Sir John Was Wrong: The Age

Decades on, the editorial in The Age newspaper on November 12, 1975, remains one of the clearest statements of the arguments against Sir John Kerr’s actions the previous day.

Age

Editorial, The Age, November 12, 1975.

Sir John was wrong

Yesterday was the most extraordinary in the political life of this nation. It was also one of the most regrettable. The decision of the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, to dismiss the Whitlam Government was, we believe, a triumph of narrow legalism over common sense and popular feeling. We do not deny that Sir John had been placed in an appallingly difficult position by two stubborn men. We accept that he had a legal power to do as he did, and that he acted in good faith. But we believe he was wrong. We are not convinced the decision he took was the only one open to him, or that it was necessary to take it now. He has certainly not explained himself adequately.

How seriously did Sir John consider equally constitutional, and less drastic, alternatives? In the circumstances in which he found himself, for example, did Sir John consider calling in Mr. Fraser and suggesting that the time had come for the Senate actually to vote on Supply, instead of simply deferring the whole question? If the Appropriation Bills had been passed, or rejected outright, the situation would at least have been clarified.

Equally, we should like to know if Sir John considered the possibility of urging Mr. Fraser to allow the Senate to pass interim Supply so that a half-Senate election could be helf. If Mr. Fraser had refused, Sir John might then have given more consideration to the proposition that a half-Senate election could be held even without Supply being passed. In his statement yesterday, Sir John said that if My. Whitlam had proffered such advice, he would have rejected it. He asserted that the proposals for financing public servants, suppliers and contractors (through the banking system) “do not amount to a satisfactory alternative to Supply”. True enough, but might they not have provided an adequate stop-gap for an interim period at the end of which the public would have passed verdict at the polls? Had a half-Senate election gone against Mr. Whitlam, Sir John might then have been justified in taking the action he took yesterday.

Even assuming Sir John considered and rejected all these possibilities, it does not explain his rush to judgment. It would surely have been prudent to wait until the end of the month when Supply would actually have run out. Two more weeks of pressure might well have produced a political compromise, removing the need for a Vice-Regal dictat. Had it not done so, Sir John could then have announced his decision in the knowledge that he had given the politicians every chance to find their own way out of the mess. At least a delayed decision would have enabled him to have further talks with Mr. Whitlam. After all, the Constitution does require the Governor-General to listen to the advice of the Prime Minister of the day. On the evidence of his statement yesterday, Sir John seems to have been more impressed by the advice of the Chief Justice, Sir Garfield Barwick.

Whatever further rationale Sir John may offer for his Yarralumla coup d’etat, let us be quite clear about its effects. The party which held a clear majority in the House of Representatives – the people’s chamber in which Governments have always been made and broken – has been bundled out of office by Vice-Regal decree. In its place we have a makeshift caretaker administration which cannot command such a majority. Its inability to do so was demonstrated yesterday afternoon within an hour of Sir John’s announcement. That is not all. An electorate which 18 months ago voted into power a Government for three years has been ordered by the Queen’s representative to try again. In the meantime, if majorities still mean anything at all, the Senate is today the seat of Australian Government.

Exquisite irony

The irony is exquisite. It was not Mr. Whitlam but Mr. Fraser who precipitated this crisis. It was not Mr. Whitlam but Mr. Fraser who chose to shatter a convention which had gone unbroken throughout our 74 years of nationhood. It was not Mr. Whitlam but Mr. Fraser who decided to fall back on the dead letter of the Constitution, thus violating the spirit of representative democracy. And yet, by exercising his reserve powers in this way, Sir John has given Mr. Fraser precisely what he set out to get – a premature House of Representatives election. As a bonus, he has been given the right to go into that election wearing the trappings, if not the reality, of power.

This newspaper has had some harsh things to say about Mr. Whitlam and his government. We retract none of them. The Government was incompetent. In the loans affair, it took naivete to the point of folly and even impropriety. It deserved to go – but not this way. Make no mistake about it: if Mr. Fraser lifted the lid of Pandora’s box with his decision to block Supply in the Senate, Sir John has just blown the lid right off. The Fraser precedent now bears a Vice-Regal seal and any future Government of this country which finds itself confronted by a hostile Senate will be under constant threat. It will not dare make the unpopular decisions which are inevitably necessary in the life of any Parliament. Unless and until the Senate’s power to reject money bills is abolished we are doomed to intervals of hamstrung government.

In the long term, this may prove to be the gravest consequence of yesterday’s events, but it is not the only one. The immediate prospect is bleak. With Labor supporters, and other who are not Labor supporters, understandably enraged at what has happened, the scene is set for demagoguery, industrial strife and even outright violence. The initial reaction has been ominous.

It is in this context that Mr. Whitlam now has an opportunity, indeed a duty, to demonstrate every quality of statesmanship he possesses. So have ACTU president Robert Hawke and other Labor leaders. That duty is to use every influence to persuade their followers to settle this matter at the ballot boxes, not in the streets. The law may have just proved itself an ass, but anarchy is a mad dog and history will pass a terrible judgment on any political leader, Labor or non-Labor, who seeks to unleash it. So will the electorate: over-reaction invariably creates a backlash.

The other immediate and unfortunate by-product of Sir John’s decision is that we now face the prospect of an election in which important issues are likely to be obscured. Instead of deciding calmly and rationally whether Labor or non-Labor parties are best equipped to govern us for the next three years, many voters will use the poll solely to express their feelings about Sir John’s extraordinary intervention. Instead of asking whether Mr. Whitlam has earned the right to a further three-year term, they will be asking whether he has been given a fair go. It is a good question, but it should not be the only question.

There is a very real danger that large sections of the public will today feel utterly disenchanted with the whole political process. Mr. Fraser bears a heavy responsibility for this. But Mr. Whitlam is far from blameless. If his Government had been more competent and circumspect, the Opposition might have been less tempted. Both of them at least owe the public a decent and responsible election campaign.

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