Conventional wisdom has it that history is written by the victors. The case of Sir John Kerr would suggest that this is not always so. The Left has never accepted that Kerr acted constitutionally in dismissing the Whitlam government in 1975. Kerr was hounded to his death and has been regularly vilified since, while Whitlam has been elevated to sainthood by his admirers (see the video clip below). Even Malcolm Fraser, the conservative who violated tradition by rejecting Supply, eventually came to be accepted by the left as ‘a statesman’, albeit after renouncing in his dotage anything resembling the conservatism of his younger years.
No opportunity, such as the deaths of the former prime ministers, can be allowed to slip by without an attempt to further blacken Kerr’s name, even after almost 40 years. And no doubt, when that fortieth anniversary arrives later this year, it will be on again.
And when it does, you can expect to hear repeated a new lie which has now appeared twice recently in The Australian, once by Paul Kelly and again by Troy Bramston: that Kerr acted on a motion from the Senate to dismiss Whitlam.
Both statements were made in the context of the failed ALP bid for the Senate to petition the Governor General to dismiss Dyson Heydon from the Trade Union Royal Commission. Kelly said:
The principles here are exactly the same as in the 1975 crisis. On that occasion the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, acted on a motion passed by the Senate, defied the advice of the prime minister, broke the conventions surrounding his office and took a unilateral decision to preference the wishes of the Senate over the position of the executive government.
Bramston’s quote is as follows:
Gough Whitlam fought the 1975 election on the basis that the governor-general’s decision to act on an opposition Senate motion was a fundamental breach of Australian democracy.
Both Kelly and Bramston would be correct to assert that if Kerr had acted in this fashion it would have been in breach of our democracy and Constitution. But Kerr did not, in fact, act in this way. There was no Senate motion calling for the Governor-General to dismiss the government.
Kelly has written a book on the subject and should certainly be aware of this. Thus, one can only conclude that this is an egregious attempt to rewrite history so that Kerr can be vilified on such a simplistic basis that even the most mean intelligence could apprehend. A sort of Twittersphere summary of the 1975 crisis, in which Whitlam, and now, apparently, even Fraser, were blameless victims of Kerr’s duplicity.
As I wrote to The Australian:
Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with the tenor and conclusions of Paul Kelly’s article in yesterday’s Australian, I must take issue with his misrepresentation of Sir John Kerr’s actions in 1975. Kerr did not ‘act on a motion passed by the Senate’. Certainly the Senate had voted against Supply, as it was entitled to do, and as Labor senators had done on numerous occasions previously (the only difference was that in those cases Labor didn’t have the numbers to prevail). Whitlam proposed to govern without Supply by means of some questionable arrangements. The Governor-General does have reserve powers that entitle him to act against the advice of the Prime Minister. In this case he chose to use them to prevent the Prime Minister from acting, at worst illegally, at best questionably. Kerr made clear that he did not regard himself as a cipher or ‘rubber stamp’ for the government of the day. And he was correct. The office of Governor-General is the last line of defence in our democracy and if he feels bound to always act on the advice of the Prime Minister, what is the point of having the office in the first place?
My letter was not published and I was content to let the matter rest until I read Bramston’s piece a few days later. To be fair, I suspect that Bramston simply appropriated Kelly’s assertion. Thus is history rewritten.
The issues surrounding Sir John Kerr’s actions are complex and it is not my intention to canvass them here. But, in order to forestall certain objections, let me expand on the question of the power of the Senate to block money bills. There is no doubt that it exists, that Labor were aware of this, and even attempted to do just that.
On June 12, 1970, Whitlam, then in opposition, made the following statement to the House, in reference to the 1970/71 appropriations:
Any government which is defeated by the Parliament on a major taxation bill should resign….This bill will be defeated in another place. The Government should then resign…… Let me make it clear that our opposition to this budget is no mere formality….Our purpose is to destroy this budget and to destroy the Government which has sponsored it.
Getting back to Paul Kelly, he stated in his book November 1975:
[Kerr] should have unflinchingly and courageously met his responsibility to the Crown and to the Constitution. He should have spoken frankly with his Prime Minister from the start. He should have warned wherever and whenever appropriate. He should have realised that, whatever his fears, there was no justification for any other behaviour.
This demonstrates that Kelly’s understanding of this issue is flawed from the start. Kerr’s responsibility was, indeed, to the Crown and the Constitution. It was not to the Prime Minister.
Kerr made it clear that he regarded himself as an actor in this matter, not a puppet to be manipulated by either side. He also makes clear that Whitlam knew the Governor General had the power to dismiss him. He knew that exercise of the reserve powers would put him in a position of conflict with the Prime Minster and that the Prime Minster had, at his disposal, the means of removing him. In other words, and to use a sporting analogy, the PM had the ability to dismiss the umpire. Once Kerr had determined that there was a possibility that he might have to use the reserve powers, he had no obligation to telegraph his intentions to Whitlam. That would have rendered the reserve powers pointless. If Whitlam believed he was impregnable and that ‘his Governor General’, as he so demeaningly referred to Kerr on at least one occasion, would not act against him, that is simply a manifestation of Whitlam’s hubris.
Sir David Smith has rightly pointed out that 1975 was not a constitutional crisis. The Constitution worked exactly as it was intended to work in order to resolve a political crisis. And resolved it was, as evidenced by the result of the consequential election. An incompetent government was replaced. No blood was spilled, no-one was imprisoned. Life went on.
This may all seem a trivial matter. Kerr is long dead and who cares? But it is not trivial and I care.
Kerr did Australia a great service in ridding us of the Whitlam government, and he paid heavily for his actions. He deserves better from history. In particular, he deserved better from Malcom Fraser who, in his pathetic efforts to ingratiate himself with the Left, permitted himself to belittle Kerr on a personal level while at the same time maintaining that Kerr was right to sack Whitlam and, by inference, that he, Fraser, was justified in his own actions. (Fraser had form in this respect on another matter: his repudiation of the justification for our involvement in Vietnam, thus leaving a generation of Vietnam Vets hung out to dry.)
The issues that Kerr had to consider were complex and I concede that the course that he chose is capable of different interpretations. Kerr had nothing to gain personally from the decision he made. The Left is entitled to its’ own interpretation; it is not entitled to its’ own facts.
It has been pointed out recently by commentators such as Nick Cater, that conservatives do themselves a disservice by meekly acquiescing to the Left hijacking history. The technique is simple. Lie about someone and make sure the lie is spread as wide as possible, as fast as possible. It doesn’t matter if you later have to retract a slanderous assertion. Few people see or notice the retraction, leaving the lie firmly entrenched in the public mind.
Not long ago, my 18-year-old nephew told me that he dislikes Tony Abbott because, on being advised of the death of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan, Abbott’s response was “shit happens”. I am sure most Quadrant readers would be aware of the true context of this remark. Those who get the news from the likes of TV talking head Mark Riley, the same man who asked Julia Gillard how reporters could do a better job of covering her government, would not be so well informed.
More recently, the lie that Dyson Heydon had accepted an invitation to a Liberal Party ‘fund-raiser’ was repeated ad nauseam on ABC news bulletins. Whatever else it was, at $85 per head, this was not a fund-raiser.
Since I began drafting this article a further, beautiful example of Leftist revisionism has emerged. Labor apparatchik John Menadue has produced a report showing the Kevin Rudd, not Tony Abbott, stopped the boats in 2013. I have not had a chance to read this report, but I suspect it will not survive even a cursory examination. Nonetheless the lie has been planted and will now persist, ad infinitum, in the hands of the likes of David Marr, gaining more and more acceptance as time passes. We know from our study of ‘climate science’ that statistics can tell any story partisan advocates want them to tell. What really matters in this question is what was in the minds of the people smugglers and their clients during the time in question. Menadue would have it that they implicitly believed the no-entry promise of the man who opened the door in the first place would have lasted a millisecond longer than his re-election.
Getting back to Sir John Kerr, earlier I suggested that this particular lie, about the Senate motion, is being perpetrated to further blacken his name. But there may be more to it than that. There seems to be a view among the Left that the reserve powers are like the atom bomb – we used them once with devastating consequences, so they must never be used again. This leads me to wonder if, perhaps, there is a more sinister agenda at work – namely, to intimidate future Governors General into impotence. If Kerr’s justifiable actions can be so misrepresented and his character so thoroughly vilified as a result, what chance is there of future governors-general feeling able use the reserve powers in the national interest to resolve political crises? What chance of decisive action?
If the Governor-General is to be more than a ceremonial figure, then he or she must be able to invoke the reserve powers when necessary, at whatever emotional cost to some sections of the community. If current wisdom of the Left is that this is not the case, then it is an attempt to change our Constitution without the blessing of a referendum.