Sir John Kerr’s letters to the Queen are a not-so-quaint reminder that Australia is still an infant nation that apparently can’t be trusted to make its own decisions as to how it is governed.
The correspondence should have prompted questions as to why the Queen of England has such power over Australia, why she can delegate this power of dismissing a prime minister to an unelected appointee. We should be asking exactly what are these reserve powers and how is it they can’t be challenged, and why it is that we have not moved to a proper republic.
The reserve powers are not in the Australian Constitution and nor are they anything more than a convention which presumably means they can be used for any purpose at all.
The Queen is not required to give her consent to decisions by the Governor-General but the letters show the palace was provided with copious briefings on what Kerr considered to be the problems with Prime Minister Whitlam.
The Queen knew for some time that Kerr was intent on dismissing him and appointing the villain in the saga – Opposition Leader, Malcolm Fraser – to caretaker role until there could be a new election which Fraser subsequently won. Fraser had caused the stalemate in the first place by blocking the supply bill in the Senate.
We love this par by Richard Ackland in the Saturday Paper this week:
If Australia was truly a sovereign nation, Charteris [the Queen’s private secretary] would have been on the phone to Yarralumla, saying stop sending me all this obsequious falderal, the political infighting of Canberra is none of my business, and forget the reserve powers – for a democracy they are an anachronistic absurdity.
Another absurdity is the idea that Kerr could ‘protect’ the Queen by telling her after the event. The palace did warn Kerr that the reserve powers should be used only in the last resort and then only for constitutional and not for political reasons but there were many carefully worded hints of approval for dismissal throughout this long correspondence.
Clear in the letters was the extent to which Kerr was ensconced in the Palace and its royal trappings including top hat and tails. This way he could secure his own position at Her Majesty’s pleasure and dismiss the Whitlam Government before it could dismiss him.
Convention dictates that governors-general act on the advice of prime ministers but this is not part of any statute and G-Gs do not take an oath to do that. Kerr certainly did not adhere to this convention. So since this convention was ignored, does it mean it is no longer a convention?
Our present Governor-General is a military man. What if he was to disagree with the government of the day on, say, going or not going to war or any other matter of great importance to him or the Queen?
Perhaps we should now ask to see all the correspondence between the Queen and her delegate, Governor General Hurley? And at the very least the prime minister ought to be copied in.
Better still, let’s proceed to make Australia a truly sovereign nation with its own head of state.