November 14, 2005 | Jeff Wall

Why Sir John Kerr was always a risky proposition as governor general

Last week’s debate about the dismissal of the Whitlam Government 30 years ago completely overlooked one critical aspect of the events leading up to 11 November 1975.
And that is simply this – the appointment of the Right Honourable Sir John Robert Kerr as Governor General of Australia by the Honourable Edward Gough Whitlam was a risky proposition, and a risk he had absolutely no need to take.
It was a risky proposition because John Kerr, at the time, was a frustrated politician, rather than a former politician, whose undoubted political ambitions had been thwarted by the great Labor split of the mid-1950’s.
In the post-war period, four former Australian politicians have held the office of Governor-General…Sir William McKell, The Lord Casey, Sir Paul Hasluck and William George Hayden.
All four held the Office with great distinction, and, in the case of McKell and Hasluck, oversaw changes of Government. And in both cases they enjoyed entirely proper relations with Prime Ministers with a different political “persuasion” to their own.
But back to John Kerr. I can recall talking to the late DLP Senator, Jack Kane, about him in the early 1970’s. At the time Kerr was conducting an Inquiry into the salaries and allowances of Federal Members and Senators, and did so in his capacity as a Judge of the Commonwealth Industrial Court, to which he was appointed by the Menzies Government in 1966.
My interest was raised by the fact that Kerr seemed to enjoy having lunches, and in some cases long lunches, with various Members and Senators at the Lobby restaurant, across the road from Parliament House.
I asked Jack Kane, who had been a key powerbroker in the NSW Labor Party at the time of the 1954-55 split, about Kerr. He offered the view that Kerr was one of the worst “frustrated politicians” he had ever come across.
Now Gough Whitlam should have realised the inherent risks in appointing a frustrated politician as Governor General in an environment in which he was already in serious conflict with the Opposition controlled Senate.
But there were other warning signs. Kerr was appointed to the Commonwealth Industrial Court by the Menzies Coalition Government, and, in 1972, he was appointed Chief Justice of NSW by the Askin-Cutler Coalition Government.
Robin William Askin was among the toughest politicians I ever met, and does anyone seriously believe he would appoint as Chief Justice someone who retained strong Labor sympathies?
Barely two years later, a Labor Prime Minister appointed Kerr as Governor General.
It is disingenuous for Gough Whitlam to now claim, as he did last week, that he appointed Kerr partly because he was on a “list” submitted by the outgoing Governor General, who was a former Liberal Minister.
The problem with this claim is that the late Whitlam Government Minister, James “Diamond Jim” McClelland, owned up to having recommended Kerr – who had been a lifelong friend – and having got it dreadfully wrong in doing so.
Kerr was a risky choice in a turbulent political environment…but he was Whitlam’s choice, and that must never be forgotten.
And Kerr was also one of the worst Governors General of them all, regardless of the events of 11 November 1975.
I remember as if it occurred yesterday being told by my then boss, the Queensland Attorney-General, William Edward Knox, that Kerr was a bad choice because he was, as the Attorney-General bluntly put it, a “pisspot”.
And perhaps the only worse Governor General was Viscount Dunrossil, who, as the Right Honourable William Morrison, had to be “removed” as Speaker of the House of Commons because of an interest he shared with John Kerr – a predilection to “strong drink”.
Kerr may be best remembered for the dismissal, but those who were around at the time will recall his truly shameful performance at the Melbourne Cup or when presenting the awards for the prize cattle at the Tamworth Show! He was a national embarrassment, and not because of the dismissal.
Malcolm Fraser could not get him out of office quickly enough…and not just because of his role in the events of 11 November 1975.
The reality is that Kerr was a risky proposition when he was appointed for a whole series of reasons, not the least being the reality that he was a frustrated politician.
Gough Whitlam needs to accept responsibility for appointing him, and for getting it very wrong by doing so. And why he refused to see the inherent risks in such an appointment.

Posted by Jeff Wall at 10:11 am | Comments (1) |
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1 Comment

  1. Whitlam must take some sort of responsibility given that he chose Kerr. However, if anything, the dismissal was a reminder that partisan political appointments are sometimes made with good reason. As recorded in his book The Truth of the Matter, Whitlam was keen to appoint a GG who could not be sullied by an Opposition determined to use the “jobs for the boys” line. As a result he chose Kerr, someone who then Opposition Leader Billy Snedden was quite pleased to have as GG.
    And look what happened.

    Comment by Guy — November 15, 2005 @ 10:36 am

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