John Kerr, Martin Charteris and the Palace Letters.

Jul 17, 2020

In his grovelling and voluminous letters to the Palace and Martin Charteris, John Kerr had time to comment on some of the minor players. The letters from the ‘loyal and obedient servant’ of Her Majesty, reminded me of my discussions with him before the Dismissal and the events in the year afterwards.

What John Kerr said in the Palace Papers:

John Kerr to Sir Martin Charteris on 23 April 1976:

It became apparent in my conversation with Mr Menadue that he did indeed take a pessimistic view of the way things may well develop, without committing himself to any firm predictions. He believes that there has been a considerable radicalisation of the left-wing and some considerable degree of opposition in the community. He admits, that this was due to a crisis in which supply was denied by one side in politics, whilst the other side determined to govern without it. But as far as I can gather, he is of the view that the details of all of this tend to be forgotten, whilst I as a symbol become the centre of bitter complaint by those on the left and by the Labor Party about the deprivation of office which they believe wrongly occurred. However, Mr Menadue said that he had been told by the Prime Minister, and I confirmed it, that it was the desire of the Government that I should continue in office and I said that whilst I was receiving that advice I would accept it and stay: that I would not make an independent and separate decision, under pressure from some sections of the community. He said that he accepted that this was the policy and said that the Public Service would, of course, carry it out.

[I plead guilty your honour]

Mr Menadue, as you will doubtless know, was appointed Permanent Head by Mr Whitlam when Sir John Bunting was sent to London as High Commissioner. He had been previously Chief Executive Officer of the Murdoch media chain in Australia, though at an earlier point of time he had been on Mr Whitlam’s private staff when he was Leader of the Opposition.

[A suspicious pedigree]

The Prime Minister [Fraser] has found Mr Menadue efficient and earnest in his administration of the Department and as there were another couple of permanent heads whom he was unwilling to keep, he decided to retain Mr Menadue in his position. He had regard to what appeared to be his loyalty and his efficiency at the time of the changeover and during the period of the caretaker government. Since then the Prime Minister appears to be quite satisfied with his administration. The Prime Minister told me the other day that he knew about Mr Menadue’s opinions about the way things perhaps should develop as to myself.

[Thank you John Kerr]

John Kerr to Sir Martin Charteris on 4 May 1976:

There is one final comment. It seems from what is coming confidentially to me that Mr Menadue is actively propagating the theory among some senior public servants that things are going to be very difficult and, perhaps, that I should go later in the year. You may find it interesting to read about the top Whitlam bureaucrats.

As to the future, Mr Menadue, whilst in his present office, would certainly be entitled to make his assessments but I would not regard it as proper, if it is happening, for him to be criticising in talks, even with other public servants, last year’s events, whatever his private views, having regard to his position, vis-à-vis the Prime Minister, who precipitated them, and towards myself.

[Guilty again your honour]

John Kerr to Sir Martin Charteris on 21 September 1976:

Menadue never attempted to join, in a personal and friendly way, in the Commonwealth Club group. He was invited to join the Club and agreed to let his name go forward in the days of Mr Whitlam but then asked for it to be withdrawn, It seems likely that he felt bound to tell the then Prime Minister of the invitation and found that the idea was frowned upon. Mr Whitlam believed that policies were made over lunch by the top permanent heads. This I do not believe happened or happens but, of course, they talk about current activities and problems to their mutual advantage and that of the country.

[The Palace must have been thrilled to know this!]

John Kerr to Sir Martin Charteris on 21 September 1976:

The Prime Minister [Fraser] finally got around to a decision that Mr Menadue should go from his department and he has been appointed to be our Ambassador in Japan. Menadue is very much interested in Japan. Indeed, I have heard him described as a most pro-Japanese Australian. He seems to have been willing enough to go.

[What a relief for both of us]

My record of discussions with John Kerr in my autobiography ‘Things you learn along the way’ follows.

Kerr requested that I resume the regular conversations that I had had with him during the Whitlam Government. It is common practice for the Head of PM&C to have such conversations with the Governor General. I spoke to Fraser and he agreed. As before, Kerr was eager to get a briefing on a wide range of government activities. Security, intelligence and foreign affairs were always top of the list.

At the second and all subsequent meetings, we were joined by Lady Kerr. She would stay for the full meeting, often an hour or so. She didn’t join in the conversations except for the normal courtesies. She was there to listen and support.

In those discussions, Kerr conveyed very starkly his concern about his physical safety. He asked me several times to review security at Yarralumla and, to a lesser extent, at Admiralty House in Sydney. He was afraid that protesters might scale the walls and attack him. He felt very insecure. We made some checks and decided that security was adequate.

He also continually sought my view whether Labor hostility would blow over. I could not advise him what the Labor movement was likely to do but I had a pretty good idea. From Mick Young and other friends, as well as what I could read in the newspapers, I was aware of the extent of the hostility. I gave Kerr no encouragement whatsoever that the hostility was only a passing phase.

Perhaps as a thank you to Kerr, Fraser, unknown to me, wrote directly to the Queen in April 1976, proposing that the Governor-General receive the honour of Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG)—‘Kindly call me God’. I got a rebuke from Sir Martin Charteris, the Queen’s Official Secretary in a ‘Dear Menadue’ letter, indicating that it was unwise for the Prime Minister to be sending such a formal letter requesting a KCMG to the Queen. The letter was leaked. Charteris suggested that whilst I might think it was ‘mumbo jumbo’, it was useful to first do some preliminary informal soundings. Only in informal discussions would it be proper for the Queen to indicate whether she agreed with the proposal or not. Once it came as a formal proposal from the Australian Prime Minister she really had no choice but to approve. Charteris said, of course, that ‘[the Queen] had no reluctance in approving this award’. But the message was clear. The Queen had reservations.

[I was touched to be addressed Dear Menadue]

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