Letter from Sir John Kerr

Letter from Sir John Kerr

(Including additions dated 29 October 1975 and 30 October 1975)

In this letter Sir John ponders on the political crisis and his position. He also mentions “There has been the odd reference in the press to The Queen having been kept informed and this has been confirmed from the Palace.” Towards the end of the letter he emphasizes that “In mentioning this I have no desire to escape from any responsibility which the Constitution places on my shoulders or to lessen it or have some excuse for any particular course I may take, but I feel that I should consider, in deciding what I ought to do, anything which may directly or indirectly affect The Queen.”



Government House,
Canberra. 2600.

27 October 1975.

My Dear Private Secretary

In the current crisis, both sides are appealing to the people for support. Massive campaign meetings are being held in the hope, on the one side, of precipitating a huge back-lash against Mr Fraser and on the other side of obtaining endorsement for what has been done in deferring supply.

The month of November, or a great part of it will be taken up with this kind of activity via bitter debates in Parliament and with further exploration of the loans debate and other political issues.

As to the Loans Affair, Mr Khemlani is said to be coming back to Australia to vindicate himself for having said that he was sure that the Prime Minister knew all about the dealings between himself and Mr Connor after the revocation on 20th May last of the Executive Council minute authorising discussion.

The Opposition has fixed upon the allegation that the Prime Minister knew of Mr Connor's dealings but has had no success so far in getting any confirmation of this from the Prime Minister or anywhere else.

The allegation against the Prime Minister is that he has implied that he knew nothing about the dealing after 20th May whereas Mr Khemlani asserts that he did.

As I understand what happened, Mr Connor was dismissed not for continuing to have dealings with Mr Khemlani but for saying that he had tabled all substantial documents which came into existence after 20th May. There will be a lot more coming and going on the Loans Issue.

The campaigns will proceed in public and the debates will continue in Parliament which is being kept in session. In due course the Gallup Polls will begin to give some indication of where the people stand.

The crunch will not come, so far as I am concerned, until the state of public opinion becomes much clearer. If it becomes obvious that Mr Fraser has made a serious mistake he may wish to retreat and allow supply to pass. There is a suggestion that he may hope to be helped to retreat by some "advice" from me.

If it appears that the state of public opinion is that a high proportion of people believe that Mr Whitlam should go to an election, the question will ultimately arise as to what I should do on the assumption that supply is rejected and the money is about to run out or has already done so. He will have tactics for obtaining credit for public servants and others inconvenienced. How this affects the matter has yet to be ascertained.

In Australia, the Senate is said by most lawyers to have a legal right to reject supply though this has just been denied by a very able lawyer, Sir Richard Eggleston, a former judge, in today’s "Age". Assuming however that the Senate has the legal power to reject supply, whether it should do so is a political question involving argument about whether there is a constitutional convention that it should not do so. Some say it should never do so, others say that it should do so only in extraordinary and reprehensible circumstances which it is claimed have arisen.

As I see the matter, it is not for me certainly at this stage, to judge the political question especially as there is a political background going back to the Federation debates in the '90's as to what was the State compact on money bills. (See enclosed clipping.)

It could easily happen that Parliament will, by the end of November, have finally and unequivocally denied supply and the Government will be attempting to govern without it. This will be so if one of the quite likely courses of events takes place, that is to say, if total deadlock persists. In such a situation it will become necessary to consider whether the Prime Minister and his Government should resign or recommend a dissolution. I should have to consider whether I should ask for this.

I do not need to spell out the problems involved in such a course of action if the Prime Minister refuses to do either of these things as he says he will. On these questions, some opinions expressed by Sir Paul Hasluck in his Queale Memorial Lecture in 1972 have been widely canvassed. In case you do not have a copy of this lecture I attach one together with a summary of it published in the Australian on Friday last. A relevant passage from the lecture is -

"In normal times when customary practices and procedures are being followed and the Constitution and laws of the Commonwealth are being scrupulously observed, the role of the Governor-General in Parliament would seem to be a matter of unbroken routine. In abnormal times or in case of any attempt to disregard the Constitution or the laws of the Commonwealth, or even the customary usages of Australian government, it would be the Governor-General who could present the crisis to Parliament and, if necessary, to the nation for determination. It is not that the Governor-General (or the Crown) can over-rule the elected representatives of the people but in the ultimate he can check the elected representatives in any extreme attempt by them to disregard the rule of law or the customary usages of Australian government and he could do so by forcing a crisis."

Not everyone agrees with Sir Paul Hasluck but in conditions of momentous deadlock over supply the question whether the Hasluck doctrine should be accepted and a final constitutional crisis precipitated by vice- Regal act will have to be thought about. This would force an election. Any Vice-Regal decision either to act or not to act in this kind of situation will be, I suppose, the subject of debate and criticism. I am simply looking into the future and exploring options.

I have still not made up my mind.

I enclose a couple of clippings which you may find of interest.

Depending on what happens I am thinking of taking some leave from just before Christmas to the end of January. This is a dead season in Australia. No election could possibly take place in January and very little national business is done. It is something like Paris in August. If the crisis is over there will be nothing to worry about. If it is not over but an election is to take place I will have to remain in a completely neutral position and absence may be the best way to ensure this. Of course, if we have the running sore of a continuing crisis I probably would not be able to take leave. If however, one way or another I can take some leave I shall explore the possibility of a completely unofficial trip to Paris for a short period of time with an informal visit to the United Kingdom.

This is all speculative and I should need The Queen's approval and I should not ask for it unless it is a feasible proposal. If by any chance I am in London for part of January and there were a possibility of an audience with Her Majesty for a short period anywhere in the United Kingdom I should be very happy and grateful but I should not ask for this unless it is a sensible and defensible thing to do in the light of whatever is happening. Of course I appreciate that until the crisis is over Her Majesty may in any event prefer not to receive me.

I am remaining calm about it all and seek no "man of destiny" role in all of this.

There is one point I should like to raise.

There has been the odd reference in the press to The Queen having been kept informed and this has been confirmed from the Palace. I appreciate that, except on such matters as those upon which the Prime Minister advises Her Majesty direct, she would be anxious - or at least so I assume - for this crisis to be worked out in Australia. However anything I may do or not do could indirectly affect the Monarchy in Australia and I should welcome any observations on a private and personal basis which you may care to make and which, as you see it, should be taken into account in the interests the Monarchy in Australia.

In mentioning this I have no desire to escape from any responsibility which the Constitution places on my shoulders or to lessen it or have some excuse for any particular course I may take, but I feel that I should consider, in deciding what I ought to do, anything which may directly or indirectly affect The Queen.

29 October 1975.

I can state shortly the developments which have taken place since the typing of the first part of this letter.

The controversy rages as before. My impression is that Mr Fraser has lost ground in the struggle and this was today confirmed by the latest Gallup Poll.

I enclose the details which speak for themselves. Since the date of the poll (18 October) I think Mr Fraser has lost more ground.

Mr Khemlani has come back to Australia and has offered to give evidence before the Senate on his assertion that the Prime Minister knew all about his dealings with Mr Connor after May 20th when the Executive Council revoked the minute authorising Mr Connor to obtain a loan. Mr Khemlani brought an enormous number of documents with him and went into session with advisers of Mr Lynch, the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party.

No documents appear to exist to prove that the Prime Minister knew of the dealings between Mr Connor and Mr Khemlani. Mr Ellicott has examined the documents and has said that they do not directly show the Prime Minister's knowledge of the dealings. Nevertheless, the Opposition continues to assert that in fact the Prime Minister must have known and did know that Mr Connor was doing business with Mr Khemlani. The Prime Minister has been very careful in handling questions on this subject.

Mr Khemlani has asked to be heard at the Bar of the Senate. Both sides are being cagey about calling him. The Government has said so far that it does not propose to call him though it does not oppose his being heard if the Opposition move to hear him.

The Opposition seems to be concerned that if he does appear on the floor of the Senate it may not be in the long run to their advantage. Today will be a day of decision on this point.

As to the general crisis, there is little that I can add to what I have already said. I attach a copy of a letter which was published this morning in the Sydney Morning Herald. It is a letter of Sir Norman Cowper whom I know very well as an elder statesman in Sydney and with whom I have worked on various matters in the Institute of Political Science and the Council on New Guinea Affairs for 15 to 20 years. He is a wise old man. I have not talked to him about the crisis but I was pleased to see his exposition in his letter of what the whole thing is about.

The Government is being attacked because the Treasurer has conceded that on the afternoon of the day of the Budget, some hours before the Budget Speech Mr Hawke, the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the President of the Australian Labor Party, was given a secret briefing on the contents of the Budget. This was done, according to the Treasurer, because an important aspect of the Budget was wage restraint and he did not want to run the risk that Mr Hawke would make an adverse "off the cuff" comment after the Speech was made. This Budget "leak” is being used as part of the overall attack on the Government which is being made to justify deferring supply.

One of the consequences of the crisis is an economy campaign which includes a cut-back on couriers to London. This letter will not go until a bag is sent on Tuesday next. But I shall finish at this point. I shall send another if events warrant this.

My wife and I shall have the pleasure of seeing Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret in Sydney on Friday and Sunday next.

Please assure Her Majesty of my continued loyalty and humble duty.

Yours sincerely,

SIGNED: John R Kerr

30 October 1975.

This morning's paper disclosed a new poll conducted in the capital and major provincial cities. This shows that 70% of Australia’s capital city voters believe the Senate should allow Supply to pass, and 54% believe that Labor should continue to govern, rather than resign and hold a general election. There is apparently quite a big swing against Mr Fraser and in favour of the Government. The swing is not yet enough to produce a victory for Mr Whitlam were there to be an election but as you know now that the gap has been significantly narrowed, the campaign itself could produce a further swing. However, Mr Whitlam has not yet moved in the direction of accepting that the time is ripe for a double dissolution nor even, though this is much more possible, for a Half Senate election. Some people believe that he will ask for a Half Senate election this week or early next week. If there is to be such an election before Christmas he really should move in the next few days. Evan if he seeks a Half Senate election there is no guarantee that supply will be granted even to get the country through the period of the campaign. Such an election would, if it were held, probably take place on 6th or 13th December. I enclose two editorials, one from The Age and one from The Financial Review of today's date and a clipping about a suggested role for the Governor- General from today's Age.

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,


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