February 26

Head of State is no rubber stamp


[Editorial note: There is no greater authority on the Australian Crown than Sir David Smith, the Official Secretary to five Governors-General from 1973 to 1990.

The following account answers Malcolm Fraser's recollections of crucial events preceding the grant of the 1983 double dissolution election, which Mr. Fraser lost.

In his 2005 book, Head of State he has presented an unanswered case on the role and function of the Governor-General as the Australian Head of State. We suspect that his book has these five years because it is unanswerable. This comment appeared in The Australian on 26 February 2010 as “The truth about an ex-PM's great mistake”.

There can be no better example than Sir David's account  in demonstrating that the Governor-General, the  constitutional head of state, is no rubber stamp.

On 27 February, the Australian published the following:

Dear Editor,

Sir David Smith (26/2)  demonstrates that Malcolm Fraser’s recollection of the way he obtained a double dissolution in 1983 is seriously defective.

So is his recollection of 11 November 1975.  He claims that he was in effect tipped off by Sir John Kerr before Gough Whitlam was dismissed. In fact it was Sir David, acting on Sir John’s instructions who contacted Mr. Fraser’s secretary asking him to come to Government House. This is set out in detail in Sir David’s book, Head of State, 2005 at page 244.

Why gratuitously reflect on the reputation of a man who was doing his duty as he saw it and who cannot now reply?

David Flint 

In the meantime, Mr. Fraser remains a controversial figure, as the video at the foot of this column demonstrates.] 

The first extract from former prime minister Malcolm Fraser's political memoir (The Weekend Australian, February 20-21) contained the following paragraph: "Fraser contacted the office of governor-general Ninian Stephen to seek a double-dissolution election, shortly after midday on February 3, 1983, but Stephen was not available to see him."

That paragraph is totally untrue. When Fraser arrived at Government House at about 12.30pm he was ushered immediately into the study and spoke with the governor-general.

Furthermore, Fraser made no prior contact with the governor-general's office before turning up at Government House; he gave no warning whatsoever of his arrival.

A second paragraph reads: "While Fraser waited for an opportunity to see the governor-general, Hayden announced his resignation." That paragraph is also totally untrue. By the time Bill Hayden announced his resignation as opposition leader, Fraser had already seen the governor-general; he had not waited at all.

At 9am on February 3, 1983, the governor-general's deputy official secretary received a telephone call from the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Geoffrey Yeend, who asked what the governor-general's engagements were for that day.

He was told that Stephen would be spending most of the day at his desk, and his only engagement was a farewell call at 12.45pm by the departing Polish ambassador and his wife, who would stay for lunch. Nothing else was said.

…unexpected arrival…

At about 12.30pm, Fraser arrived at Government House, unexpected, and demanded to see the governor-general. He was taken straight to the governor-general's study, whereupon he handed Stephen a five-page letter recommending the dissolution of the Senate and the House of Representatives: a double dissolution.

The letter was accompanied by an eight-page attachment and 26 pages of legislation, a total of 39 pages.  The prime minister asked the governor-general for an immediate decision.

The governor-general told the prime minister that he would need some time to read the documents and that, with the Polish ambassador and his wife due at any moment, an immediate decision was not possible. Stephen told Fraser that he would have his answer by 3.30 that afternoon.

We learned later that before leaving Parliament House to make his ambush call on the governor-general, Fraser had called a 1pm press conference.

….attempt to force decision….

On his return to Parliament House, Fraser asked Yeend to telephone me and ask me to tell the governor-general that the prime minister needed an immediate answer and was standing by his telephone. I told Yeend that the prime minister would have his answer by 3.30pm. The 1pm press conference had to be cancelled.

At 3.30pm, the governor-general telephoned the prime minister to tell him that he (the governor-general) required some further advice from the prime minister on a particular matter. Yeend handed that additional advice to the governor-general, by way of a further letter from the prime minister, at 4.45pm.

After reading that letter, the governor-general told Yeend that he would approve the prime minister's recommendation and would dissolve both houses of the parliament. Fraser held a press conference at 5pm to announce the double dissolution and the election.

On February 3, 1983, the ACT was on daylight saving time and Queensland was not. Fraser had wind of Hayden's intention to resign later that day as opposition leader and hand over the leadership to Bob Hawke. Fraser hoped to use the one-hour time difference to pre-empt Hayden's announcement with his own announcement of an early election. He reasoned that Labor would be unlikely to change leader after an election had been called.

…the Governor-General is no rubber stamp….

Hence Fraser's attempts to pressure the governor-general into giving him an immediate decision, though why he chose to ambush the governor-general and arrive without prior notice, and why he expected an immediate response to a 39-page document, simply beggars belief. Stephen was accustomed to reading and absorbing lengthy documents but he did need time to read them.

Had Fraser sought an early appointment and presented his advice in good time, he could have had his answer, even with the governor-general's request for additional advice, and he could have had his 1pm press conference.

Instead, he timed his arrival just before the arrival of the Polish ambassador and expected an immediate answer.

…why did Fraser go ahead?…

Even more puzzling than his actions that morning is Fraser's failure, once his timing had come unstuck and he found himself facing Hawke as opposition leader, to withdraw his request for an early election. The one thing that he had schemed to prevent had occurred, but still he pressed on with his request, and lost the early election that he didn't have to have just then.

Fraser's decision not to withdraw his request was one of the most stupid political decisions that he made. His decision to falsify his account of that day in his memoirs is another.



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