Conservatives always seek unimpeded power and Scott Morrison is no exception. Some cynics suggest this is a ‘right to rule’ mentality, but it is not. It is a duty. A ‘right to rule’ is arrogance; a ‘duty’ is more sinister because it is steeped in moral certainty.
This was the core of a conversation with my father after the Dismissal in 1975. He was shocked but not surprised and revealed his own experience in the period after WWII.
My father was a confirmed conservative. A retired military officer, after the war he was appointed secretary of the Employers Federation as it was then called, all impeccably conventional. Some time in early 1949 he was summoned to a meeting at Parliament House. There in the Members dining room he was duchessed by a Liberal member and an ex-military associate.
The Liberal party was then crammed with dashing young ex-military candidates for the upcoming 1949 election, and the political atmospherics were poisonous. Chifley had courted political opprobrium by his insistence on Bank Nationalisation in the face of High Court rejection, Menzies was in heightened hysteria and the banking and insurance industry were mobilising grassroots opposition.
The dining room conversation was prosaic, only interrupted by jovial greetings from passing conservative politicians, but in the midst of the mundane commentary the topic veered onto the upcoming election. What if Labor were to win? It would be catastrophic. The crisis was dire. Could they depend on him as a military man to heed the call if necessary, for King and Country?
It only then began to dawn on my father that he was being asked, if necessary, if the ‘wrong’ election result occurred, to be part of a coup. There in the middle of the parliamentary dining room! It struck him as bizarre, such enormity contemplated in the midst of pedestrian conversation and an ordinary meal. Parliamentary food was particularly poor at that time.
He exited as gracefully as he could and only really appreciated the significance later as he reflected on the discussion. He found out later that politician’s companion was a member of the secretive Association under the aegis of General Blamey – later to be made Field Marshall by Menzies – and whom my father, like many military men, loathed.
My father was badly shaken by the experience. It violated to the core values he held dear, but what most disturbed him was the ease with which they had considered the prospect. There was an absolute belief in a duty to uphold order against chaos and provide ‘proper’ governance, despite the violation of democratic propriety, to uphold a higher calling.
He was so taken aback he never voted conservative again and maintained to his death that the conservative Liberals could never be trusted to uphold democratic principles. And that was only confirmed by the events of 1975, which he saw as the coup they had always harboured, and Kerr as the vain and odious instrument of their intention.
My father had long passed when the actions of High Court Judge Anthony Mason were revealed in 2012, but it would have confirmed his instincts. Mason was a conservative jurist with a humane outlook and an incrementally progressive inclination but in 1975 his advice to his ‘friend’ Kerr on the Dismissal of the Whitlam government was a gross violation of his judicial office.
You could understand it in a dogged Tory like Garfield Barwick, but Mason was above all a man of duty and propriety. His odd naïveté however led to his seduction by the cabal of ‘decent’ and ‘earnest’ men about him and warped his judicial duty. He should have run a mile like my father, though I suspect part of my father’s reaction was simple terror, the terror that comes from stark realisation.
And so today you have Scott Morrison shifting quickly to suspend parliament and to rule by regulation without scrutiny. This is the default conservative position though now, of course, is not the time to question or criticise. It never is. The times are urgent, but the speed with which the instruments of democratic process were shed is obscene in its haste.
It is supposed to be about the public and the national interest, but it is really about partisan advantage and sidelining the Opposition as each morning the prime minister intones another escalation in response. His fawning acolyte in the Australian, Greg Sheridan paints him as a great ‘war time’ leader without any sense of the comic absurdity.
This is not about the public or greater good but partisan advantage. Why else would you announce an ‘investment allowance’ that seems primarily directed at marketing Mercedes or a scheme to ‘access’ to superannuation that seems primarily aimed at wrecking industry super funds. This is about the next election that will be called at its most advantageous timing to celebrate the national saviour, the Messiah from the Shire.
It is all about a sacred duty to rule, free of the filth of criticism. Christian Porter summed it up well” “parliament is pointless when more important duty beckons”. Whatever the bumbling reality and it has worked wondrously in the past. The essence of 1975 was the creation of a crisis while advancing Liberal rule as the instrument of solution, stability and order.
The unfolding of this crisis is similarly an instrument of restricting rights and democratic scrutiny by entrenching partisan executive dominance and making parliament increasingly irrelevant.
Michael Powell lectured in Australian History and is a Conjoint Senior Lecturer at The University of Newcastle and Adjunct Researcher UTAS