Two days ago occurred the 37th anniversary of the Dismissal — the sacking of the Whitlam Government by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. It passed without comment, though yesterday Robyn Archer, that extraordinarily talented artist, said in a speech for which I was present that everyone could remember where they were when the Dismissal occurred.
Well, I could, too. I was in London, and I was woken by a phone call from the BBC asking whether I could come in and comment on this event. I had achieved some notoriety in London among Australians by saying a few days earlier on the BBC that if things went as they were going Kerr could dismiss Whitlam. I knew of the dismissal of the Lang Government in NSW in 1932 by Governor Sir Phillip Game — indeed, I had studied that incident. Nor was I one of those Australians convulsed with shock and horror at this new outrage to democracy. As a political scientist and historian, I knew that Kerr, as Game before him, was in a most difficult situation, and dismissal was one of the options facing him.
I knew no more than that. I was coming to the end of a whole year in London, and had missed so much of Australian politics. For someone in my trade, 1975 was probably the worst year to be away. I had no idea of the tension that had built up, though I could guess it. But I had once encountered John Kerr, and that is a story worth telling now.
We go back to February 1974. Clem Semmler, the Deputy General Manager of the ABC, has invited me to lunch in Broadcast House, then the Sydney headquarters of the ABC. Clem is a friend, and we talk about books and writing when we meet. He has said nothing much about this lunch, other than I will enjoy it. He is acting as General Manager because Talbot Duckmanton is overseas, and Clem will never succeed Duckmanton, because he is the slightly older man. Duckmanton goes overseas each year for a few weeks to buy product for the ABC, and this gives Clem his only chance to be at the helm.
I find that the General Manager has a private dining room, and in it, eventually, are some heavies of the NSW Labor Party, like Neville Wran, the Leader of the Opposition, Senator Jim McClelland and John Ducker, MLC and power-broker. The biggest man in the room is the Chief Justice of New South Wales, Sir John Kerr, who tucks a napkin into his collar so that it spreads over his large chest, like Charles Laughton in a film I had seen. Oddly, though I know who they all are, and have an interest in them as a political scientist, I am much the youngest man present, and have never met any of them in person. It is gratifying to see that they all know who I am, and one of them asks whether or not the lunch will be immortalised in my next column in the National Times.
Clem is an adroit host, the lunch and wine are excellent and the conversation quick and spirited. Unusually, I am silent for much of the time, taking it all in. At some point the subject of the conversation turns to Whitlam’s problems in finding a new Governor-General. Sir Paul Hasluck will retire in July, and there is still no news. Names are thrown around. Ken Myer? He won’t want it. David Derham (vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne)? Maybe. A general? We go through the lists. One of the State Governors? We consider them. John Kerr becomes the arbiter in all this, and waves prospects in and out. When I leave, after a most enjoyable lunch, my feeling is that it will be David Derham, and I felt that Kerr thought that Derham was the most likely.
It is therefore something of a shock to learn, three weeks later, that Kerr is to be the next G-G. No one at the lunch had asked whether or not he would be interested, and I knew — or perhaps he had said — that he hardly knew the Prime Minister. I think about writing a column about it all, and decide against it.
The tide of time has passed through that list. Kerr had a troubled term as Governor-General during the Fraser Government that won office in an election held a month after the dismissal (I voted at Australia House, which was packed), and resigned from the post two years later. He found life difficult in Australia and went to live in London, where he died in 1991. Jim McClelland and John Ducker have died too. Neville Wran is 86, and Gough is ten years older, still alive, through frail. Clem is dead too — such an enjoyable man, knowledgeable, witty, a lover of jazz. I miss him.
That was the only time I saw John Kerr, and was impressed by him, not so much by what he said, but by what he knew and didn’t say!
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Thank you for your observations. Most interesting.
The aspect of The Dismissal that I find puzzling, and seldom if ever discussed, is that as I understood the position, the Senate at the time had voted to defer the vote on the supply bill, but had not actually voted against the supply bill. It was reported that some of the Liberal senators were very troubled by the situation, and were considering voting in favour of supply. Surely the appropriate action for Kerr in that circumstance would be to call the PM, the opposition leader, and the two leaders in the senate together and insist that they vote on the supply bill. If it is passed, the emergency has been dealt with, if not, then there would have to be an election, probably a double dissolution election.
Yes, that is one of a number of ‘unknowns’ about what would have happened had Kerr not acted as he did.