Letter from Sir John Kerr

Letter from Sir John Kerr

Letter from Sir John Kerr dated 22 October 1975
(including additions dated 23 October & 24 October.)

In this letter, Sir John advises that there are increasing calls in the media for him to take action to resolve the impending crisis. He mentions his discussion with the Prime Minister raising concerns that the “very serious political crisis” may become “a true constitutional crisis”, if the Senate rejects the Budget and money runs out.

With the permission of the Prime Minister he met with the Leader of the Opposition and came to the conclusion that “there is really nothing that I can do to bring the two main contenders to some point of compromise.”

 

PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL

Government House,
Canberra. 2600

22 October 1975.

My Dear Private Secretary

I shall get this letter into Friday's bag. It is the first to go.

May I say first of all that Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret arrived this morning after a tiring journey. We have not yet had a real conversation but I hope she is comfortable. We shall be seeing more of her later in the day and especially at dinner and are looking forward to this.

I may have to add to the constitutional story in the couple of days between now and the dispatch of this letter, but it seems sensible to summarise the happenings since I last wrote.

The amount of Press coverage is now enormous and it is very difficult to add to the clippings in any useful way. However, I enclose some recent clippings.

Yesterday, (Tuesday, 21 October) I carefully considered the Ellicott memorandum and decided to ask the Prime Minister to obtain for me an opinion of the law officers of the Crown on the propositions set out in it. He agreed to do this and has asked for the opinion on his own behalf with the intention of passing it on to me. I realise of course that the law officers will profoundly disagree with what Mr Ellicott said and may go so far as to say that there is nothing left of any substance in the reserve powers of the Crown. But it does not follow that in an extreme constitutional crisis I would accept that. I have of course, on any view, little room to move contrary to the Prime Minister's advice.

I am under very great pressure, through the Press, to act. Sir Robert Menzies issued a statement about the crisis which was published in this morning's Press. I send the full text.

Yesterday I swore in a new Minister for Agriculture, Mr Keating, who took the portfolio for Northern Australia from which Mr Patterson had resigned in order to take over Senator Wreidt's previous appointment as Minister for Agriculture.

Before the swearing-in ceremony I had a long talk to the Prime Minister.

I have been worried for the last twenty-four hours that the Governor-General might appear to the people of Australia to be uninterested in the profound crisis which is developing. I had of course, up till yesterday, said and done nothing publicly. It has been my intention and still is, to do nothing constitutionally at this time but the growing expression of the point of view that the Governor-General should mediate or intervene to help produce a solution forced me to consider whether I could do anything at all. As examples of the sort of articles being written I attach one by Professor Julius Stone of the University of New South Wales in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald and one from Professor Sawer in today's Canberra Times.

When talking to the Prime Minister yesterday I said to him that it seemed to me that the crisis at the moment is still a very serious political crisis, but that it has not crossed the threshold yet into a true constitutional crisis, because the Senate has only deferred the Budget, not finally rejected it, and money has not started to run out. Even if money were to run out, the Prime Minister believes he has an option with the Federal Banks backed by Commonwealth guarantee which will help him to carry on, but that is not public.

I suggested to the Prime Minister that he should agree to me seeing the Leader of the Opposition with a view to raising the question whether the Leader of the Opposition is determined to cross the threshold from a political crisis to a constitutional crisis. He would do this, if he is going to do it, by producing what in the course of time would be a rejection of supply either by active rejection or by continued deferral up to the point of time when money runs out. I thought it might be possible subtly to direct a conversation with the Leader of the Opposition to the point where he might see that he has to withdraw from the brink, having done all he could do to force Mr Whitlam to an election. He could take whatever political capital he could out of the Prime Minister's refusal to go to the people. This would allow the main issue in the country to return to the economic problems instead or being clouded, even dominated, by the constitutional issue.

The Prime Minister agreed to me seeing the Leader of the Opposition, not of course for the purpose of getting advice from him, but simply to do my best to ascertain the likely future course of events. Accordingly, I invited the Leader of the Opposition to call which he did last night. I spent more than an hour with him. He maintained that the intention of his Party was quite firm and irreversible and that if the Appropriation Bills were re-presented, as is happening, they would be deferred as often as they were presented.

He, of course, believes that there is already a serious constitutional crisis but in any event accepts, from what he says and from what the Prime Minister says, that such a crisis is inevitable.

My effort therefore to explore alternative possibilities did not get off the ground but nevertheless, from the point of view of the Vice-Regal office at least, I appear to be showing an interest, looking at things from the point of view of Australia generally. The newspapers are full of it all. There has been no statement by Mr Fraser or myself about what was said, confidentiality having been agreed to.

A rumour in the Press gallery immediately spread to the effect that I had summoned Mr Fraser out here to reprimand him in some way or other. It had been agreed between us, and the Prime Minister was privy to this, that the only statement that could be made was that I had invited the Leader of the Opposition to call and had discussed the current situation with him. When however he was confronted by the rumour, he felt understandably that merely to say "no comment" would leave the impression that the purpose of the meeting had been to criticise or reprimand him in some way or other, so I authorised him to say that that had not been the case and that this could be confirmed by enquiries at Government House. Enquiries were made and the Press this morning did not carry in any significant way any such suggestion.

As things stand at the moment, (22nd October) despite all the suggestions in the enclosed clippings and in other newspaper articles and editorials that I should in some way or other mediate or even adjudicate, there is really nothing that I can do to bring the two main contenders to some point of compromise. They are set upon their course and unless, on one side or the other, their parties weaken, the outcome will occur within a quite short period of time, say by early or mid November.

My own judgment is, though it is difficult to be certain about these matters, that the very considerable publicity given to the fact that I yesterday had talks with both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition has put the Vice-Regal office favourably before the people, while at the same time not leaving the impression that the Governor-General is acting in any unconstitutional way. I am entitled to advise and warn the Prime Minister and he has agreed to me talking to the Leader of the Opposition. Nothing constructive has come from it, but at least the people have the feeling, or so I judge it, that I am not sitting inactively at Yarralumla doing nothing.

The Press has asked today whether they could have an account of what happened yesterday. I have instructed my Official Secretary to say that in such circumstances conversations between the Governor-General and others, including the Prime Minister, are confidential and by tradition are never discussed. It had been pressed upon my Official Secretary that these matters are terribly important to Australian citizens in general and there should be some explanation as to why they cannot be told what happened. In the short statement which the Official Secretary made when asked, he said that, however important matters were, the principle of confidentiality was also important, particularly at the present time, and I had no intention of departing from it.

Yesterday, in the House of Representatives the Prime Minister moved a motion as follows:

"(1) That the House of Representatives having considered Message No. 276 of the Senate asserts that the action of the Senate in delaying the passage of the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 1975-76 and the Appropriation Bill (No. 2) 1975-76 for the reasons given in the Senate resolution is not contemplated within the terms of the Constitution and is contrary to established constitutional convention, and therefore requests the Senate to re-consider and pass the Bills without delay.

(2) That a message be sent to the Senate acquainting it of this resolution.

The Leader of the Opposition moved an amendment as follows:

"That all words after 'Senate resolution' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

'is within the terms of the Constitution and that the House of Representatives should face the people'"

The motion was, of course, passed.

The Appropriation Bills have again passed through the House and have again been sent to the Senate. The Senate has refused to consider them, deferring all attention presumably until they get an election of the House.

This is how the matter rests as at 22 October. I shall add daily some extra comments to bring this account up to date.

23 October 1975

Last night we had a dinner here for Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret. I hope she enjoyed it.

She had long talks with both the Prime Minister and Mr Fraser. Her programme today has proceeded according to plans.

The newspapers this morning reported certain remarks made yesterday by Mr Fraser on television and radio programmes. He was apparently asked if the Governor-General had legal authority to request the Senate to pass the Supply Bills. He was quoted as replying that he would need legal advice on that but he doubted very much whether I could. He was then asked how the Opposition would react if I took this course and he apparently said, "We would obviously look very closely at any request from the Governor-General because I have very high regard for the office. Any decision made by the Governor-General would obviously be a decision we would follow."

Earlier he was it seems asked on radio if he would accept my advice. His reported reply was, "If he gives a decision we would respect and accept it absolutely. If he gives advice we would give the greatest possible weight to it because of the respect we have for the office and the man".

This was treated in most newspapers this morning as being a sign of retreat - that he would go along with anything I wanted done about the matter. This was a most surprising development because it should be obvious to everyone that the Prime Minister would always say that I must do what he advises and not give a ruling that ought to be binding on both parties.

Nevertheless this afternoon Mr Fraser is reported to have issued a challenge to the Prime Minister to abide by my advice and show the same respect for my office and for me as he has. He is supposed to have said, "I challenge him to indicate that he will accept any decision and give weight to any advice the Governor- General may give him". He denied that his remarks yesterday were a sign of back-down. The afternoon press has already pointed out that Governors-General are not permitted to give advice of a political character.

The Government is very confident first that a big back-lash against Mr Fraser is under way and secondly that there may soon be some kind of retreat by the Opposition.

24 October 1975.

This morning's press seems to be taking the line that Mr Fraser has made a mistake and that a backlash is developing. He conceded to me that the next Gallup poll will show some swing against him. Some believe it will be a big swing.

Please assure Her Majesty that we are enjoying Princess Margaret's stay and of my continued loyalty and humble duty.

Yours 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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