Australians have a flaw in their character that shows up in their acceptance of a defective political system no decent reform can come close to changing. When their democratic system is attacked by minority anti-democratic forces, they’ll back the attackers, not their system. And, having done so, they choose to believe their system is still democratic. There’s no helping a fickle electorate.
There was a precedent for this flaw in ancient Greece (and no doubt in a lot of other places as well, but this one is famous). At the trial of Socrates, it was pointed out to the accused by Polus that dictators were often revered by huge numbers of people. The king of Macedon, Archelaus, murdered his own uncle Alcetas II, his cousin Alexander and his half-brother, a child of seven years, the legitimate heir in order to grab the top job. That didn’t deter the people of Athens from giving him all the support he needed to remain in power. The same character flaw was at work there as the one that’s operated in Australia since 1788. The psychology of it lies in the communal fear of a fight to uphold decency. They’d rather compromise and let evil have its way just to keep the peace. They gave sanction to a system that is democratic in name only; a tyranny in disguise. In brief, a farce.
A blatant example of that sort of support of bastardry is the way we reacted to John Howard’s offer of a defective republic in 1999—an act the French would have responded to by demolishing the Elysee Palace and half the capital with it. A visiting Frenchman, Bernard Pivot, television literary host, said as much on ABC Television. The flaw showed up grotesquely here in 1932, with the dismissal of Jack Lang, and again in 1975 with the dismissal of Gough Whitlam. They’re both examples of the dismissal by unelected Vice-Regal officers of governments that had the confidence of the Lower House of Parliament. Secret agendas intervened. In both cases, the people aided and abetted treachery by oligarchs who had no respect for the common people, and no time or respect for the integrity the system relied on if it was to function properly as a democracy.
In Lang’s case, Sir Phillip Game was sent here as Governor of NSW to protect the interests of the City of London, namely the banks. Their enemy took the form of a colonial Premier who was rightly defending the interests of voters suffering under the penury of the Great Depression. Jack Lang had a plan to relieve the people’s suffering which he believed was caused by machinations on the part of the City of London financial institutions, namely the banks. Proof of that emerged later, too late to save Lang or the people of NSW. When Game sacked Lang, the people—the flawed people—gave a landslide win to a mediocre Opposition that supported the treachery from London.
The same occurred in 1975 when minority interests decided that even if the Prime Minister enjoyed the confidence of the House of Representatives, it was expedient to wreck the integrity of the federal political system just to be rid of Gough and his ministers. The end justified the illegal means. A flawed public was bluffed (as was Gough himself). The figurehead leader of the treachery, Malcolm Fraser, was rewarded by a landslide win and the political system never recovered from the damage done to it. It’s responsible for the social and political dysfunction that blights this country today.
Governor Phillip Game’s decision to sack Lang was, as he admitted, “to avoid reducing the job of Governor all over the Empire to a farce.” Instead, democracy was to be reduced to a farce. What comes out of this debacle—and the Whitlam Dismissal—is the sure knowledge that Federation was the setting up of the democratic farce. The British Act (1900) we use as a Constitution made no provision for democracy here, no provision for sovereignty of the people here, no provision for independence here of the type Billy Hughes wrung out of King George V and Lloyd George the PM in Versailles, and—wait for it—no termination of Australia’s status as a British colony. That explains how both Game and Kerr could ride roughshod over the Australian public and smile all the way onto the honours list.
What can also be explained now is why we sat back and not only copped it sweet, but we rewarded the evil-doers handsomely and are still at it today. We’re not a democratic people. We don’t have the stomach, the mind or the balls for it. Our heart’s just not there. You’d know all about it if it were otherwise.
Greg Hamilton is a former architect and academic, now a novelist, social critic, part-time Pom basher and advocate for a new Australian Constitution.