Sir William Heseltine Interviewed

Buckingham Palace would have advised Sir John Kerr to “hold off” dismissing Gough Whitlam to allow a “political solution” to emerge if he had notified the Queen of his intentions in ­November 1975, says Sir William Heseltine, who was the Queen’s assistant private secretary at the time

JULY 17, 2020


The Queen’s former assistant private secretary, William Heseltine,
at his Perth home on Thursday.
Picture: Tony McDonough

“What would have been the situation if Kerr had asked for advice on his future action?” Sir William said in an interview with The Australian on Thursday.

“I suspect the advice that would have been given to him was that it would have been prudent to hold off a little bit longer.

“But obviously he felt the pressure of these two contingencies about the election and the financial situation were too pressing to ignore. I think it was very proper of him not to ask, and in ways which are now very evident, very sensible and satisfactory that he didn’t. There was considerable discussion of a hypothetical nature about the existence of, and appropriateness of, applying to these reserve powers but at no stage did the governor-general ever ask the Queen to suggest that he should act in any particular way, and nor did she offer that advice through her private secretary.”

Sir Martin Charteris, private secretary to the Queen, wrote to Sir John on November 4 twice, cautioning that exercising reserve powers was a “heavy responsibility” and should “only” be used “in the last resort” when “there is demonstrably no other course” available to end the crisis.

Sir Martin and Sir William judged that Australia was embroiled in a “political” and not a “constitutional” crisis and concluded that the governor-general intervened “too precipitously” to resolve the deadlock over supply.

“All of us in the office in London thought that if Kerr had been able to hold his nerve for just a day or two more, there probably would have been a political solution to the problem, which would have avoided a lot of fuss,” Sir William said.

“I think various possibilities would have eventuated. Somebody in the Senate would have given way … and the vote (on supply) could have been passed in the Senate. That’s one thing I think might have happened.”

Sir William, who turns 90 on Friday, was the first person notified in Buckingham Palace that the governor-general had terminated Whitlam’s commission, when he answered a phone call from the official secretary at Government House, Sir David Smith.

“I still remember the sense of shock with which I heard the news at 2am or thereabouts on 11 Nove­mber in a telephone call from David Smith, who had rung on the governor-general’s instructions to let the Queen know, after the event, what decision, and consequent actions, he had taken,” he said.

Sir William, who later served as the Queen’s private secretary (1986-90), said the vice-regal letters vindicated the position of himself and Sir Martin that they had no advance knowledge of the dismissal and nor did they or the Queen approve it.

“I last saw the letters 45 years ago or thereabouts,” Sir William said. “But my recollection of them was sufficiently clear not to be surprised by what was contained in them when they were published. I was quite keen to see these letters produced some time ago because I thought they would dispel that kind of disinformation that was going about.”

The extensive cache of letters between Sir John and Sir Martin reveal detailed discussions about the supply crisis, the canvassing of various scenarios and options to resolve it, and the possible exercise of reserve powers. Sir William said this was an entirely “proper” dialogue between the Queen, through her private secretary, and her representative in Australia.

“In consulting the private office of the head of state, he knew he was talking to people and an institution which had been involved in political and constitutional matters for literally hundreds of years,” Sir William said. “(Sir John) took the opportunity to check up on his own views as to whether the reserve powers still existed and we certainly in London had a unanimous view that the reserve powers still exist and he was told.

“But he was by no means advised how he was to use them or informed us in advance how he was intending to use them.”

The vice-regal letters contain words of praise for how Sir John was handling the crisis before and after his intervention on November 11, 1975.

Sir William said it was no surprise to see Sir Martin flatter Sir John, given he was the Queen’s representative. “It was the sort of commonplace language at that time and certainly wasn’t intended to encourage him to make a decision of this kind (dismissal) or even to suggest it would necessarily be the right one,” he said.

Troy Bramston is a senior writer and columnist with The Australian and a contributor to Sky News. He is the author or editor of nine books.

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