Sir John Kerr - partisan?
Written by John Paul   
Thursday, 08 December 2011
Image   [In this ninth instalment of his essay on the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government, John Paul asks what Gough Whitlam should have done when the Senate deferred supply. Then in the tenth instalment he answers the question whether Sir John Kerr was partisan.] 

When the Senate on 16th October 1975 first deferred consideration of the Appropriation Bills Gough Whitlam should have advised the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, in exactly the same terms as he had advised Sir Paul Hasluck in 1974 and as Mr Asquith had advised King Edward VII in 1909. 

In so advising the Governor-General Whitlam would have been acting consistently with every Parliamentary utterance he had made on this very subject when in Opposition and when in Government until he somersaulted in a speech at Goulburn on 12th September 1975.  And such advice would have been consistent with the intentions of the Founding Fathers. 

[ EG Whitlam, Sir John Kerr, and Senator Wriedt ]

By 16th October 1975, consistently with his Goulburn declaration, Whitlam had changed his tune entirely by repudiating every undertaking he had given to Parliament and privately to the Governor-General as recently as 25th August. 

Whitlams declared course was indeed one about which Asquith had speculated — only to reject it as revolutionary.  In embarking on this course Whitlam could find no precedent to justify it, for all his bluster and bombast then and later.

 ...Sir John Kerr . . . Partisan?...

Writing of the Founding Fathers in the context of Kerr’s dismissal of Whitlam a critic on ACM Facebook  claimed, “They also never envisaged a situation where the Crown would intervene in such a partisan manner”. 

Any action on Kerr’s part contrary to Whitlam’s advice would have outraged him and his Government and — if Whitlam had got in first — with the immediate consequence of his recall.  And any inaction on Kerr’s part despite the running down of lawfully appropriated moneys would have displeased the Opposition. 

As Kerr put it nearly ten years later:  I knew that I was in for a tough time whatever happened.  If I were as concerned for myself as some people have said, I would simply have done whatever Mr Whitlam demanded — I would have been Mr Whitlam’s puppet.  But that would have been a betrayal of my duty to maintain constitutional government — a spineless abdication of my responsibility.[1] 

Sir John could have added that if he had also wished to insulate himself against a wrathful Opposition coalition, he would simply have proceeded with an already arranged overseas trip on official business to Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland, which Whitlam had wished him to make in early November, and have left his domestic vice-regal responsibilities in the hands of the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Roden Cutler VC, acting as Administrator of the Commonwealth. 

With the denial of Supply in early October, however, Sir John with Whitlam’s approval cancelled this projected official visit overseas.Sir John Kerr, when sworn in as Governor-General, had emphasized the following words:I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of the Commonwealth of Australia, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.

These words encompassed a duty to maintain constitutional government according to the Constitution as it was then and not according to some constitution after which Whitlam was hankering in accordance with his latest passing fancy.

Whitlam’s motives were revealed in a television interview on 20th October 1975 — two days before the Senate deferred  consideration of the Appropriation Bill for the second time.  His statements attracted the following editorial comment in The Australian:Mr Whitlam admitted that the Senate does have power over Money Bills. 

Second, he revealed the long-term aim of his tactic of ‘toughing it out’ through the political and constitutional crisis.  He wants to crush that power once and for all.  Mr Whitlam has given up quarrelling with the contents of the Constitution.  Rather he believes the Constitution is wrong to allow the Senate power to reject Money Bills. 

No one thought this (the blocking of the Budget) could ever happen,’ he says.  ‘It could never happen in any other country.  I am determined to end for all time the Senate’s power over Money Bills’. 

Never mind that his present course of action involves a major breach of parliamentary principle — that same principle that Mr Whitlam himself enunciated so firmly in 1970.[2]

And, it should be added, as recently as 1974!  Sir David Smith, after quoting this statement, observed:

This was a most revealing interview.  It contained an admission that the Senate had the power to do what it was doing;  it revealed that Whitlam wanted to bring about what could have amounted to a virtual constitutional amendment, but without seeking the approval  of the people as required under section 128 of the Constitution;  it ignored what he had tried to do as Leader of the Opposition in 1967 and  1970;  and it overlooked the fact that the Australian Senate is the second-most  powerful upper house in the world and that, with the one exception [dealing with the initiation and amendment of Money Bills which is the sole prerogative of the House of Representatives], the founding fathers who drafted the Australian Constitution intended the Senate to be equal with the House of Representatives as a part of the Parliament.  Whitlam’s comparison with other countries had no relevance whatsoever.[3]  

[1]               Kerr, The Bulletin (Sydney), September 10, 1985.

[2]               The Australian, October 21, 1975, “Reflecting the people’s will”.

[3]               Sir David Smith, Head of State:  the Governor-General, the Monarchy, the Republic and the Dismissal, Macleay Press, Sydney, 2005, p. 275.