Letter from Sir John Kerr

Letter from Sir John Kerr

This is a letter from the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, to Sir Martin Charteris, Private Secretary to the Queen speaking mainly about his (Sir John’s) upcoming visit to Papua New Guinea. However, in talking about the political situation, Sir John does say “There are very strong indications of a near unanimity of opinion amongst the Opposition Coalition Members and their important supporters that the Government should be brought down.”

 He also writes "If the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition get into a battle in which the Senate has defeated the Budget, and the Prime Minister refuses to recommend a dissolution, my role will need some careful thought though, of course, the classic constitutional convention will presumably govern the matter."

PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL

Government House,
Canberra. 2600.
12 September 1975.

My Dear Private Secretary

We shall be leaving at the weekend for Papua New Guinea and this is the last opportunity for a while for me to let you have an assessment of the political situation. There are some unresolved questions that could perhaps have best been dealt with by waiting for a further short period but I shall be away and this can be an interim account.

In a nutshell, the position is that Mr Fraser has set out to establish a different style and image for himself from that of his predecessor Mr Snedden. He sought to leave the impression that he was in a statesman-like way, accepting the view that the Labor Party had won the last election and was entitled to govern for three years. Instead of keeping the country in a state of permanent political instability by the constant threat of forcing an election on the Government by denial of supply he indicated, though he did it with qualifications, that in the normal course the Government would not be denied supply. This would not happen unless some extraordinary and reprehensible circumstances emerged.

For a time, the assumption was made that the Leader the Opposition really meant what he said and that he was in a strong enough position to hold off pressures to act differently. It was always believed, of course, that by next May unemployment and inflation might be worse and that the political situation could by then force a denial of supply and an election.

This, impression of a temporary truce was reinforced by the Government's Budget which seemed to be a reasonable attempt to control inflation by significantly decreasing public expenditure and in the other ways mentioned in my previous letter. Mr Fraser in his speech on the Budget said that at the stage when he made it and in the state of knowledge which he then had, his attitude was that the Opposition should not defeat the Budget in the Senate.

However, since then, the Gallup Polls have indicated the very low state of popularity both of the Prime Minister and the Government and the pressure on Mr Fraser to have the Budget defeated in the Senate is enormous. The argument to the contrary which he appeared originally to accept was that there is a convention to the effect that the Budget should be solely the responsibility of the Government which has a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate should allow it to pass.

As I travel around the country and hear various views and opinions expressed and also from reading the press and from other sources of information, I have come to the conclusion that Mr Fraser is really being driven to find an excuse to deny supply and defeat the Budget.

There are very strong indications of a near unanimity of opinion amongst the Opposition Coalition Members and their important supporters that the Government should be brought down.

I feel reasonably sure that the Prime Minister believes that if there is to be an election at this stage the loss for his party would be devastating and the Opposition would gain control of both Houses. In this situation he is not in the mood, to coin a phrase, "to go quietly".

The Press this morning carried a story to the effect that he was going "to tough it out". By this it is meant to say simply that only the House has the political right to decide about the Budget. If the Senate refuses to pass it, the theory is that the Prime Minister will not accept that as a ground for coming to me for a dissolution of the House of Representatives or Indeed for a double dissolution. He will simply say that the responsibility for funds running out must be borne by the Opposition. He will send the Budget back to the Senate and if necessary will do so again and for them to reject it more than once. Then there will be a battle in the country about who is responsible for the ensuing mess - failure to meet obligations, pay public servants, the Defence Forces and so on.

This morning I had here in the House a delegation of Canadian parliamentarian and they were all openly saying that the Prime Minister had quite clearly enunciated this strategy in a speech he made to them yesterday.

A number of important constitutional questions could arise if the kind of crisis which is envisaged were to develop. The "Financial Review” sent a letter to my Official Secretary today setting out a number of specific questions as to what I thought to be my constitutional role in relation to a number of matters. I shall not, of course, answer any such question, leaving it to events to determine what I do.

I am also keeping my mind open as to the constitutional issues. If the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition get into a battle in which the Senate has defeated the Budget, and the Prime Minister refuses to recommend a dissolution, my role will need some careful thought though, of course, the classic constitutional convention will presumably govern the matter.

As with all great political issues, one has to consider the question whether what is going on is merely a matter of psychological warfare. It could well be that the Prime Minister is making it easier for Mr Fraser to resist those putting pressure on him or, alternatively, if he wishes to go with them and force an election, harder for him to do so.

The Prime Minister may think that the Leader of the Opposition will shrink from this and he will thus be able to buy time, at least until next May.

I am sorry I leave the country for Papua New Guinea at a time when it is not really possible to assess how much of what I have already written is truly a description of a political crisis of great magnitude. It could be, as I have said, brinkmanship and psychological war.

My wife and I look forward to meeting His Royal Highness in Papua New Guinea and if no great crisis prevents it, to seeing you in London.

Please pass on our sentiments of humble loyalty and duty to Her Majesty.

Your sincerely,

SIGNED  John R Kerr

 


Lieutenant Colonel the Right Honourable Sir Martin Charteris, K.C.B., K.C.V.O., O.B.E.,
Private Secretary to The Queen,
Buckingham Palace,
LONDON ENGLAND

 

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