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Kerr’s First Letter to Sir Martin Charteris (Palace Letters)

This is the first letter written by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, to the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris. It is the first of the Palace Letters released by order of the High Court in July 2020.

Kerr had been sworn in as Governor-General on July 11, 1974, replacing Sir Paul Hasluck.

The week before this letter was written, a joint sitting of the federal parliament had taken place, following the double dissolution election of May 18, 1974. Kerr had given royal assent to the passage of bills creating Medibank, mandating one-vote-one-value in elections, granting senators to the territories, and establishing a Petroleum and Minerals Authority.

In the letter, Kerr begins by outlining the medical condition of his 59-year-old wife, Alison. Beset by cancer, she died three weeks later, on September 9.

The letter goes on to outline political events surrounding the joint sitting. Kerr discusses the composition of the Senate – effectively 30-all – and explains how the Liberal Party President of the Senate, Sir Magnus Cormack, was replaced by the ALP’s Justin O’Bryne, following the defection of a coalition senator.

Kerr displays a keen interest in the political machinations of the upper house. He is aware that the independent Senator Michael Townley generally supports the coalition, whilst independent Senator Steele Hall voted for O’Byrne. Townley (still living, aged 85) would later rejoin the Liberal Party, whilst Hall (still living, aged 91) supported the Whitlam government throughout the Supply crisis of 1975.

Kerr is aware of the possibility of continuing Senate deadlock, writing: “I think it fair to say that the Opposition itself would probably accept the view that it intends to reject any legislation with which it does not agree, and thus the seeds could be sewn for still another double dissolution later.”

The letter outlines developments regarding the possible purchase of an Australian property for Prince Charles.

Kerr expresses concern about a Tasmanian government petition to the Privy Council and worries about the Queen being “brought into issues between the States and the Commonwealth”.

He then devotes considerable space to discussing the constitutional legalities surrounding the legislation passed at the joint sitting. The Petroleum and Minerals Authority bill would later be invalidated on the grounds that it had not properly met the double dissolution terms of Section 57 of the Constitution. Kerr says he accepted legal opinion supplied by the Attorney-General, Senator Lionel Murphy, and the Solicitor-General, Maurice Byers. He says: “I was in fact, highly doubtful about what had happened but I did not apply mt mind in detail to the legal point.”

The letter concludes with a discussion of Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland government’s attempt to style the monarch as “Queen of Queensland”.

As the first of many letters over the next four years, Kerr can be seen to be keenly concerned with the advice he receives and the political play surrounding it.

This is the full text of the letter:

1974-08-15_kerr-to-charteris