Tag Archives: Sir John Kerr

The GG, the Judge and the Prince

Were you, like me, transfixed by the extract in Saturday’s Age from Jenny Hocking’s upcoming second volume of the Whitlam biography? Were you reading, spoon hovering betwixt your Vita Brits and mouth, eyebrows rising higher and higher?  Or is it just me? – a sign that I’ve hanging around reading about colonial judges, self-government and the colonial judiciary for too long?

In writing this second volume, Jenny Hocking has used interviews and, according to the publisher’s website, “previously unearthed archival material” including the papers of Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General who was central to the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975. According to the video interview with Jenny Hocking on the Age website, Sir John Kerr’s personal papers had been deposited in the National Archives some time ago, but had not been opened previously.  This might explain why  no-one had seen it before:  the now-deceased Kerr’s intrusion of himself into the archive as he set down the role – unknown until now-  played by Sir Anthony Mason, a sitting judge of the High Court of Australia and a pro-chancellor of the Australian National University.

Kerr wrote:

In the light of the enormous and vicious criticism of myself I should have dearly liked to have had the public evidence during my lifetime of what Mason had said and done during October-November 1975 [but] he would be happier…if history never came to know of his role.

I shall keep the whole matter alive in my mind till the end, and if this document is found among my archives, it will mean that my final decision is that truth must prevail, and, as he played a most significant part in my thinking at that critical time, and as he will be in the shades of history when this is read, his role should be known.

Apart from the Pauline Hanson ‘death video’ overtones of this document, the intervention of Sir John’s voice into the archive reminds us that an archive is always a constructed entity- not necessarily by the subject of the archive, but by someone scooping up, harvesting, organizing or in this case, shaping the material that appears there.   Is this the vanity of a puffed-up man, piqued that others escaped the opprobrium he attracted, and determined that his version should surface eventually? A final manipulation or final confession? A determination to share the credit or spread the blame?  Or is this a man with an eye to history, anxious that ‘the truth’ as he saw it was documented?

Whatever his approach to history, he did at least have one, unlike Sir Anthony who refused Kerr’s entreaties to make his role public.

Mason’s view, as he still maintained when pressed on these matters nearly 40 years later was, “I owe history nothing”.

What an extraordinary statement!  I still have it rattling round in my head, as I try out different permutations and explanations of it.  What on earth did he mean? Does he “owe history nothing” because he feels he was vindicated? Does he see it as a purely personal, private matter? Does he feel that he has already done enough for history?  Does he somehow see the judicial sphere completely divorced from the political arena, or does history have its own great sweep, unaffected by the actions of individual men? (in this case I use ‘men’ very deliberately). I note that even though he might owe history nothing, he now feels that he owes it to himself ( if he felt inclined to use such a quaintly 19th century Colonial Office phrase) to set the record straight in an article in the next day’s paper where he acknowledges his involvement but emphasizes that he advised Kerr ignored his advice that Whitlam should be forewarned of Kerr’s plans.

The final revelation that made me finally put down my spoon and read even more closely was the appearance of Prince Charles into the imbroglio. Sir John Kerr had met Prince Charles the year before, and engaged with him on a discussion of the possibility of Prince Charles himself being appointed Governor-General of Australia. In September 1975, some two months before the dismissal, the paths of the Governor General and the Prince crossed again in Port Moresby at a ceremony to mark the transition to an independent Papua New Guinea.

Kerr took this previous interaction to suggest a personal connection to the Prince of Wales and now, as the two met against in Port Moresby, the governor-general took the extreme step of raising with the prince the possible dismissal of the Whitlam government and his grave fears that he would himself be dismissed by Whitlam should he do so.

Apparently oblivious to constitutional expectations, Charles replied, according to Kerr’s notes of their exchange “But surely Sir John, the Queen should not have to accept advice that you should be recalled at the very time, should this happen when you were considering having to dismiss the government.”

Prince Charles at this time was 27 years old, no longer the gangly schoolboy of his Timbertop days.  For a man raised from birth to become King, and who could have been discreetly tapped on the shoulder the very next moment to be told exactly that, his ignorance of the constitutional parameters of his role is astounding.  If nothing else, silence would have been an appropriate response.  It was as if 150 years of responsible government and the principle that the governor takes his advice from the popularly elected prime minister just dropped away in a private conversation.

I found it impossible to read these extracts without my historian’s hat on.  I can only imagine the heart-stopping moment for Jenny Hocking when this document reached out- “Historian- look here!”- from the archived collection of a man obviously intent on moulding his own place in history.  I found so many parallels with my own work, too, in the conjunction of big, historical events and the vanities and networks of individual men; the careful legal language that rather inadequately veils ego and ambition; the importance of the dinner party and the whispered conversation within the ostensibly transparent political structures.  Definitely the best breakfast read I’ve had in a long, long time.