A Grave Libel of Sir John Kerr

kerr and goughAs 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.

10 thoughts on “A Grave Libel of Sir John Kerr

  • Jody says:

    To be honest, the behaviour of the Senate (“unrepresentative swill”) these days in totally obstructing the government’s mandate and business has made me aware of just how close we came to a political coup in 1975. I was only in my early 20’s then and wasn’t aware of the potentially dangerous frisson which surrounded that event. Today I have a much more nuanced and sympathetic reading of it; I know that I wouldn’t at all like the Senate we have today to dismiss our Coalition government – for any reason!!

    • Peter OBrien says:

      Jody, the actions of the Senate, acting under orders from Fraser, created the situation that led to the dismissal. Those actions, which were not unconstitutional and had, in fact been employed unsuccessfully by Labor oppositions led by Caldwell and Whitlam, created a political crisis. Kerr resolved it constitutionally. The Senate did NOT dismiss the government. Nor did Kerr ‘act on a motion of the Senate to dismiss Whitlam’ as Kelly claims. There was no such motion. If the current Coalition government proposed to act unconstitutionally, as Whitlam did in proposing to spend money not appropriated by Parliament, then the GG would be obliged to intervene.

      • Jody says:

        OK, but the Senate dominated by the Liberals – in withholding supply – made government totally impossible. That’s as near to a coup as one can imagine. The Labor government itself should have called for a Double Dissolution to settle the matter as it could not continue to govern. That would have been the prudent way to go and this Coalition should keep its powder dry for a similar stalemate.

        • Peter OBrien says:

          Yes, but whatever you might think of the actions of Fraser and his Senate colleagues, the crisis was not of Kerr’s making. Whitlam, having been forced to one double dissolution no doubt felt very aggrieved to have to contemplate another and I can understand that he was prepared to tough it out. Kerr acted in the way he thought best and he should not continue to be pilloried by leftists too obsessed with their grievance to recognise that the outcome that Kerr delivered was the one that most Australians wanted. Most of us have moved on.

  • ellenbraddock says:

    None of those events are in my memory, but one thing stands out: we had an election, and the public decided upon a change of government. The public, not a cadre of generals, as still occurs in many nations. Those who still carp on about 1975 are sad people who are unable to cope with the fact that the public chose a new government.

    Some countries have coups; we have elections. Let’s not be like other nations.

  • Ian Flanagan says:

    I’ve always considered Turnbull to be Whitlam’s clone and that he would choose to launch a book about his replica’s dismissal does not surprise me at all.

    From a finacial point of view, it’s a darn good move by the writers as could you imagine the book sales if Shorten had been invited to perform the same task?

  • ken.harris@exemail.com.au says:

    Apart from sacking the Messiah I think Kerr’s appointment of the Leader of the Opposition as PM made a few people wonder at the fairness of his action.
    He was right to give Whitlam the boot and let the people decide the matter. Fraser’s appointment was quite legal, too but is seemed to give him a big advantage in the forthcoming election. I’m talking PR not law.
    I’ve sometimes wondered if it would have been possible to use s 64 of the Constitution and appoint an interim ministry, just for the period of the election, made up of a handful of political cleanskins whom the public would have seen as politically neutral I.e. not MPs.
    S64 allows ministers to be appointed by the GG provided they are elected within three months. The election would have been over by then and Whitlam and Fraser could have fought the election as equals.
    The outcome would have been the same for sure and that uneasy feeling of unfairness would not have arisen.

    • rh@rharrison.com says:

      Appointing a “neutral” government for the brief period suggested would have been legally permissible, but I don’t think it was politically realistic in the circumstances of 1975.

      The crisis affecting government was that appropriations were fast running out – due, of course, to the obstruction by the Senate of the Whitlam Government’s appropriation bills. However unfair this might seem, the Senate had both the constitutional privilege to do so, and the example of the precedents of the Labor Opposition under none other than E. G. Whitlam QC MP,who attempted the same thing on several occasions (without success, of course).

      The only way that appropriations could pass was with the consent of the Coalition leadership, which had a bare majority in the Senate. In those circumstances, and only because Fraser assured Kerr that he could guarantee the passing of the appropriation bills, Fraser was the only realistic choice for commissioning as PM.

      It has been suggested (by I forget who) that as the bills originated in the House of Reps, then after they were passed by the Senate, the House – to which they belonged – in the time between their passage and the House’s dissolution, could have ordered them destroyed and thus denied Fraser the fruits of his controversial and successful strategy. This idea didn’t occur to Whitlam at the time, but I believe that, for all his deep and destructive flaws, he would have considered such action as highly improper and not carried it out.

  • Steve Spencer says:

    C’mon, you have to hand it to the Left. They sure know how to organise themselves and conspire, so much better than conservatives, who see themselves as individuals, not a collective. This is another example of their brilliance in ‘collective PR’, through which all high-profile conservatives are pilloried (example one Margaret Thatcher) while their own are sanctified, irrespective of their actual achievements or qualities.

    We will only stop building bridges and new roads in Australia when we run out of leftist figures to name them after.

  • Roy Edmunds says:

    Have read The Dismissal. I was biased toward Kerr but my reading of the book confirmed my belief
    that Kerr did what was best overall for Australia.

    The two leaders managed to create the deadlock between them and Kerr used the powers
    of the constitution to break that deadlock and send them back to the people.
    What really complicated the matter I believe was Kerr having to deal with Whitlam and the book clearly
    lays down what Whitlam the politician was like at the time. A desperate and failing politician at the helm of a failing government.

    But to fully detail everything behind the events would require another thousand pages in the book and
    perhaps neither writer would be up to that challenge.
    The book confirms in my mind that the founding fathers got it right with the constitution.
    When you think about the C20th in terms of political instability Australia comes out as being one
    of the most stable countries for sorting out extreme political differences peacefully.

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