When Sir John Kerr withdrew Gough Whitlam’s commission to act as Prime Minister in 1975, he was the subject of unfair personal attacks. But he did no more than his duty – no government can continue in office without a grant of supply from the Parliament. It was the opposition under Malcolm Fraser who withheld supply, and Mr. Whitlam who refused to accept their demand for an early election.
And as Sir David Smith points out in Head of State, Mr. Whitlam and his predecessors in Opposition had attempted the same tactic – 170 times. But in 1999, Mr. Fraser made the extraordinary claim that the 1975 crisis he engineered would not have occurred had Australia been a politicians’ republic.
The attacks on Sir John Kerr continue even today. One of the myths circulated is that the Governor-General was an alcoholic. The eminent commentator Gerard Henderson has just demonstrated that this is not true.
“John Hirst is a fine historian,” Gerard Henderson has written in a letter published in the October issue of The Australian Literary Review. “However, in reviewing Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor Jordan’s Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia in the September ALR he stumbled. Hirst referred to the opening chapter, ‘where an attempt is made to link alcohol to significant events in Australia’. He then cited ’the alcoholism of Governor-general John Kerr which, if Gough Whitlam had known it, would have disqualified him from consideration, as the Queen’s representative in Australia.
“Clearly Hirst has accepted without question the authors’ claims that Kerr was an alcoholic and that alcoholism was a factor in his decision to dismiss the Whitlam Labor government on November 11, 1975. Fitzgerald and Jordan refer to Kerr’s ‘galloping alcoholism’ before his appointment as governor-general in 1974 and claim that his condition played its part in the dismissal.
“The evidence cited for this assertion is an article in The Australian on October 31, 2002, written by Mike Steketee. Steketee merely quoted from a preview viewing of the SBS television documentary Gough Whitlam: In his own Words, which was aired on November 10, 2002. The film was written and narrated by Labor senator John Faulkner.
“In other words, the only source for the claim in Under the Influence that Kerr was an alcoholic is Kerr’s embittered personal enemy in Whitlam (in conversation with Faulkner).
“James McClelland, who was a member of the Whitlam cabinet and another embittered ex-friend of Kerr, maintained that the former governor-general was homosexual. McClelland’s theory was promulgated after his death by Phillip Adams.
“Like many lawyers of his generation. Kerr drank heavily on occasions. He was photographed drunk at the 1977 Melbourne Cup. However, Kerr was not an alcoholic. Had Kerr suffered such a condition, he could not have undertaken the workload involved in being governor-general or in writing his memoirs soon after retirement. Ralph Blackett, Kerr’s physician in the early 1970s, specifically refuted Whitlam’s claim that Kerr had been hospitalised for alcoholism.
“The likes of Fitzgerald, Jordan and Hirst are entitled to disagree with Kerr’s decision to dismiss Whitlam. But it is farfetched to link this to alcohol abuse. The dismissal was held to be constitutionally valid at the time by High Court Justices Garfield Barwick and Anthony Mason (albeit in private) and by Murray Gleeso QC (who later became chief justice). None was under the influence at the time.”