The Dismissal

In Defence of the Much Maligned Sir John Kerr

Over the years since 1975, partisan players have mounted an ongoing campaign to vilify Sir John Kerr. They claim, variously, that the powers he invoked do not exist, or that they have become defunct, or that yes, they do exist but should never be used, or that yes, they exist but Kerr misused them. This cacophony of conflicting and, often self-contradictory, rodomontade has had the flow-on effect of discrediting the Reserve Powers and intimidating future Governors-General against their use. In fact, I believe that is the real intent behind the anti-Kerr campaign, although I’m not suggesting a conspiracy. The main, and most authoritative, protagonists in this campaign are Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston. Their 2015 book The Dismissal – in the Queen’s name is the most comprehensive of the critiques of Kerr’s actions.

At the outset, let me observe that The Dismissal is replete with ad hominem attacks on Sir John. It seems to me that Kelly and Bramston leave no stone unturned to paint the most unflattering portrait of him, which results in a rather grotesque caricature of an accomplished and successful man. Sometimes he is a pompous, self-seeking sycophant who revels in the trappings of high office. At others, he is a scheming Machiavellian figure who puts it all at risk for the dubious pleasure making his mark by dismissing a duly elected government. The two Kerrs that they offer us are mutually exclusive, as I hope to show. To be fair, both Whitlam and Fraser come in for a bit of criticism but nothing on the scale of character assassination to which Kerr is subject.

The Dismissal could be more aptly titled The Trial of Sir John Kerr. In his autobiography, Matters for Judgement, Kerr offers detailed explanations and defence of his actions. There is also a trove of personal papers held in the Australian Archives. Kelly and Bramston almost uniformly dismiss Kerr’s explanations as ‘self-justification’. Imagine if you will, a criminal trial in which one side presents the prosecution case and then the other side, representing the defendant, is called upon to present the ‘self-justification’ case. Not a great start for a fair trial, I am sure you will agree.

I first read The Dismissal in 2021 as part of my research for a book.  I was so shocked by the extent of the vitriol directed at Kerr that I decided this book merited a detailed rebuttal. So, I have written my own response Villain or Victim? – a defence of Sir John Kerr and the Reserve Powers.

The Dismissal purports to be the last word on the events of 1975 and many people believe that, with its release in 2015, the subject has been done to death. Not true. The only thing that has been done to death is the reputation of Sir John Kerr and, with it, the prospect of any balanced consideration of the Reserve Powers of the Crown in Australia.

At some point, sooner rather than later, we will be faced with a referendum on the so-called Australian Republic. Pivotal to that debate will be the role, if any, of the Reserve Powers. Readers can be sure that The Dismissal will be used, by those for whom the existence of the Reserve Powers is an anathema, to argue that whatever value they may have in theory is outweighed by the damage they can inflict in the hands of an unscrupulous President. Judging by the utterances of those currently in control of the Australian Republican Movement, this specious rhetoric is likely to find ready acceptance among its ranks.  At the time of writing the model proposed by the Australian Republican Movement had just been released.  It proposes direct election of a president by the Australian people from a panel chosen by the state and federal Parliaments.   And it involves removing from the President, the power to dismiss a government, and, presumably, the other Reserve Powers as well.  This represents a major change to our Constitution.  It would render the Crown – that enigmatic entity that ultimately protects the interests of the people – impotent, a mere figurehead.  If a referendum goes ahead, this is a complex debate that we must be prepared to have.  And that debate must be based on a thorough and honest understanding of our current system.   The Dismissal will help to undermine that debate.

It is a deeply dishonest book – at least in the way it treats Sir John Kerr – and my aim is to demonstrate that. My first witness is Paul Kelly.

Writing in The Australian in September 2015, in the context of the failed ALP bid for the Senate to petition the Governor-General to dismiss Justice 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.

Troy Bramston followed up a few days later:

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 act in this way. There was no Senate motion calling for the Governor-General to dismiss the government, which is the way both statements read, taken in context. The Senate motion was to block supply to the government, an action which set in train a series of events that, eventually, led to the withdrawal of Whitlam’s commission. The untutored reader may not understand this distinction.

This verbal trickery will give you some idea of the depths to which Kelly and Bramston sink, in The Dismissal itself, to discredit Sir John.

My purpose was not only to defend Sir John Kerr for the sake of restoring his reputation, although I certainly hope my efforts will help in that respect. Ultimately, I believe history will judge him more kindly – and hopefully more objectively – than his contemporary critics. This book is not a hagiography. I do not claim that Sir John was perfect or that he did not make mistakes or misjudgements. But those faults are comprehensively enumerated, and indeed exaggerated, within The Dismissal. As Kerr’s self-appointed ‘defence counsel’, I do not see the need to place too much emphasis on them.

More importantly, by showing that Kerr was by no means the villain the Left have portrayed, I hope to help rehabilitate the status of the Reserve Powers, because I do not believe they are an anachronism but rather an important feature of our governance.

I argue that the Reserve Powers, that Kelly and Bramston so casually demonize and dismiss, may, in the hands of a resolute Governor-General, be the last line of defence against the sort of creeping totalitarianism we have seen exercised by various State premiers, and more egregiously by Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in the name of ‘keeping us safe’ from COVID.

My book can be purchased from Connor Court via this link

27 thoughts on “In Defence of the Much Maligned Sir John Kerr

  • ianl says:

    >”And it [current Republican model] involves removing from the President, the power to dismiss a government, and, presumably, the other Reserve Powers as well”

    This is the entire point behind the persistent push to avenge 1975. – and always has been. For politicians and many journos, it is power that is sacred, so the Reserve Powers will *not* be discussed with any honesty in the manipulated public yelling match to come, because the concept denies power to others. This is why Keating could never bring himself to utter the phrase publicly.

    Kelly and Bramston are just dishonest journeymen, legends perhaps in their own lunchtimes. The most telling point here is not their ad hominen slangoffs (I mean, ho hum) but their refusal to even mention that Senate writs are issued by State Governors in Council (ie. State Cabinets) and in the event of an early Senate election proposal, State Cabinets may (and have) advised the State Governor to withhold the writs. For the banishment of Reserve Powers, this has to be excised from the Constitution as well … but the lefties won’t discuss that.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Thank you, Peter O’Brien. Kelly has been a crashing bore on the subject of Sir John Kerr since the dismissal. Bramston, of course, is merely a Johnny Come Lately without an original thought in his head. Ianl flatters them both by describing them as mere dishonest journeymen.

  • Claude James says:

    No version of a republic pushed so by the “republicans” actually solves any problem in the governance of Australia. The ideas for a republic are pushed by people with blind hatred for Australia’s British beginnings and by various rebel types with no comprehension -none at all- of the necessary ingredients of effective governance, effective government, effective administration, effective management.
    I am nor saying that the current set-up is effective -it obviously is not.
    But the source of weakness resides not in the connection with the British monarchy -but rather with weaknesses in Australian comprehension of the tasks of governance, development, and defence and in the lack of capability to run a viable society for the long-term.

  • 27hugo27 says:

    Kelly , Bramston and Sheridan would fit in nicely with “The National Review” in the US. “The Australian” needs to bolster it’s ranks with more conservative writers, IMHO.

  • sabena says:

    One illustration of the smearing is evident on page 2 of chapter 1 of their book when they claim that Charteris and by implication the Queen had a poor opinion of the Kerrs.
    This is supposed to come from a conversation between Hasluck and Charteris of which Has luck made a note.
    It is to be contrasted with the palace letters where Charteris wrote and told Kerr that opinion in London was that he had made the correct decision.

  • geoff_brown1 says:

    I have little, or no interest in any Republic, least of all any Republic where the President is a mere figurehead, with none of the powers that the Governor General can exercise!

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Sounds good Peter. I like the idea of a good nationalist minder Governor General, prepared to exercise Reserve Powers in a responsible patriotic way. Problem is to get that I think we’d have to have an older military man, with a courageous background as GG, like we used to have, one who was not wearing his politics on his sleeve and with a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind ?

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Sabena, I address this issue in my own Chapter One. And I include the complete Hasluck Memorandum as an appendix – the first time it has been made publicly available.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Peter Marriott, the first step is to rehabilitate the concept of the Crown and the Reserve Powers, which Kelly and Branston have gone out of their way to vilify. I hope my book will go some way to achieving that.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Ordered your book this morning Peter and look forward to reading it.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Good on you Peter Marriott and thank you very much.

  • geoff_brown1 says:

    Likewise – ordered your book and looking forward to reading it.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Thank you Geoff

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Late in June 1977 I was seated with Sir John as Qantas took us from Tehran to Sydney. As usual, the cabin messages started with “Attention all passengers, might we please have your attention for the following demonstration.”
    That calm voice mumbled “not another bloody demonstration.”
    This was no ogre, this was a likeable and accomplished person. Geoff S

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    I think a pretty good rule-of-thumb guide to the nature/maturity/character of an individual is their attitude to Sir John Kerr. As a Serviceman in Defence at the time, I followed the Dismissal closely, like most Commonwealth employees anxious about the seemingly inevitable likelihood that we would not be paid until the constitutional dispute had been resolved. I have read both Kerr’s and Sir David Smith’s accounts of the event. Notwithstanding the size and composition of the mob that Whitlam managed to whip into a frenzy during his infamous “Kerr’s Cur” rant on the steps of Parliament House, I cannot recall any of my coworkers expressing any criticism of Kerr for his action, although there was a fairly even spread of criticism of the main villains, Whitlam and Fraser whose intransigence led to the disaster.
    In the decades since, the almost constant aspersion of Sir John Kerr – led by the journalist running dogs of the ALP and the republican movement has all the characteristics of a schoolyard fight. Apart from the ad hominem noise, the main characteristic has been the participants’ profound ignorance of the Australian Constitution and our relationship with the Monarchy.
    I choose not to associate with people who blame Sir John Kerr for the Dismissal. I see them as too stupid or too politically fanatical to waste my time with.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Doubting Thomas, my experience was pretty much the same as yours. I met Sir John on one occasion at a reception at Government House and found him a charming and down to earth host.

  • Dr Andrew Campbell says:

    Kerr made a grievous mistake – trusting Malcom Fraser. Fraser treated him with contempt and indeed became part of his dismissal. Kerr , in his own words “ did my duty”. Fraser never helped any person . He was a bizarre mix of laziness ,impulsivity and indecision. He regarded the dismissal as his burden so he overcompensated by adopting every progressive policy -some included support for Marxist regimes and in the case of Rhodesia resulted in murder. But Fraser never helped anyone . Yet was treated as a tragic hero by leading conservatives . They did not realise or ignored the fact that Fraser was the godfather of political correctness and Fraser was a genuine fake.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Dr Andrew Campbell, couldn’t agree more.

  • Brian Boru says:

    What utter BS for Kelly and Bramston to claim that Kerr acted on a Senate motion. I can still remember Frank McManus’s comment “bring on the chickens” before the Senate voted down supply.
    David Smith’s articles are well worth the read. If I remember correctly, he detailed times when a previous Labor opposition had proposed refusing supply to force an election.
    Kerr did his duty. We all got a vote and overwhelming approved his action.
    I am a republican in monarchist clothes. I like the way our system works, I like the reserve powers. I am concerned that our peaceful democracy would be damaged if these dingbat republicans get their way. It’s not broken, we don’t have to fix it.

  • Lapun Ozymandias says:

    It is so disappointing that after almost fifty years, Paul Kelly has persisted with his unjustified vendetta against John Kerr. But it is probably not surprising. Kelly is shown obeisance as the Éminence Grise of the Australian media class – I suspect partly because of his deliberative, deep male voice, which projects an aura of authority that the rest of the Press Gallery rat pack simply does not possess. This controlled voice projection is reminiscent of the same sort of elocution coaching that leading ALP politicians undertake in order to clean up their public image.

    Kelly’s veneer of assumed superior knowledge suddenly collapsed catastrophically on the morning immediately after the U.S. Presidential Election in 2016. ‘The Australian’ newspaper that day published a full-page opinion article by Kelly that declared that America now had its first female president, and that the ‘disreputable’ Donald Trump was a loser and should just crawl away and disappear. Kelly had obviously written his foolish article the previous day, but by the time the election results were actually known, the newspaper had already been printed and distribution was under way. This was probably the biggest journalistic own goal in Australia’s history – and it had been scored by the person fêted within the incestuous media industry as Australian journalism’s ‘Great Oracle’.

    What suddenly became clear was that Kelly had had been living his journalistic life inside an echo chamber of likeminded ‘sources’ – situated in a fantasy world that was in orbit within the phony universe of digital media – divorced from the real world about which he purported to be an authority. Suddenly the person who everyone assumed was the Great Guru of Australian journalism turned out to be nothing but an empty shell. It need not have been that way if Kelly had taken the trouble to expand his purview and journalistic sources beyond the tunnel vision of the Green-Left clerisy – of which he is a part. A lot of commentators did realise that the Presidential race was going to be very close – they were the people who actually got off their backsides and talked to ordinary Americans. There is no excuse for Kelly’s egregious failure to apply fundamental professional values, or for failing the readership who, until then, hung on his every word. That article undermined every part of Kelly’s journalistic reputation and revealed it to be nothing but a Potemkin illusion. To make matters worse, Kelly made no real attempt to apologise to the readers of ‘The Australian’ for failing them – unlike Greg Sheridan, who did.

    Others in the journalism world quickly recognised Kelly’s embarrassing fall from professional grace. Two weeks later – on the 23 November 2016 – the online publication ‘Crikey’ described Paul Kelly as a “bloviating bore-at-large”. In its 09 November 2016 edition, one Sydney Morning Herald columnist remarked that most journalists were blind to their own “bigotry against conservative religion, bigotry against rural folks, and bigotry against working class and poor white people”. That is something that Paul Kelly needs to consider before trying to recast history to fit his own distorted perceptions about the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. The Australian people gave their resounding judgement on the Governor-General’s actions in the election a month later.

    Kelly is not a person qualified to cast aspersions on John Kerr. He needs to just shut his mouth and put away his poison pen. If he doesn’t do so, he will only further demolish the ruins of his reputation.

  • john.singer says:

    History is, more often than not, written by non-participants. Many of them not even alive or intellectually active when an event occurred. Sometimes it falls on someone who was there to correct a record, defend a character or to just introduce a little humanity into what had become a dry and twisted debate.
    It is in this context that I insert myself into the Debate on the “Reserve Power” which has once again become the bane of the Republican Movement and present my observations on the character of Sir John Kerr.
    It was about October in the Summer of 1972, a couple of years since I left my Partnership in a Turramurra Real Estate Agency and hung my shingle in Chatswood as a Consultant Valuer. My son was a student at Turramurra High and was learning the cello, a very cumbersome instrument to transport. Tired by the exertion he was sitting on the fence of a house by the bus-stop. The householder approached his mailbox and I apologised for my son sitting on his fence. The elderly gentleman said he wasn’t bothered as he intended demolishing the fence and moving it back so it was nearer to his house and further from the footpath.
    “Don’t do that!” I exclaimed (surprised at myself for the outburst) the property is subject to a notice of Re-alignment. I was asked to explain. A notice of Re-alignment was imposed by the NSW Local Government Act to allow for future road-widening without much expenditure. It provides that the moment improvements are voluntarily removed from that part of the land subject to re-alignment, the land immediately vests in the Local Council and the former owner forfeits the use of the land and is only entitled to compensation as determined by the Valuer General. Now the VG’s practice at the time was to use the unfortunate method of Depth Tables to determine the value of the land taken. In simplified terms he decided that the frontage land value was to be determined as if it was rear land. So a block of residential land with 20 metres frontage and 110 metres depth was to be valued as if it was a vacant block of residential land with 20 metres frontage and 100 metres depth. In those days in Turramurra there was very little difference in value.
    The elderly Gentleman seemed very pleased with the gratuitous advice and invited my son and I to afternoon tea the following Saturday. On arriving at his imposing house on Saturday I was greeted by my host who introduced his wife as Peggy. During a most interesting afternoon and wide-ranging conversation it transpired he had not long been appointed to the Chief Justiceship of NSW and he appreciated the advice as Land Law was not his usual line of interest but was surprised that his town-planner daughter had not mentioned it. I had met many important people before but seldom felt I was in the presence of someone destined to make history. I never forgot that afternoon when I met a man with white hair and an air of destiny – supported by one of the most gracious ladies I had ever met.
    Of course, I followed his career after that. His Judgments {I was my Institute’s recorder of relevant Court Cases), his elevation to a Knighthood, his appointment to the Governor Generalship. The sad passing of his wife. And of course the Constitutional crisis of 1975. By this time I had befriended a nearby Real Estate Salesman who had led me to believe he was a close relative of the gentleman, so we had frequent discussions as to what would transpire during the crisis. As I had frequently stated that the gentleman would dismiss the Prime Minister I was not surprised when Andy knocked on my office door and said “He’s done it, he’s dismissed Whitlam.”
    Some time later I was approached by his son, a solicitor, to value the house and advise a recommended method of sale as the house was being graffitied. This I did and life went on.
    I had met and admired the mind and character of Sir John Kerr. I had followed his career and agreed with his actions during the Constitutional Crisis and feared for his health under the unwarranted criticism.
    We are now in 2022 and still arguing about the circumstances of an event in 1975. Yet the majority of the adult people settled that argument in December 1975 when the Liberal-Country Party Coalition was voted into office with a very large majority. It seems that activists for a Republic are determined to keep the argument alive day after day.
    Into this arena has entered Peter O’Brien with “In fact, I believe that is the real intent behind the anti-Kerr campaign [is the discrediting of the Reserve Powers], although I’m not suggesting a conspiracy.” The main, and most authoritative, protagonists in this campaign are Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston. Their 2015 book The Dismissal – in the Queen’s name is the most comprehensive of the critiques of Kerr’s actions.”
    Peter O’Brien is the author of “Bitter Harvest” in which he forensically dissects Bruce Pascoe’s book “Dark Emu”. I have checked much of his research and could not fault it. He is a Graduate of Duntroon Royal Military College who followed 21 year Military career with a 20 year business career. I re-trained many former Defence Personnel, they were almost universally dedicated and astute observers and meticulous recorders. Peter O’Brien’s writings display all of those traits.
    I do not know Paul Kelly or Troy Bramston, the authors of the The Dismissal – in the Queen’s name. However, Troy Bramston was a speech writer for Kevin Rudd some 30 years after the events and as a relatively young man could only have been a child at the time the events took place. Today as a Journalist and Author involved with some dozen or so books on political figures many of whom predate him, I am inclined to dismiss his thoughts on the Dismissal in favour of people who experienced the events.
    This brings me to Paul Kelly, a noted political Journalist and editor at-large for the Australian. Mr Kelly, as a young man, he worked within the Prime Minister’s Department in 1969-71 before turning to Journalism. This period predates Whitlam’s Prime Ministership. He was once married to Ros Kelly a Minister (1987-1994) in the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments where she was involved in the infamous “Sports Rorts Affair” which ruined her career. His opinions deserve to be taken seriously but not without questioning his political motivations.
    It seems we are developing a National Pastime of defaming the memory of people who are no longer able to defend their good name.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Yes John Singer. Sir John Kerr was an extremely accomplished man and devoted much time to public service. He deserves better than the treatment meted out to him by Kelly and Bramston. And thank you for your kind comments re Bitter Harvest.

  • Andrew L Urban says:

    “I argue that the Reserve Powers, that Kelly and Bramston so casually demonize and dismiss, may, in the hands of a resolute Governor-General, be the last line of defence against the sort of creeping totalitarianism we have seen exercised by various State premiers,” Indeed. So excuse my ignorance, but why weren’t those powers actually put to use when Covid gave ‘various State premiers’ the rationale to to indulge in ‘creeping totalitarianism’. I wish they had been…

  • Peter OBrien says:

    “why weren’t those powers actually put to use when Covid gave ‘various State premiers’ the rationale to to indulge in ‘creeping totalitarianism’”

    Because, Andrew, Governors have been conditioned by the likes of Kelly and Bramston, that the reserve powers are an anathema and should never be used. They have achieved this partly by so vilifying Kerr that no Governor would be willing to risk the same treatment.

  • john.singer says:

    The Reserve Powers, which necessarily protect the citizens against the State can be codified as they were in the United States by their Second Amendment. By becoming a Republic rather than a Constitutional Monarchy and not granting wider powers to the President they chose to allow the people to arm themselves as a protection against the excesses of the Government.
    Personally I prefer to live under the calm of a Constitutional Monarchy and be protected by the Reserve Powers rather than leave my future to a potential marauding militia.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    With you all the way, John Singer.

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