The media has been awash in recent days with commentary on the motivation and reaction to former Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s sacking of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government 40 years ago.
Much of this has been triggered by The Dismissal: In the Queen’s Name, a new book by the Australian journalists Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston, which revisits those tumultous circumstances examining the time bomb which Kerr placed under his own future with his decision to summarily end the Whitlam administration in the most controversial manner.
So it was no surpise when Kerr’s resignation was announced in July 1977.
The following reveals for the first time the role which Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s office played in bringing the issue to a head by leaking the resignation to the media, specifically the Australian newspaper.
In July 1977 I was working in Canberra as the paper’s political correspondent having spent most of the previous five years as industrial relations writer. It was in this capacity in 1974 that I first met Kerr when he addressed a conference dinner for the NSW Industrial Relations Society at the Terrigal Motel on the state’s Central Coast, a venue famous or infamous for ALP conventions – but that’s another story.
Kerr had been appointed Governor General but had not yet officially taken up his role so he waxed lyrical about his life as a young lawyer and even his engagement to his first wife pointing out that this would be the last time he would be able to enjoy such freedom in his new role.
Anyway by 1977 the days for light hearted banter had well and truly passed.
On the evening of Wednesday, 13 July I was sitting in a Canberra restaurant with two oil company executives discussing, over pre-dinner drinks, the seemingly endless union action which was bedevilling the industry and the country, when a staffer from Fraser’s offfice came up to our table.
He passed over his business card blank side up, on which was scrawled ‘G-G quit at 5 pm today’.
As I had been away from my Parliament House office for most of the afternoon I assumed that he was just bringing me up to speed with what everyone else knew. But he quickly put me straight: ‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘You don’t understand. You are the only one in the media who knows.’
Okay. This called for a very private and frank discussion and as the restaurant was starting to fill up the only available place was the men’s lavatory. Did he have a copy of any documentation to support this claim? No – nothing. But he could tell me that Fraser had been to Yarralumla that afternoon and he (my source) had seen the letter of resignation. The plan was to announce the resignation in 48 hours but it seemed clear that somone had decided to speed up the process.
I ordered a bottle of good red wine for my dinner guests, took my glass, and borrowed the restaurant phone to call the night editor in the Australian’s Sydney office (remember those were pre-mobile phone days). Luckily he didn’t blink when I explained the thin evidence we had to go on.
Two columns were dropped onto the front page mid-press run and then the paper was torn apart to devote the whole front page to this exclusive under the simple giant headline: ‘Kerr Quits’ with across the top ‘Sir John gave resignation note to Fraser last night’.
There was no going back and all hell broke loose after the first edition. Anticipating the obvious my source had said that neither Government House, Buckingham Palace nor the Prime Minister’s office would make any comment but not to be disheartened by this.
Sure enough when I awoke early the next morning after a troubled sleep brought on by stress and not a little booze I was greeted by an ABC radio commentary dismissing my story on the basis that there was no confirmation of its accuracy from anyone.
I would have been more stressed had I known that apparently during the night one disgruntled editorial executive at the Australian’s Sydney office had telephoned Rupert Murdoch who was overseas to warn him that his cherished paper was being destroyed. I have never discussed this with Murdoch but I am told that he responded by saying that he had to rely on the judgement of his journalists on the ground.
Anyway at about 10 am I was sitting in my cubby hole in the old Parliament House Press Gallery when my source popped his head in on the way to the Prime Minister’s office. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ he asked . ‘You look terrible.’ I explained that my story had become a focus of great derision.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘By midday you will be able to write your own ticket’, and sure enough it was around that time that not only was the resignation confirmed but it had been brought forward by 24 hours.
Early that evening, following an offer to interview the departing Governor-General, I drove out to Yarralumla. After knocking on the front door (there was none of the security we have now learned to live with today) I was shown into a dimly lit vestibule to be greeted by a dinner-jacketed Kerr.
After a few pleasantries he reeled backwards on to a small lounge. Was it something I had said or perhaps the pre-dinner drinks? Suddenly the commanding figure of Lady Kerr was beside him. ‘What are you doing here John?’ she said. ‘Our dinner guests are waiting.’ With that he was gone and with a dismissive wave of her hand so was I.
I didn’t ever discuss the resignation leak with Fraser. But with Kerr out of the way and a new Governor-General in Sir Zelman Cowen now in the wings he had a clean slate to call the snap election he planned for early December.
If Fraser believed he had an unfair advantage in the post-dismissal election the 1977 poll which re-elected his government with an even greater mandate should have reinforced his claim to legitimacy. If it did Fraser did not take advantage of it and missed a golden opportunity to initiate real policy reform.
Malcolm Colless is a freelance journalist
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10