Thursday, 11 October 2012

Gough Whitlam just had to ask the Queen to sack John Kerr

ON the eve of the 1975 constitutional crisis, Buckingham Palace signalled that the Queen would remove governor-general John Kerr if prime minister Gough Whitlam asked her to. 

This advice was given by the Queen's private secretary, Martin Charteris, in a letter to the governor-general in early October 1975, five weeks before the November 11 dismissal. It made clear that the Queen would follow the advice of her prime minister. This meant sacrificing Sir John if required.

The governor-general wrote in his journal that he was not surprised to hear the Queen's position, but Sir Martin's letter reinforced his predetermined decision to make any dismissal of Mr Whitlam a secret affair.
The Kerr papers, recently released from the National Archives, reveal Sir John's main obsession: his determination to prevent Mr Whitlam saving himself by the appointment of a more compliant governor-general, unwilling to exercise the dismissal power. The new documents contain extracts of Sir John's letters to Buckingham Palace keeping the Queen informed of the crisis.

In an October 17 letter, the day after the budget was blocked, he tells the Queen that at a dinner the previous night for Malaysia's prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, Mr Whitlam had raised the possibility of Sir John's dismissal.

In an extraordinary and new account of this dinner, Sir John reveals he told opposition leader Malcolm Fraser that night of his fear that he might be removed. "He (Mr Fraser) said it was inconceivable," Sir John wrote. "I replied it was a matter nevertheless to be thought about. "His reaction was to say the Queen would never permit it. "I told him that that question was one I preferred not to discuss."It was all most unlikely but he (Mr Fraser) would have to make up his own mind about it."

In short, at the outset of the crisis, the governor-general was alerting Mr Fraser to how much he distrusted Mr Whitlam. For Mr Fraser, it was vital intelligence. Even more extraordinary is how Sir John explained his motive for this warning. He wrote: "I did this out of fairness because he (Mr Fraser) could be badly caught by ending up with a governor-general who would not even consider ever using the reserve power, however bad the situation was."

It is a recurring theme in the Kerr papers - Sir John believes he had a duty to deceive Mr Whitlam in order to secure an effective dismissal.The new revelations are contained in a series of notes and letters from Sir John and a 150-page, hand-written journal he penned from Surrey in early 1980.

In September 1975, the month before the budget was blocked, at the Papua New Guinea independence celebration, Sir John raised with the Prince of Wales his deepest fear - that, needing to exercise the reserve powers, he might face "the risk of recall".

A young Prince Charles was sympathetic to Sir John and suggested "the Queen should not have to accept advice that you should be recalled". But this was not the official view of the palace. Upon his return to London, according to the Kerr journal, the prince spoke to Sir Martin, who wrote to Sir John.

Sir Martin's letter is not in the file. It is referenced in Kerr's journal, which says: "Martin said he should tell me that if the kind of contingency in mind were to develop, although the Queen would try to delay things, in the end she would have to take the Prime Minister's advice."

It is a letter from a palace that wants to assist the governor-general but knows and accepts it must act on the prime minister's advice. There is no sense in the documents of the palace giving Sir John an "in-advance" consent to dismiss Mr Whitlam. In his journal, Sir John reveals his deepest feelings about the dismissal. He said he decided to act decisively and the phrase "act by stealth" described exactly "what I decided from September on I would have to do".
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