02 February 2015

A Note Prompted By the Passing of Gough Whitlam

[NB — The extended hiatus from last autumn was a result of my wife's cancer returning. It is a long story, and I prefer to keep it short. We finally got a firm diagnosis of the extent of her problem just before Christmas. We are hopeful that she will be with us for a few more years, but it was still disturbing news and only now is my life beginning to return to what could be called 'normal'.]

The death of Gough Whitlam three months ago reminded the world of Australia's 1975 political crisis. The crisis became fodder for those who see the secret hand of the CIA or the United States at work in so many curious incidents around the world. However, it also brought into question the relationship of the Commonwealth Realms to the British royal house. It is fair to say that the the question of the continued presence of the monarchy in Commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada is going to become a significant over the coming decade. The Queen may yet reach 100, and defy such a prediction, but the probabilities suggest we will be hailing King Charles III before too long. Whether the 'white dominions' of Canada, Australia and New Zealand will be willing to continue with the link to the House of Windsor is a matter certain to be raised. Each of these will, I suspect, return answers that suit their own particular circumstances at that moment. So in this post I am going to consider two political crises that raise important questions about a change from dominion status to one of a republic.

Australasia is certainly where my knowledge and familiarity of Anglosphere history is weakest. Nonetheless, I am going to risk floating a comment because Whitlam was a very interesting political figure not just in his own country, but within the broader context of Anglospheric political trends. Whitlam in one sense was a 'Blairite avant la letter (or, better, Tony Blair was simply a Whitlam clone, part of Rupert Murdoch's Australianisation of Britain). Eric Hobsbawm famously in 1978 proposed that the historic role of the industrial proletariat as the decisive force in the revolution against the capitalists' power was coming to an end. While neither the British nor Australian labour party was in any way Marxist, it is fair to say that they both were organisations rooted in that industrial proletariat. This constituency had repeatedly failed to deliver parliamentary majorities for twenty-three years, and Whitlam looked to other sources of electoral power for the party. He found them in a variety of socially liberal causes, such as race, unfair pay for women and the urban and suburban constituencies poorly served by the welfare measures of the Australian state. While Labour parties were not "sound" on these issues, tending to put the interests of a largely male skilled and semi-skilled workers above all others.

Thus, when Whitlam came to power in the 1972 election, he put just as much weight on a policy agenda that appealed to middle-class liberals who wanted to ameliorate the hardships of disadvantaged groups at home and abroad. Whitlam's basic outlook was to promote welfare clientelism — a dole handed out to the unfortunate. Rather than focus on the hard task of attacking the foundations of international capitalists' power, Whitlam preferred the easier task of attacking the 'colonial' remnants in the Australian state, at a time when Britain's Establishment for over a decade had been eagerly shedding as much of these legacy responsibilities as it could without causing offense.

During 1974 and 1975, Whitlam found himself in an economic and political crisis of some severity. Confronted with an apparent political deadlock, the Governor-General appointed by Whitlam, Sir John Kerr, made use of reserve powers completely on his own initiative. These sorts of reserve powers are inherent in all constitutional arrangements where the head of state is intended to be a figurehead somewhat above politics.

Canada has in its history a similar confrontation between a prime minister and the reserve powers held by a head of state who represents a monarch resident overseas. The "King-Byng" affair is, I imagine, largely forgotten outside of Canada, and based on my own experience living there for six years seems largely forgotten within Canada, too. (Canadians are a people who prefer to forget their past, even to discard it altogether.) We see something similar happen here, except with a key difference. After the general election of October 1925, Governor-General the Viscount Byng of Vimy allowed the incumbent prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to have the first attempt at finding support in the House of Commons. Arguably Byng should have given the Conservative party, which had won the most seats, a go before King. However, Byng could be seen as accepting his prime minister's advice, which is how constitutional monarchies should work. After King had clearly lost his support in the Commons in June 1926, Byng declined to follow his prime minister's advice for a dissolution. The question that Byng had to answer was 'who spoke for the electorate?'. King's government was threatened with censure by the same house that had supported him nine months earlier, which saw King's party not even possessing the most seats. The October mandate had been inconclusive, and the largest party had not been given a chance to find a majority in the House of Commons. Whichever course of action Byng chose to adopt, he would have alienated a large number of Canadian voters. In fact, Byng handed the Conservative leader a poisoned chalice. The Conservatives could not secure a majority either, and a dissolution took place in a matter of days. King's party won a slim majority in the 1926 election.

In both cases, replacing the office of a vicegerent governor-general representing a monarch resident overseas would not have changed the dynamic of the crisis. In both cases the essential problem was between the government and the parliament. The head of state was required to arbitrate, and in both cases chose not to follow the advice of the prime minister. However, in both cases there were perfectly sound political reasons to take the course of action that was followed. Kerr needed to find a government that was capable of getting a budget sorted out in the midst of an economic crisis of the incumbent government's creation. I don't see how an elected Kerr could have failed to reach the same decision, nor is there any evidence that the relationship between Australia's monarchy and Britain's came into play here. Likewise, an elected Byng would have faced the same problem that an appointed Byng did.

In neither of these two crises did the 'colonial' position of the dominions come into play. Nor would a 'republican' polity have changed the crises in any way. Both are examples of how people in pursuit of power are prepared to kick at the foundations of their constitutional order, without really thinking about the long-term risk to the political system. In other words, image trumps reality when the stakes are highest.

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