Paul Keating’s suggestion yesterday that Gough Whitlam should have placed governor general John Kerr under house arrest after Kerr sacked Whitlam in 1975 has generated hot debate. Here are his original comments made in a speech yesterday at the launch of The Great Crash: The Short Life and Sudden Death of the Whitlam Government, by Michael Sexton:
…Here, we had the position where a pumped up bunyip potentate thought he might dismiss the elected government. To use the powers a king had declined to use.
On the day, I was a minister, though a junior one. Gough never quite liked the NSW Right, even though we anointed him and crowned him. And as I was one of the guys in the dark suits from Sussex Street I was also kept at arm’s length. I told Daly that we should put Kerr immediately under house arrest. And I meant it. Had I been Prime Minister, I certainly would have. In the event, Gough would have had no recourse then but to take the country to an election but with him as Prime Minister; a different circumstance altogether.
As it turned out Kerr more or less got away with it. Not in moral terms but in constitutional terms. And lest you think that my view was in some way anti-constitutional, as to that kind of advice, when it was my turn to recommend a structure for the republic in the House of Representatives as Prime Minister in 1995, I recommended a model that maintained the reserve powers.
There has got to be some figure in the system able to resolve deadlocks between the Senate and the House of Representatives. Because with a proportional voting system in the Senate these days, as the population grows, so too will the House of Representatives. And with the nexus in the constitution, the Senate must be near enough to half the size of the House of Representatives, so the Senate will grow in numbers.
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As the Senate grows in number, the quota needed to elect each senator will be lower. So all sorts of flotsam and jetsam will roll into the Senate and you will have periods of instability. There has to be someone on the top of the system who can resolve such impasses.
Kerr did not create the problem. It was created by Malcolm Fraser and his opportunist party. Kerr got saddled with the resolution. The problem with Kerr was that he was one of those kind of people who hear voices as to their own importance; his own place in life and who he might consult other than the Prime Minister. He forgot altogether the principle of acting on the advice of his ministers, preferring to see the then Chief Justice of the High Court and other people, for advice of the kind he was looking for. Looking for corroborating advice for a course of action he had already determined. And he kept this course of action away from the Prime Minister through the period. So in the end, the matter was resolved in favour of the opportunist, Malcolm Fraser.