Letter from Sir John Kerr
LETTER FROM SIR JOHN KERR DATED 24 NOVEMBER 1975
In this letter, Sir John mentions both the personal attacks on him but also the letters and indications of support. He mentions the ‘rage’ of Whitlam supporters over his termination and how he feels it is counterproductive.
It was possibly the way in which Labor contested the 1975 election campaign, fully expressing its rage, that led to the people turning against Gough Whitlam and leading to its massive defeat.
PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL
24 November 1975.
My dear Private Secretary
Thank you for your letter of 17 November.
It has been, of course, a difficult time. Mr Whitlam's reaction after leaving Yarralumla turned out to be in fact, one of very great rage which came through in many of his public utterances, the earliest of which were on the steps of Parliament House at the time when David Smith read the proclamation dissolving both Houses. The proclamation finished with the words "God Save The Queen", whereupon Mr Whitlam shouted, "You may well say God Save The Queen, but nothing will save this Governor-General." He also referred on the same occasion to the new Prime Minister as "Kerr's Cur".
Some people are asserting, including a very old friend of mine who has now, of course, broken off relations with me so far as I am concerned forever - I refer to Senator James McClelland that I have been in conspiracy with Mr Fraser from the beginning. This is false as Senator McClelland knows because he was party to some of the compromise activities in which I engaged. However, I knew there would be a certain amount of execration and had to warn my wife about this in advance.
The rage seems to be to some extent subsiding and could be, throughout the country, counter-productive. However Mr Whitlam appears to believe the opposite and will, I think, try to keep the issue as the main one till the end. There is, however, a very widespread support for the Monarchy and the Vice-Regal office.
We cannot yet tell what will happen in the election but I attach a cutting from The National Times which has by no means been supportive of me in the controversy. It deals with a poll which was conducted, after my decision, amongst so called "swinging voters" - 120 - selected from a random sample of 1,600 voters in capital cities who had been the subject of a survey the previous week.
The previous survey was confined to capital city dwellers excluding, as I understand the position, Perth. It accordingly took no account at all of what was happening in the country electorates. The attempt to discover what 120 so-called swinging voters thought is summarised in the attached cutting.
The points the survey appears to make are.
(1) A large majority of swinging voters feel that Labor should not be critical of the Governor-General - 79%.
(2) As to whether I am supposed to be a good or bad Governor-General, 54% said good, 17% said bad, and 10% said good except for the dismissal of the Prime Minister, 19% were unsure.
(3) On the question whether I was right or wrong to dismiss Mr Whitlam 45% said right, 46% said wrong and 9% were unsure. 120 swinging voters out of a population of 13½ million is a peculiar sort of sample and, as you will see from the cutting, the method of selecting the swinging voters appears to have been strange because at the end of the cutting it is stated that the A.N.O.P, definition of the swinging voter is based on a series of commitment and party loyalty scales and demographic measures. It is not based on the respondent's own statement of past vote versus intended vote.
I have no idea, except to the extent that my own correspondence shows it, how the people generally are reacting to my decision but I have no regrets about it. In Australian terms and in the situation in which we found ourselves there was no escape. If I ever have an opportunity to report personally to Her Majesty I shall be able to give her some more colourful impressions of the main characters in this Australian crisis.
The debate about what I did has been contributed to partly by lawyers but dominantly by academics who are not lawyers and who clearly do not understand anything at all about our Constitution.
They are not quite as bad as Alan Ashbolt who is well known to me and indeed was a neighbour of mine when I lived in Turramurra on the outskirts of Sydney for 20 years before coming here. Alan Ashbolt wrote an article in last week's New Statesman in which he made a serious suggestion that I am mad, not perhaps clinically mad but, as he put it, at least as mad as George III.
If you have not had the excruciating pleasure of reading the Ashbolt article in last week's New Statesman, please get hold of it and glance at it.
There is one important point which I should mention. My few close friends and advisers have counselled me very strongly to keep right out of the campaign and to answer nothing that is said. This is difficult for an extrovert and activist but it is wise advice and I have so far followed it. Others however press me to speak to the nation about my constitutional position, what I did and why and to answer criticisms. I do not think this would be sensible but am keeping a small corner of my mind open in case the calumnies and criticisms become unbearable. But do not fear, despite Ashbolt, I am still rational and will do nothing silly. Silence is I suppose inevitable.
Your reply to the Speaker arrived this morning and I had it taken to him right away. For my part I thought it an excellent statement of the Constitutional position, Later today Mr Scholes released the text.
I was particularly interested in the penultimate paragraph of your letter of 17th November to me in which you permitted yourself a reflection to the effect that, should the Member for Werriwa be returned to power, he ought to be extremely grateful to me. You will by now know from my earlier letters that in effect I said to him, at the time of dismissal, that I was giving him this opportunity for a possible victory of considerable significance. By making a double dissolution a condition of the step I had decided to take, I made it possible for him, if he wins the House of Representatives and has a majority in the combined Houses, to get a Joint Sitting which would enable him to pass 21 stored-up bills.
If this were to happen the result would be something of a social revolution in Australia and it could happen even if Mr Whitlam lost the Senate if he won the house by a margin sufficient to outnumber even by one what must be inevitably either a deadlocked or almost deadlocked Senate. However, he is hardly likely to be in fact grateful to me as you suggest.
The question arises as to what I should do in the event of a Whitlam victory. I opened this subject up with you before as a hypothetical question. My mail is starting to show indications of a desire on the part of correspondents that I should not resign.
This does not operate, in any significant way, upon my mind but I have been thinking that, for the sake of history, I ought to consider forcing Mr Whitlam, if he wins, to ask Her Majesty for my dismissal. I would not allow the position to develop to the point where she would have to take such advice. If she were minded upon receipt of a request for my dismissal to communicate with me before feeling it necessary to act, I should do what I could to answer whatever it was that Mr Whitlam had said to justify dismissal but would wish to resign and would do so.
Her Majesty in this way would be relieved of any need to take any action at all in the matter but history would record the story rather differently from what might be the case if I were to resign, more or less automatically upon Mr Whitlam's victory. I am, in other words, considering whether I should make any concession which could be wrongly interpreted as an indication that I had in some way erred in what I had done. I think I should rather produce a situation in which a Prime Minister, who has in fact got an extra three years of a power plus the prospect of a successful joint sitting asks for my dismissal, rather than offer an immediate resignation capable of erroneous interpretation. However, for the moment the matter is very much as open one and I say with the greatest sincerity that I would do whatever the Palace judges to be the best interests of the Monarchy in Australia.
For the time being my wife and I are resting after the burdens of the crisis. We are not doing this willingly but under security advice. The security people are not anxious for me to leave Yarralumla, which they feel able to protect, and certainly do not want us to go into residence at Admiralty House which is much more difficult from the security point of view. I do not think violence is feared so much as demonstrations or indignities which would not be good for the Vice Regal office or the Monarchy. Personally I do not think there would be very much, if any of this but I am taking their advice until after the campaign opens and the two policy speeches are delivered. They are prepared to approve of a visit to Admiralty House on Wednesday and Thursday next for an Executive Council meeting and we shall judge the position then.
I have some engagements before the election which I feel bound to keep unless there is some real sign of abiding animus and militant demonstration against me personally. I think such demonstrations, were they to occur, would be counter-productive and would help Mr Whitlam's opponents. He and his supporters will, I think, try to quieten down any attempts to criticise in any violent or ugly way my actions or to subject me to real indignity.
The polls have not yet given us much indication of what will happen throughout the electorate as a whole, but they are a better guide in Australia than they are in England because we enjoy here compulsory voting and this seems to enable the polls to predict more accurately. I shall let you know what they show as each week goes by.
I would be grateful if you would thank Her Majesty for her good wishes in this difficult time and assure her of the loyalty and humble duty of my wife and my myself.
SIGNED: J 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,
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