Letters of an insecure and indiscreet John Kerr make a mockery of the claim that the Queen played ‘no part’

The Palace letters have brought Kerr’s extensive, even obsessive, ‘reporting’ to the Queen into sharp relief, placing Kerr himself and his peculiar conception of his role as Governor-General under intense scrutiny.

In letters ranging from deferential to obsequious, Kerr is revealed as insecure, indiscreet, easily led by flattery, and expertly played by the supercilious, seasoned Palace courtier, the Queen’s private secretary Sir Martin Charteris. And the constant theme throughout is Kerr’s disparaging of the government and the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. Never was a man less suited to the position of Governor-General.

From his first letter of 15 August 1974, barely a month into the job, Kerr cavils against the government over the proclamation for the historic Joint Sitting of parliament, disputing the advice from the solicitor-general, the head of Attorney-General’s department and the former attorney-general, that six bills could be put before the Joint Sitting. Kerr knew better, telling the Queen that he ‘was highly doubtful’ this was correct. The High Court soon found otherwise.

This was just the first of a litany of depredations in what can only be seen as the most extraordinary vice-regal undermining of elected government. Kerr rails against policy decisions, queries appointments, and reveals details of Executive Council meetings, the most important and highly confidential meetings of Executive government. By 1975 he has moved from doubting the government to openly disputing it, including even Whitlam’s advice to him as Governor-General, advice he is bound to take. In an astonishing letter of 4 January 1975, Kerr asks the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, to advise him on ‘ways of handling’ matters with Whitlam.

There is a touch of the absurd and arcane in Kerr’s simpering concern over whether he ought to wear ‘full morning dress and decorations’ at his swearing in (Whitlam had suggested lounge-suit), Charteris assured him that he was ‘right to wear morning dress’; or whether ‘the curtesy by ladies’ should continue in his quasi-regal presence; whether there should be four or six bars in the vice-regal salute; and the order of precedence for dignitaries.

Far more serious are discussions about the possible use of the reserve powers, and it is in these letters that the political dimension of the Place letters is laid bare. A defining feature of a constitutional monarchy is that the monarch must remain ‘strictly neutral’ in relation to political matters. Yet time and again these letters show that the Queen engaged in intensely political discussions with the Governor-General, including the existence and possible use of the reserve powers against the government. Far from remaining above politics, it is difficult to imagine a greater level of political involvement than this.

Professor Anne Twomey has said that the Queen’s letters, through Charteris, tell us nothing much at all, that they were ‘mostly just grateful for the information and concern for Kerr’s wellbeing’. This is simply not correct. In all the Palace letters those from both Kerr and Charteris discussing the reserve powers are the most significant. There are several and it is important to consider them together.

On 24 September 1975, Charteris points Kerr to the work of Canadian Senator Eugene Forsey on the reserve powers, noting Forsey’s ‘principle’ that ‘if Supply is refused that always makes it constitutionally proper to grant a dissolution’. Forsey’s knowledge of Australian political matters can be gauged from the fact that he disputed there was any such thing as a half Senate election; ‘He could find no mention of such an election in the Australian constitution’, the Canadian High Commission reported. The wording of s. 13 had apparently eluded him, yet this is the ‘expert’ Charteris urged upon Kerr.

Two critical letters from Kerr then follow. On 22 October 1975, Kerr acknowledges that the law officers, the solicitor-general and the Attorney-General, may advise him that the reserve powers do not exist, and he tells Charteris that he would not necessarily follow their advice; ‘it does not follow that in an extreme constitutional crisis I would accept that’. The following week Kerr writes that he is concerned that any decision he makes could ‘affect the Monarchy in Australia’ and, in stark contrast to his refusal to accept the advice of the government, he asks Charteris for ‘any observations … which … should be taken into account in the interests of the Monarchy in Australia’. Just why the interests of the monarchy should be taken into account in a decision of the governor-general of Australia regarding the possible use of the reserve powers is not clear. Nevertheless, this is what Kerr and Charteris discussed.

These letters provide the essential context for the two pivotal letters which then follow from the Queen, through Charteris. On 4 November 1975, Charteris tells Kerr in no uncertain terms that the contested and controversial reserve powers do exist. There was no mention of the advice Kerr had received from the law officers, the solicitor-general and attorney-general, against that view. In a letter the next day, Charteris makes an even more direct reference to the use of the reserve powers, specifically assuaging Kerr’s concern that any decision he made might affect the Monarchy; ‘If you do, as you will, what the constitution dictates, you cannot possibly do the Monarchy any avoidable harm. The chances are you will do it good’.

What is absent throughout these letters is any recognition from either Charteris or Kerr of the governor-general’s most fundamental duty, to act on the advice of elected government, specifically the Prime Minister. Instead, government is simply side-stepped as Kerr asks for and is given advice by the Queen, through her private secretary, at times contrary to Whitlam’s advice, even on the existence and use of the reserve powers.

These letters, with their clear and direct political prescription, make a mockery of the claim that the Queen played ‘no part’ in the decision that Kerr then made just days later.

This article was first published in The Guardian on 17.7.2020 and is posted with the permission of Jenny Hocking who has contributed numerous articles to Pearls and Irritations.

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Jenny Hocking is emeritus professor at Monash University, Distinguished Whitlam Fellow at the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University and award-winning biographer of Gough Whitlam. Her latest book is The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know about November 1975 – The Palace Connection. You can follow Jenny on Twitter @palaceletters.

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