you're reading...

Government By Caprice: Emeritus Professor Donald Horne on The Governor-Generalate and on The Passing of The Lucky Country

Today’s Guest Blog comes from the Vaults of 1975-1976, from the pen of the Late Emeritus Professor Donald Horne (1921 – 2005).

If you can’t bear or afford the time to read a 3700 word blog, I suggest you at least skip to read the closing  paragraphs from Professor Horne, to inspire you to come back and read the full blog (which is the second in a three part Guest Blog Series from the Professor) when time and circumstances are better for you.

This Guest Blog starts with the opening 5 1/2 paragraphs of Chapter 4 of his 1976 Classic, The Death of the Lucky Country.

This is followed by a series of key paragraphs from Chapter 10 of The Death of the Lucky Country, in which Professor Horne:

  • explains what he meant by when he coined the phrase “The Lucky Country” (the title of his 1964 Classic, and the first Australian Best Seller ever written by an Australian),
  • describes the end of the easy, golden, “lucky” period of Australian history (which coincided with the 11/11/1975 infamous Whitlam, Prime Ministerial Dismissal);
  • spells out the steps, political and above all constitutional, which the Australian peoples needed to take (and today, 2011, still need to take) for Australia to take an earned (rather than a contrived and derivative) place among the head tables of the worlds leading and most inspiring of nations.

This Guest Blog can also be read as a Part 2 to my previous blog, which was also based heavily on Chapter 3 of Emeritus Professor Donald Horne’s Death of the Lucky Country – under his chapter title “Three: Government by Caprice – The Senate.”

In Part 1 of this series, I offered my own observations on the similarities between:

  • the (two) non-politically aligned (hostile) Senates which both the 1973 elected Whitlam Labor Government and the 1974 elected Whitlam Labor Government had to deal with; and
  • the two non-politically aligned (if not, technically, hostile) Senates which the 2007 and 2010 Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments have had to contend with (independents holding the so-called ‘balance of power’ in the Senate from February 2007 until June 2011, and the Australian Greens holding holding that so-called ‘balance of power’ from this week, 1 July 2011.

In The Death of the Lucky Country, Emeritus Professor Donald Horne included copies of several of the key correspondences, including an extra-curium letter written by the Chief Justice of Australia (former Menzies Liberal Government Attorney-General Sir Garfield Barwick)) and the infamous 11/11/1975 letter written by Sir John Kerr, the then Governor-General of Australia purporting democratic and constitutional powers and duties to sack the Prime Minister and all of his Ministers and (even more extra-ordinarily, but brushed over without the barest analysis by lawyers, historians or constitutionalists) to appoint Liberal Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser as replacement Prime Minister. (Fraser the usurper was sacked by the Parliament within 43 minutes of asserting his appointment, but returned triumphant, with superior strength of his Liberal Party in both Houses, following the forced general election the following month.)

In the next and final Part 3 of this guest blog from Professor Donald Horne, I will reproduce:

  • those copies of those historic documents,
  • Emeritus Professor Donald Horne’s useful and concise chronology of those historical events; and
  • other materials including the “Queen’s Letter” of 17/11/1975 casting Royal “doubt” (to put it kindly) on the democratic and constitutional validity of the actions of Fraser, Barwick and Kerr, during those historic weeks of November and December 1975.

It is to the enduring pity, and adding to the continuing poverty, of our Australian political and constitutional practices that those correspondences and actions of those men such as Fraser, Barwick and Kerr were never tested, were never the subject of Constitutional law proceedings in the High Court of Australia, and were never the subject of High Court of Australia Judgements. In one single event, Australia could have experienced more constitutional development, enlightenment and growth than in the whole centuries before and since federation. What might have been .. and still has to be ..

Over to Emeritus Professor Donald Horne, from November 1975 and the pages of his “Death of The Lucky Country”:

Five: Government By Caprice: The Governor-Generalate

Australia’s position is now this: one man, an appointed, not elected, official, can take a decision that changes Australian political life. Yet he is entirely unaccountable to us. He is unchallengeable: there is no undoing what he does. We can ask him questions but he won’t give us answers. And he is hard to criticize: both conventions of fairness and, in some parts of the media, straight out suppression, protect him.

It is intolerable that such power should be protect by the mystifications of the English crown. During the Khemlani loans affair, I think only the Australian Financial Review pointed out that the Governor-General had signed the minutes authorizing Connor to raise multi-billion petrodollar loans for ‘temporary purposes’. It might have been expected that an official powerful enough to sack one Prime Minister and put in another would question the constitutionality of these loan raisings before authorizing them. Did he do so? If not, why not? If his argument was that his job was simply to follow the advice of his Ministers, why didn’t he apply that principle and follow the advice of Gough Whitlam during the Senate crisis? (1)

The real lesson of the loans affair was that our monarchic constitution may be used so that ministers can raise multi-billion dollar loans without the Australian people knowing. For those who believe in checks and balances on government actions this situation should seem in need of remedy. But it touches on a matter some may see as more important – the invoiability of the monarchic principle. The real scandle of the loans affair was that billions of dollars might have been secretly raised on the signature of an appointed official. With a more democratic constitution this would not have been possible.

A dinner that Jim McClelland always seems to remember was one at which I urged him, for hours, to stand for the Senate. Another guest at that dinner whom I also urged to go into public life was John Kerr. This came to mind when I read during the Senate crisis that McClelland and Whitlam had had lunch at Government House with Kerr. At this lunch, it is said, Kerr again gave the impression that he would not intervene against Whitlam, but suggested that Fraser might be let off the hook. I don’t imagine that McClelland will ever sit down to a meal with John Kerr again.

Of all the political disadvantages that came from Whitlam’s crashthrough style of government (there were also, of course, many advantages) the worst was not the Khemlani loans decision, but Whitlam’s failure to think about what he was doing before appointing John Kerr to the Governor-Generalship.(2) Whitlam and his staff didn’t take the office seriously: they saw it as that of a ribbon-cutter and manager of the government guest-house. Kerr got on to the short list because he was a knight. They thought that whomever they put in as Governor-General should be a knight, and so, as well as not paying sufficient attention to the possible political powers of the office, they underestimated its symbolic significance: it might be unfair to knights but a nationalist Labor government should have deliberately looked for a Governor-General who was not a knight. A government that had decided to dispense no more British honours should have made the gesture of choosing a Governor-General who was a plain ‘mister’. And a democratic Labor government should have told its appointee not to wear top hat and morning dress: in Australia that is the costume of the furthest reaches of what considers itself the upper social economic class. It was a symbolic assault on Labor’s democracy that the Governor-General should dress in the style of the members’ stand and the society wedding.

I remember only one good thing from John Kerr’s period as Governor-General: he abolished the curtsy. Otherwise he seemed to play the bunyip aristocrat ..

Editors Notes (by James Johnson):

  1. Whitlam’s Labor Party had won government in 1973 by winning a majority of seats in the “lower” House of Representatives. But because of (continuing) crooked electoral practices including electoral boundary deformities and other practices (such as the practice of only ½ of the Senate positions being up for election in tandem with each full, 100% General Election for House of Representatives members) the Whitlam Labor Party failed in 1973 to secure a majority of places in the “upper” Senate (also so-called the House of Review). As reported in Part 1 of this blog, the party-political pressure the Liberal and National coalition parties brought against the Labor party in this hostile Senate force the Whitlam Government to go to, and to re-win government at the 1974 election. Those same crooked electoral practices again produced the, this time ‘surprise’ result that the second Whitlam Labor Government also suffered from a lack of control of a majority of Senate positions. The Question I would like to ask on behalf of the Australian people is, if “Sir John did his duty” (the title of a manifesto written after the Dismissal events by no other than Sir Garfield Barwick (former Liberal Government Attorney-General, and of course the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia who was writing to Governor-General Sir John Kerr (see (2) below), then why as Governor-General not simply sign and issue writs calling for a new general election (a third one in three years)? Why did Sir John Kerr think he should (let alone think he could) either dismiss Prime Minister Gough Whitlam prior to that third general election? Why did Sir John Kerr, as Governor General think that he should (let alone think that he could) appoint the parliamentary leader of the Liberal Party Members in the House of Representatives as the Prime Minister? (The power to appoint the Prime Minister rests in the hands of a general vote of the 150 elected Members of the House of Representatives, not in the hands of an unelected Governor-General appointed by a Prime Minister). Immediately after he was appointed Prime Minister by Governor-General Sir John Kerr, the moment the Australian Parliament re-opened Malcolm Fraser was voted down, was sacked as Prime Minister by a majority vote of the Members of the House of Representatives. Governor-General Sir John Kerr made two separate and distinct multi-part decisions, with no reason for linking the two separate decisions or bundling them up as one and the same process. The first was whether he could (let alone should) have dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. The second was whether he could (let alone should) have appointed a Prime Minister in his place. This second decision was not necessarily brought on by a decision to remove the Prime Minister, since the Prime Ministerial and all other Ministerial positions become vacated once a general election is called. On this second decision, if there were constitutional or governmental reasons for Australia having a Prime Minister appointed in such sensational circumstances weeks before a general election was scheduled, why did Sir John Kerr not appoint himself, or Chief Justice Garfield Barwick, or indeed appoint a non-Labor Party or a non-Liberal Party Member of the House of Representatives as a Prime Minister in Gough Whitlam’s place? Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party retained sufficient numbers in the House of Representatives to reappoint Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister after making its decision to dismiss Sir John Kerr’s Liberal Party appointee Malcolm Fraser (3:16 pm on 11 November 1975) 43 minutes after Fraser announced to the House of Representatives (announced at 2.30 PM on 11 November 1975)? Perhaps those involved in the sequence of decisions to sack Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and appoint Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser were concerned that at the December 1975 general election (the third in three years because of the Senate caprice) both these elements were necessary, to discredit perceptions of Gough Whitlam (and the Labor Party) and to enhance perceptions of Malcolm Fraser (and the Liberal Party), as a Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, still in the Lodge, and still in charge of the House of Representatives, might succeed at that third election (electoral boundaries and rules discriminations notwithstanding) by securing at the third attempt a first-time majority of Senators in the Senate House as well as a third-time majority of Representatives in the House of Representatives.
  2. Sir John Kerr was a long-term Australian Labor Party figure, a barrister with a legal practice at the New South Wales bar amongst the more right-ish (more conservative) trade unions. He was linked with those (Catholic, right-wing Trade Unions and Business) elements who broke away from the Australian Labor Party to form Bob Santamaria’s Democratic Labor Party (but declined invitations to be the inaugural Chairman of the DLP). The DLP, Catholicism and Bob Santamaria figure strongly in the political background of one Tony Abbott, lawyer (and Rhodes Scholar) who is of course the current parliamentary leader of the (so-called, conservative) Liberal Party. Sir John Kerr, prior to become a Knight and prior being appointed by Whitlam as Governor-General, was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Tony Abbott, like Julia Gillard (and like 98% of all elected politicians, 99% of all unelected senior bureaucrats and ministers, and 100% of all judges and senior judicial officers) are of course lawyers.

Back to Emeritus Professor Donald Horne, and Chapter 10 of “Death of the Lucky Country” with his explanation of his expressions “The Lucky Country”, the “Death” of the lucky country, on the absence of “democracy” and the absence of “constitution’al” government in Australia, and a shopping list of repairs, repairs to government and repairs to our constitutional framework, necessary to raise Australia up to being a constitutional democracy:

Chapter Ten: Death of the Lucky Country

One can make too much of the political importance of Whitlam’s personality. His personal popularity could go up and down. In 1975 it began low; it rose; it fell; the election caught him before his popularity recovered – or, as Fraser had hoped, it caught him when his pants were down. When things were going well people could admire, or at least tolerate, aspects of Whitlam that they found intolerable when things were bad. However, both for the better and for the worse, the Labor government was not just Gough Whitlam. I have spoken of his king-like personality for the special reason that the 1975 defeat made him one of Australia’s few political heroes.

There was already an heroic aspect in the three-year struggle of his government, facing not only Senate obstruction, but a Senate-caused election, and then a continuing threat of another Senate-caused election. There was a gallantry in the way in which, in this unprecedented condition, Whitlam pushed so much of his program through. (In this sense the crashthrough style was a sensible tactic.) Then he was assassinated. Then he was assassinated again, by his defeat in an illegitimately called election, done in by strong and powerful enemies. A double martyr, but still living amongst us.

Political heroes don’t come easily. That is why there have been so few in Australia, where so many things have come so very easily. For the tens of thousands of people to whom the 1975 election was an opportunity to affirm traditional values which they then saw denied, Whitlam is now a hero. But heroes are created by folk art to stand for something. What does Whitlam stand for? I see him as marking that period in history in which we are witnessing the end of what I called “the lucky country”.

Let me explain:

When I invented the phrase in 1964 to describe Australia I said “Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck.” I didn’t mean that it had a lot of material resources, although this was how many people used the phrase at the time off euphoria about Australia’s mineral exports. Nor did I mean the Bondi Beach syndrome – the lazy burnt-out oaf lying there on the sand until fate caught up with him; I don’t mind people lying on the beach. Nor did I mean that Australia had exceptionally high living standards, as these things are measured. Compared with other rich countries, it had begun slowly but steadily sliding down the scale during the liberal era.

I had in mind the idea of Australia as a derived society whose prosperity in the great age of manufacturing came mainly from the luck of its historical origins. It was sufficiently like the innovative industrial societies of the ‘West’ to prosper from their innovations; it didn’t have to think up much in the way of techniques of design or organization in manufacturing for itself. Nor, more widely, did it show much originality in general social and political changes or world views.

I had in mind in particular the luck lived on by the second-rate, provincial-minded elites of Australia of whom it seemed to me R. G. Menzies was the patron saint. These elites were likely to be affronted by any ideas of unique Australian identity (whether in art, foreign affairs, social reforms, or in anything).

The Menzies-style elites were reared in an era of self-congratulation on ‘national achievements’ that came mainly from foreign innovation, so there was an uneasy basis to their pride. They would claim honour from their connection with foreign money, but they would also demand the honours and the rewards due to initiative and enterprise, even when they had displayed little more than a talent for improvising imitations. There was deliberate dishonesty in some of the denials in 1975 that Australia was part of the world economic crisis, but many people believed this completely. Not having seen Australia’s prosperity as merely a side-effect of the prosperity of the affluent world, how could they now see Australia’s economic crisis as part of the crisis of the affluent world? It would be to the Labor Party’s advantage to learn to dramatize to voters the international character of Australian economic life. it is an essential activity in itself. It could also help win them an election.

The world economic crisis is, in part, a reflection of the end of the great age of manufacturing which reached its peak in the era of affluence. Australia’s ‘luckiness’ was tied to the prosperity of the manufacturing age; declining confidence in manufacturing is the beginning of the end of Australia as the lucky country. As this becomes more painfully evident, even Menzies’ Liberal Party, largely a creation of the age of manufacturing, will have to find another word for ‘dole bludger’.

In his emphasis on the services industries, on education, civil amenities, leisure interests, quality of life issues, and in his adventurist lunge at the tariff system, Whitlam was dramatizing the decline in manufacturing supremacy. In this sense he was speeding the lucky country’s end.

He also did so (most notably) as a general stirrer. ‘Shocks of re-orientation’ were forecast (and, in anticipation, applauded) in the book The Lucky Country. Whitlam provided them splendidly. In certain ways, although not others, this book might have provided a kind of John the Baptist role for ‘Whitlamism’, a going-ahead. (A more exact way of putting it is that in some themes they were both part of the same trends.) This is most obvious in the development of new national consciousness during his government, in the elevation of the importance of intelligence and education, and in the emphasis on urbanism, and in the assaults he made on racism, Britishry and the world view of the loyal little ally. It is also evident in a desire to catch up with what he called ‘comparable countries’. In this sense Whitlam was like a ‘modernizer’ in a Third World country trying to bring his own people new ideas from overseas.”

He was also concerned with the cultivation of an Australia sense of excellence. Aspects of his government included innovations as well as imitations, and it was a government that encouraged innovation in others. If Australians had given the Whitlam government a better run, Australia might have developed something of a name for itself in the world as a human and progressive nation with a distinctive originality.

It is of great significance that such an ambition was in direct affront to the Menzies-style elites, whose rationale demanded that Australia be second-rate. Menzies’s Australia was a banana monarchy. It was a small, loyal Australia that didn’t do too much thinking for itself and was important because of its northern hemisphere bigshot friends. The extreme monarchists sneered at Whitlam’s ‘socialist republic’ as so protected themselves against the assaults of possible originality. What was not so obvious was that even many self-styled critics of the Menzies era were also uneasy with ideas of Australia developing its own standards of excellence. The weren’t used to such ideas. They didn’t know how to handle them. When they made their critiques of Whitlamism, they simply didn’t take such strange matters into account. This is one reason why so many estimates of the Whitlam years have been so unjust.

Australia’s derivativeness as ‘the lucky country’ has never been more manifest than in what we are now discovering as the British whimsy of its monarchic Constitution. What we meant by parliamentary democracy in Australia has now been qualified by a new system of government by caprice. Now the less democratically elected House, if controlled by opposing politicians, can sack the government; and the Governor-General, 200 years after 1776, may decide ‘at his pleasure’ to exercise one or more of the powers of King George III.

In the lucky style, we have never ‘earned’ our democracy. We simply went along with some British habits, amending them as little as possible. We have never seriously bothered even to teach the forms of our democratic government, such as it is, in our schools. we have never put the ideals of democracy into the written Constitution or into the rituals and symbols of state. We do not even consider officially glorifying the Australian people, preferring to glorify royalty and upper-class British traditions insofar as they can be imitated by Australians.

Australians who want at least minimum standards of representativeness in government should commit themselves to ‘earning’ a new constitution. Not a ‘lucky country’ constitution, but a democratic constitution, with at least (a) either abolition of the Senate or abolition of its legislative powers, (b) formal recognition that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet exist and that they are chosen only by the House of Representatives, (c) provision for fairer voting (by proportional representation, ideally, even if the Labor Party doesn’t like it because it might sometimes force them into coalition), (d) provision for fairer election campaigns, including at least minimum concern with the media, (e) stripping the ceremonial head of state of fanciful powers in case they are used and (f) at the right time, by referendum, declaration of Australia as a republic, an act necessary not only for constitutional reasons, but to hammer home Australia’s position on the map, and where its history has so far brought it.

About JamesJohnsonCHR

Constitutional Human Rights Lawyer & Independent Federal Candidate for Lalor (Commonwealth of Australia). Advocating Smaller, Open Governments with Lower Taxes and Smaller, Faster, Better Bureaucracy. Also Advocating Justice & Politics Reforms. Defending Families & Civil Rights and Freedoms. I also blog at


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 50,438 other followers


Meet James Johnson, B.Ec (Hons) LL.B CLA MEAA. Independent Federal Candidate for Lalor

Journalist + Law Reformer + Whistleblower


On The Path To Democracy


Lawyeorocracy On Trial


James Johnson on Twitter Counter




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 50,438 other followers

%d bloggers like this: