As Andrew Bolt has observed on many occasions, how the Left loves to hate! A few weeks ago I predicted that, come November, the knives would be out once again for Sir John Kerr. What prompted that thought was the egregiously false claim, by Paul Kelly writing in The Australian, that Sir John Kerr had “acted on a motion of the Senate to dismiss Gough Whitlam.” I was not surprised when Kelly emerged, stage left, in the role of hangman in the latest production of The Crucible Redux.
Despite a lifetime of notable achievements, as a historical figure Sir John is significant only in his role in the dismissal of a hubristic and incompetent prime minister. Therefore any book, 40 years after the events in question (and almost a quarter of a century after Kerr’s death), is of value only to the extent that it throws new light on the actions of the key players in 1975.
I haven’t read The Dismissal: In the Queen’s Name, by Kelly and former Labor staffer Troy Bramston, but let’s see what new light has emerged from the teaser in The Australian. Firstly, we learn that Sir Paul Hasluck, Kerr’s predecessor as Governor General, believed that Kerr “had acted politically or been neglectful”. Furthermore, apparently Hasluck is said to have believed that “the wisdom of constitutional monarchy was to avoid confrontation and never let an issue come to a crisis in a political sense.” That’s one view. But the framers of the Constitution foresaw that a political confrontation might evolve to crisis point, which is why they gave the Governor-General powers to deal with it. We will never know how Hasluck might have acted in the same circumstances — an intriguing topic for speculation.
We also learned that “the Queen and her Buckingham Palace advisers, Martin Charteris and William Heseltine, were keen to see the resignation of John Kerr as Governor-General in 1977, allegedly amid concerns about his behaviour and character, and having made the adverse judgement that the Kerrs as a couple were “very greedy”’. Maybe Her Majesty was indiscreet enough to express the view within her advisers’ earshot that the ‘Kerrs were a grasping duo, though it seems a dubious proposition. One wonders how she might have reached that conclusion on the very limited personal knowledge she must have had of the couple and, in any case, what bearing this subjective appraisal might have on the integrity of Kerr’s actions in relation to the dismissal.
I’m prepared to accept that by 1977, given the controversy still surrounding the dismissal, the Palace might have been relieved to see Kerr out of the picture. This would certainly accord with the view that Malcolm Fraser, having obtained what he wanted from Kerr, much preferred to see him fade quickly from the scene. Of all the players in this drama, it is Fraser who emerges with the least credit.
None of this, however, goes to the probity of Sir John’s actions. The issues were complex and, conceivably, any of several other courses of action might have been chosen by a different incumbent. Sir John Kerr’s course of action was judged constitutional by Sir Garfield Barwick and Sir Anthony Mason. Further, it was vindicated overwhelmingly by the voting public.
Is there really a need to be told yet again that many Australians rejected Kerr’s actions. As senior public servants steeped in the same philosophical tradition that has given us Prince Charles and whose political allegiance we might reasonably guess at, is it surprising that Charteris and Heseltine would be among those critical of Kerr?
This book will strike many as little more than an exercise character assassination. As far as gaining any substantive new insight into the dismissal, one might hesitate before investing in this tome.
As a final insult, it seems the book is to be launched by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. It is utterly shameful that a Liberal Prime Minister would dance on Sir John Kerr’s grave in this way. I have been somewhat more reserved in my condemnation of Turnbull than many Quadrant readers and writers, but, for me this has drained the last of my tolerance for the man.