March 30

Malcolm Fraser’s scrap of paper

It is suprising that some politicians do not keep diaries to record significant events.  A diary is not only an important record and reference but also a convenient aide-memoire as to any future action which should be taken. It is extremely useful if the politician later decides to publish a book on his or her public life.


Putting a note about a significant event on a scrap of paper can rarely be accepted as a contemporaneous record for the obvious reason that it could have been written at any time.

But every so often a politician  makes public some scrap of paper  as proof of some or other claimed event. No other record is  produced, just this  scrap of paper.

This cannot add much value to the oral recollection of the author. This is not to cast doubt on the veracity of his or her recollection.It is just that the scrap of paper is not at all a persuasive support for this.

One recent example related to a claim that prior to 1996, John Howard had given certain assurances to Peter Costello about handing over the leadership of the Liberal Party. It was said that a witness had kept a piece of paper about this in his wallet for over a decade.   Why would he have kept it in his wallet and not entered it into his diary that day?

The scrap of paper hardly reinforced his recollection. 

…Malcolm Fraser's  scrap of paper….

Malcolm Fraser has claimed in his recently launched memoirs  that he  kept a piece of paper on which he wrote his notes of a telephone call at 9:55 am from Sir John Kerr on the morning of 11 November, 1975. (But he had told Paul Kelly in 1995 he had not kept it – more of this below.)

Mr. Fraser claims Sir John Kerr sought his agreement to certain conditions if he were to appoint him Prime Minister, thus signalling to him he was going to dismiss Gough Whitlam.

Sir John Kerr always denied this. Until recently so apparently did Mr. Fraser.

If Mr. Fraser had noted the contents of the conversation in a diary in which events appear to be recorded chronologically,  this would be not conclusive, but some weight could reasonably have been given to it, at least as to the time the record was made.

If the diary chronologically recorded the other events of that day – and there were many –  and the book was filled with detailed chronological records over some time, this could be persuasive but not conclusive. 

But no such diary has been produced.  All we are offered  is a once lost  scrap of paper which on the face of it was not necessarily written at the time claimed, 9:30 am on  11 November 1975.

…why Mr. Fraser, why?….

It is still difficult to understand why Malcolm Fraser is making this claim when he knows that if accepted it does serious damage to the reputation to Sir John Kerr.

Malcolm Fraser says it doesn’t, but he admits as much when he says   that denying the conversation was a sign of weakness on the part of Sir John.  (See this column :“Extraordinary claim: why did Malcolm Fraser wait so long?”  23 February 2010)

“There are many signs of weakness in his character,” he said, softening the blow by adding “ and that is probably true of most of us.  It was an error of judgement and it was a weakness not to explain it how I’ve explained it.” 

…Peter Coleman's suggestion….

Peter Coleman in The Spectator Australia of 20 March 2010 asks a broader question. This is why Malcolm Fraser moved from being a conservative to a liberal.

He offers two reasons. One is that “he feels he had taken an illegitimate road to power and now wants to show he is not a constitutional wrecker but a true liberal”. 

In the 1999 referendum, Malcolm Fraser made the extraordinary claim that had Australia been a republic, the 1975 political crisis would not have occurred. (Once a supporter of ACM, he even appeared with Gough Whitlam in a 1999 republican TV advertisement for a Yes vote. It is likely that appearing together, they actually increased the No vote.)  

This would explain his apparent attempt to implicate or to involve Sir John Kerr, to make him share the guilt. Another reason suggested by Mr. Coleman  is “his bitter resentment at the way John Howard diminished his prime minster ship and reversed his practices.”

Mr. Coleman says the true explanation may be a mixture of the two.

…Mr. Fraser replies to Sir David Smith…



 Mr. Fraser has replied to a comment by Sir David Smith ( “Malcolm Fraser contradicts…. Malcolm Fraser”  15 March 2010). In his response, “Kerr was just being careful about FraserThe Australian , 20 March 2010,  he says his  secretary saw the note later on the day and kept a copy.

This  hardly answers the crucial question:  was it written at 9:30 am that day.  

Malcolm Fraser also claims new information has just come to hand.  Two other people were in the room with him. Had he forgotten this?

One was  Vic Garland MP, who “has told (David) Hough he remembers Fraser writing the note, although he did not read its contents. “

As there is no dispute that there was a call to summon Malcolm Fraser to Government House and to ascertain his position on supply, this again does not support Malcolm Fraser’s claim that Sir John also sought Mr.Fraser's agreement to the conditions which would apply when he was appointed as caretaker prime minister.  

Mr. Fraser says Senator Reg Withers was also there and has “ placed his account of that day on the record and it is contained in a yet to be published entry by David Hough for the Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate.”

Reading the note “upside down” while it was written, he says the Senator “has stated that he understood the points to include an immediate double-dissolution election, that supply would be passed and a guarantee there would be no recriminations against Gough Whitlam or his ministers.”

 When that is published we shall know what Senator Withers actually says. 

But why is the word “understood “ used if the Senator had actually read the note as it was made? The use of this word suggests that he was not aware of the contents from his attempt to read whatever Mr. Fraser was writing, and was told this by someone else afterwards.

…Sir David Smith’s evidence…

Sir David Smith is a most meticulous and reliable man. A glance at his 2005 book, Head of State – and a reading of his several papers –  would demonstrate this.  Unlike Mr. Fraser, he was able to complete these without journalistic assistance, so we can be sure these reflect precisely his recall and his records.   

He says everything he saw and heard on the morning of 11 November supports Sir John Kerr’s denial that he discussed the terms on which he would be commissioned as caretaker Prime Minister with Malcolm Fraser before the dismissal.

Sir David  says that as soon as the dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam left (see the letter of dismissal below), he  escorted Mr. Fraser into the study and remained in the room until after he had been sworn in as Prime Minister.

 “I heard the Governor-General tell Fraser what had just transpired and ask him if he would accept a commission as prime minister, and read him the letter ( with the terms)  that he would be asked to sign,” he says. 

In the letter, Mr. Fraser  undertook to seek to ensure the passage of the Appropriation Bills then before the Senate, and to observe the customary caretaker conventions between the calling of an election and polling day, and would make no appointments or dismissals or initiate new policies before a general election was held.

…"clear impression"  that Malcolm Fraser was hearing the conditions of appointment for the first time ….


Contrary to Mr. Fraser's claim in his memoirs, Sir David insists that the letter made no mention whatsoever of a "guarantee that no action would be taken against the ministers of the Whitlam government over the loans affair, and that there would be no royal commission".

He says that no such matters were ever mentioned to him by the Governor-General as they considered the drafting of the letter that Mr. Fraser would be asked to sign.

“ As I told the Sydney Institute in November 2005, I had the clear impression that Fraser was hearing these conditions for the first time, “ he continued.

He points out that Sir Kerr's memoirs were written just two years after the dismissal, and he had the benefit of meticulous contemporary records kept at Government House and which are now in the Australian Archives.  

And as Sir David says, it is extremely relevant to note that Mr. Fraser's contemporary records also  made no mention whatsoever of the note that he now claims to have made of the phone call he received from the Governor-General.

He points out that the note on which he now relies in his memoirs is a handwritten note scribbled on the back of a scrap of paper, and obviously signed and dated later with a different pen.  

…the coup de grâce….

Sir David’s coup de grâce had been in  revealing two crucial statements Malcolm Fraser had made to leading political journalists, and which he and his journalist co-author must have overlooked.

One was on the very day, 11 November, 1975. He told Alan Reid on that day that he had no knowledge of the Governor-General's intentions when he went out to Government House earlier that day.

Mr. Fraser admits in his latest reply but claims he did not take Sir John Kerr's call as “notice” that Mr. Whitlam would be dismissed. He took it only as notice that Sir John was about to act. He says thought it possible that Mr. Whitlam, presented with an ultimatum, would agree to hold an election that he would contest as Prime Minister.

Malcolm Fraser also admits Sir David’s second charge. This is  that according to a report in 1995 by Paul Kelly, Mr Fraser said he had not kept the piece of paper on which he had recorded his phone conversation with the Governor-General.   Mr Fraser now says “he might have told Kelly he could not lay his hands on it.”

However, he says, the document remained in his possession and “has come to hand” in recent years as Mr. Fraser has gone through his files.

Just imagine how either of these defences would stand up under a vigorous cross examination.

…once again, why, Mr. Fraser, why?…

Finally, why did Malcolm Fraser wait so long to make this claim especially when the person most damaged would not be in a position to reply?

The following video includes scenes from the dismissal, including a glimpse of Sir David reading the Proclamation dissolving the Parliament.

This is followed by the notorious republican advertisement during the referendum featuring both Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser.





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