the nomination of the national head of government. The system works very well and our governors-general, certainly the Australian ones, have always been top men.”

So before his dismissal Mr Whitlam clearly thought the Australian system quite agreeable. He is of course entitled to change his views. In 1983 he wrote that he believed not merely in a symbolic change, but in large-scale substantive alterations to the constitution.

The case for a republic, he says, is not primarily directed against the monarchy "but against the faults" in the Australian constitution.

 He believes that the case rests not so much on the need to sever links with the Crown, but on the need to strengthen Australia's own institutions and democratic safeguards.

He says any worthwhile improvement of the constitution will require major changes, and "since the monarchy is integral to, and virtually inseparable from, the constitution as it stands, the only realistic course is to replace it altogether".

The action of Sir John Kerr certainly gave a renewed impetus to the cause of republicanism in Australia. A former governor­general, Sir Zelman Cowan, points out that a republic, of itself, would not necessarily dispose of the problem of the exercise of such discretions.

But the fact that a governor-general, "unelected and the representative of the queen", acted in this way is seen by some - perhaps by a growing number of Australians - as grounds for               remaking the constitution without monarchical institutions and  representation.

He believes the achievement of "full" independence for Australia, the changing pattern of her relationships with the world, and the changing character and composition of Australian society and the Australian people have all affected our view of the special relationship with Britain and its institutions.

Mark McKenna says that the modern push for a republic had its roots in Donald Horne's response to the dismissal. Horne saw a need to remove the monarchy not only to assert our national  identity, but also to democratise the constitution.

McKenna points out that Australians are reluctant to endorse constitutional change. So Horne's republic might sink quickly if it were too closely linked with substantive changes to the constitution. Isolating the republic as a mere question of patriotism, of national identity, from the problem of substantive reform is precisely the approach embodied in the ARM's platform.

It was no doubt hoped this has the added advantage of avoiding what Australians have traditionally done in referenda -look closely at the details of the proposed change. 

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