Features Australia

The demonisation of Sir John Kerr

A study in early cancel culture

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

As we approach the 45th anniversary of the Whitlam government’s dismissal, the recent release of Sir John Kerr’s Palace correspondence has sparked a flurry of commentary. Paul Kelly, editor-at-large of the Australian, has leapt into print, penning a new book and a number of articles. This re-examination would be welcome if, in light of new evidence, it offered a fresh perspective. We can only hope. But my worry is that all we will get is a recycling of the conventional view of Kerr as pantomime villain. This is not only grossly unfair, it impoverishes our understanding of history.

Most of us are familiar with the clichéd Kerr portrayal. The top-hat wearing dandy who betrayed his class and party. The vain, dishonest and secretive vice-regal representative. The man who ambushed Gough. This is heady stuff: red meat for members of the Labor tribe who bristle at the mere mention of 1975. But like all pantomime plot lines, it is unedifying. It ignores the real dilemma Kerr faced: a bind that anyone occupying his office at that time would have faced.

Kerr was caught between Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser. A prime minister who, for all his bold plans, had run a chaotic and incompetent government: a man who had little control over his ministers, including one who was seeking to illegally raise billions of dollars from shady interests overseas. And, on the other side, an opposition leader prepared to bring down the government by blocking supply (using the Senate to defer approval of bills needed to fund government): a tactic that had never been used in Canberra before. Whitlam and Fraser were bent on destroying each other, rejecting any suggestion (including from Kerr) of compromise.

But this was more than a clash of personalities. The conflict was rooted in the very make-up of our Constitution. Its federal structure, which gives the Senate the power to reject or defer supply (which the UK upper house cannot do). And the principle of responsible government, which requires the prime minister to resign or call a general election if he or she cannot obtain supply. The 1975 stand-off, while not anticipated by our founding fathers, was always a possibility (and remains so to this day).

Nor was the crisis confined to the Canberra bubble: a political cage fight which the public could enjoy, safe in the knowledge that it would not affect them. By early November, the Commonwealth’s coffers were close to empty.

The day when payments to hundreds of thousands of public servants and essential public services would have to be cut off, was near. (Whitlam knew this would trigger panic, so instructed officials to develop a plan to issue vouchers to all these people in place of legally appropriated money. Yes, things had become that dire.)

Kerr was faced with a stark choice. Allow pandemonium to break loose (when the government’s money ran out) or engineer a general election to end the political deadlock? Of course, the latter required dismissing Whitlam and replacing him with someone willing to recommend putting the dispute to the people to resolve.

Kerr’s critics also fail to credit him with intelligence. As a one-time Labor member and Whitlam appointee, Kerr knew the fate which awaited him if he took decisive action. He would never be forgiven. But he crossed his Rubicon nevertheless. Is this a story of cowardice and vanity, as the pantomime view suggests, or is it one of moral courage and faith in democracy? Perhaps it is a mix of each, which makes Kerr a more interesting, and perhaps believable, figure.

True, Kelly and other historians of the dismissal know the full story. They admit Kerr acted legally (under reserve powers that existed then, not least because Whitlam accepted his sacking). They concede that both Fraser and Whitlam were, notwithstanding their virtues, grievously at fault. And they understand the Constitutional bind we were in.

So what, exactly, was Kerr actually guilty of? The best that his critics have come up with is that he failed to issue an ultimatum to Whitlam before acting. Failed to threaten to sack Whitlam if he did not compromise. Kerr rejected this option, believing that Whitlam would have immediately contacted the Palace to seek Kerr’s sacking (Whitlam had joked about doing just this in the lead-up to 11 November).

This, he knew, would have pitched the Queen into the very centre of the drama, regardless of what she opted to do (sack Kerr immediately or seek to delay doing so).

This brings into relief Kerr’s awful dilemma. Dismiss Whitlam without warning and incur the Labor tribe’s undying enmity, damaging the office he holds in the process? Or risk the Queen being drawn into the dispute, perhaps permanently damaging her standing in Australia? Kerr, as we know, took the bullet for his monarch. Yes, he hung onto his job after the dismissal, but this was not what he expected (he thought Labor was a good chance of winning the following election). And in any case, as we know, the remaining part of his life was a living hell.

Why have I told this story? I am no particular fan of Kerr’s. He is a deeply flawed, difficult-to-warm-to figure. Nor do I deny he made mistakes, perhaps serious ones. In questioning the pantomime view of Kerr, my intention has been to (in a very modest way) breathe fresh life into the dismissal. To pique the interest of those who may be tiring of the stale, conventional story. The ritualised demonisation of Kerr impoverishes us in this regard. It is propaganda, not history. It is a form of cancel culture. For in denying Kerr his humanity, in so swiftly branding him the villain of the piece, it blinds us to the richness and drama of our own history.

The last word should be left to the Australian people. In the December 1975 election, Labor lost close to half its seats in the 127 member lower house, being left with only 36. Of course, we can never know what was in the minds of these voters, but I suspect many had a more nuanced view of Kerr and the dismissal than the noisy minority, either then or today.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments