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Kerr Quits UNESCO Ambassadorship; Fraser’s Parliamentary Statement

In a statement to the House of Representatives on March 2, 1978, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser announced that Sir John Kerr would not be taking up his appointment as Australian Ambassador to UNESCO.

Kerr’s decision followed an outpouring of criticism after his appointment had been announced by Fraser on February 9. The position with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation was based in Paris.

Fraser defended Kerr’s actions as Governor-General and said the government believed Kerr “should not be cast aside…simply because he was forced by the Government of the day to make a difficult decision”. He said Kerr had “the right to serve this nation quietly, at peace with himself, at peace with the nation, at peace with his family”.

Fraser said: “There were people in this community who were determined that this should not be so. Since his appointment as Ambassador to UNESCO the attacks on him in the Parliament and outside it have been renewed. Sir John Kerr, once having discharged his duty to the nation under the most difficult circumstances, has no wish to continue as the centre of public dispute, making it impossible for him and his family to live the normal life to which we are all entitled.”

The Leader of the Opposition, Bill Hayden, speaking in response to Fraser’s announcement, said: “The appointment of Sir John Kerr to UNESCO was certainly not greeted with relish by the Australian community. His resignation will not be greeted with any sorrow either.”

The former Labor minister, Senator Jim McClelland, a one-time friend of Kerr’s, gave a scathing response to the announcement.

  • Listen to McClelland (5m)

Statement to the House of Representatives by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

Mr MALCOLM FRASER (Wannon) (Prime Minister) – As I just informed the House, a verbal communication was received from Sir John Kerr yesterday.

Mr E G Whitlam – Oral.

Mr Hayden – That is too big a mouthful for him.

Mr SPEAKER -Order! The honourable member for Werriwa and the Leader of the Opposition will remain silent.

Mr MALCOLM FRASER -That message was telexed to Australia early this morning. Before I advise the House of the nature of the communication there are some things I wish to say. On 14 July 1977 Sir John Kerr announced his intention to relinquish the office of Governor-General. He made his decision because he believed that the events of 1975 and the position into which he had been forced while serving as Governor-General of Australia had left some scars on the Australian body politic which would be more quickly healed if he stepped down. Sir John protected the Australian people and Parliament according to the law, according to the Constitution and according to his duty as Governor-General. The attempt of the Labor Government to stay in power in defiance of Parliament compelled his proper and inevitable dismissal of that Government. An Executive governing without the sanction of the Parliament is the hallmark, not of a democracy, but of a dictatorship. His difficult decision gave the people the opportunity to vote and uphold the parliamentary system. The people of Australia passed their clear judgment on these events and Sir John’s actions in the election of 1975. History will judge them just as clearly. It will support the actions Sir John Kerr was compelled to take in the extraordinary circumstances in which the Government of the day so reprehensibly placed him.

Australia, as a nation of free people, owes as much to the courage of Sir John Kerr as to any man in our history. Had he not acted as he did, had he not prevented the unconstitutional designs of the last Government being consummated, the shape of Australian democracy would have been twisted and distorted. Sir John’s action was opposed by a hostile and bitter minority. Division was caused by the statements of the then Leader of the Opposition, by Senator James McClelland and other members of the Labor Party who sought to make the Governor-General a scapegoat for their own actions. Because of this unjustified bitterness the office of Governor-General became a matter of national controversy. Sir John recognised this, as we all did. He believed he could best serve Australia by standing aside, by allowing another to serve as Governor-General. This he did. His action was applauded.

Mr SPEAKER -Order! The right honourable gentleman will resume his seat. I have already received the information that a certain comment that was made earlier today in Question Time was heard by many listeners. I want to draw to the attention of the House the fact that that does nothing for the decorum of the National Parliament. Continual interjections while the Prime Minister is making a statement also detract from the decorum of the House. I am sure all honourable members would not want that to occur. I ask that the right honourable gentleman be heard in silence.

Mr Charles Jones (Newcastle)– Mr Speaker-

Mr SPEAKER-The honourable member for Newcastle will remain silent.

Mr MALCOLM FRASER -Mr Speaker,one advantage of the fact that the people outside can hear the proceedings of this House is that it allows them to understand the nature of the Australian Labor Party. Sir John’s action was applauded. I believe that his action was right and that it contributed to our nation’s healing process, to a return to normalcy. In this Parliament two days ago I drew attention to Sir John’s long and notable career of public service and to the fact that both as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and as Governor-General he would have been able to devote more of his life to serving Australia had not most unusual events intervened.

At the time of Sir John ‘s resignation he said he looked towards new fields of constructive activity. It was clear that he still wished to serve this country in some other capacity where he could serve energetically but out of the public gaze. Recognising Sir John ‘s desire to continue serving Australia, I, after consultation with senior colleagues, offered him on behalf of the Government the opportunity to do so. This became possible after the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Peacock) wrote to me in February advising that in his judgment the Australian diplomatic posts at Los Angeles, Bombay and the United Nations Educatonal Scientific and Cultural Organisation should be re-opened. As a result of that advice from the Minister for Foreign Affairs and after consultation, the Government decided to offer to Sir John Kerr the post of Ambassador to UNESCO. The Government took this step in the firm belief that Sir John Kerr would fill the post with honour and as ably as any man available from within or without the Public Service. The Government believed that, having served this nation honourably, Sir John should not be cast aside, relegated to the shadows, simply because he was forced by the Government of the day to make a difficult decision. The Government believed that he had earned the right to serve this nation quietly, at peace with himself, at peace with the nation, at peace with his family.

There were people in this community who were determined that this should not be so. Since his appointment as Ambassador to UNESCO the attacks on him in the Parliament and outside it have been renewed. Sir John Kerr, once having discharged his duty to the nation under the most difficult circumstances, has no wish to continue as the centre of public dispute, making it impossible for him and his family to live the normal life to which we are all entitled. An ambassador at UNESCO trying to carry out his functions under these conditions would find it impossible to discharge the responsibilities of his office. Mr Speaker, I inform the House that I have today received a formal message from His Excellency Sir John Kerr who was today to have commenced duty as Australian Ambassador to UNESCO. Sir John has informed me that he feels, with great regret that he cannot take up this post. I read to the House the message that I have received:

My dear Prime Minister,

I have become aware since arriving in Paris of the attacks that have been made upon me and upon the Government as a result of my appointment as Australian Ambassador to UNESCO. These attacks have been made in the Parliament, under Parliamentary privilege, by members of the Opposition Parties and they have also been made in various branches of the media.

I am bound to say that the virulence of these attacks and their unfairness has shocked me. I have to contemplate serving in this appointment in the face of them, and possiblyperhaps likely- their continuation.

There is no doubt that in these circumstances, my ability successfully to undertake the work of Ambassador to UNESCO would be severely impaired. For most of the time I should be absent from Australia and, holding an Ambassadorial appointment, be unable to reply in the way that I would wish and to overcome them as I believe I did during my term as Governor-General. Beyond this, I have had to consider whether the purpose that led me to leave the Governor-Generalship earlier than the normal term will be defeated if controversy over tins new appointment continues.

As you know I felt that by leaving the office of Governor-General when I did there would be an opportunity for remaining wounds to heal and controversy to die down. The importance of the Governor-Generalship and its protection stand high in my objectives. My consideration of all these matters has led me to the conclusion that I should ask to be relieved from taking the post of Australian Ambassador to UNESCO in which I would have begun duty today.

I believe that there is too much at risk, greatly as the position would have attracted me personally, and much as I feel I would have been able to contribute to Australia’s interests with UNESCO.

There is a further reason which concerns me in the decision I now make. That is the feelings of my wife and family, who with me have had to withstand the vilification and attack for pan of my term as Governor-General, and now in prospect through a term as Ambassador to UNESCO. They with many others have stood by me without question through all that has happened. I am not prepared to demand more of them. I am not prepared to subject them to this further trial by innuendo and falsehood, even though my personal instinct is to stand firm and make certain once again that this tactic of persecution fails.

Prime Minister, I trust that you will understand the considerations that have led me to this decision. I appreciate the support I have had from the Government and your desire to allow me to continue to serve Australia in public office.

My decision, however, is made. It is with sadness and regret that I inform you of it.

Yours sincerely,


Mr Speaker, I can only deplore the actions that led to this decision. The bitterness of the attack, especially in another chamber, since Sir John left the protection of the office of Governor-General, has shown that the Labor Party still blame him, when in logic and in justice, they should be blaming themselves. They are still seeking to find a scapegoat for their own misdeeds. The Labor Party’s refusal to allow Sir John to serve his country in peace has been despicable; their actions and statements on this matter have served only to discredit themselves as has their behaviour in this Parliament this morning.

There have been some who have sought to confuse the high purpose of this man with the remuneration he would have received in the new post. If this is to be a point of principle, it should equally have been applied to appointments such as that of Senator Murphy to the High Court, and Mr Barnard to an ambassadorship or to any aspirant to the International Court of Justice. The principle of taking a full salary while retaining their pension was established by the previous Labor Government. It is plain that this itself is not the major matter in dispute.

If there are others who believe Sir John’s actions in 1975 to have been proper and necessary, but who now want to pass him by, who want to forget he ever existed and deny him the possibility of service, I can only ask them to ask themselves how much justice, how much fairness there is in that view.

By his decision, Sir John leaves public life. A long and distinguished public career is thus ended. I respect his decision and I cannot argue with it. To be an ambassador, constantly pilloried, constantly in the public glare, who had his family placed under intolerable stress, was something that he did not want; he deserved better.

I feel shame for those events which led to the decision he has had to make. I expected less meanness, more generosity and more understanding of a person who only wanted to serve Australia. I can only hope that all Australians will show Sir John the decency and respect in his retirement that his great integrity and courage in public office have earned him. Sir John Kerr can hold his head high as he leaves the public arena he has served so faithfully and so well.

Mr HAYDEN (Oxley) (Leader of the Opposition) by leave– Just as the appointment of Sir John Kerr as Australian Ambassador to United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation was not greeted with relish in the community, his resignation is not greeted with sorrow. Sir John Kerr became a symbol of division and mistrust in Australia. But what must be recognised is that the irreparable damage which has been done to the high office of Governor-General in this country was not so much his doing but the doing of the Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser). The Prime Minister is the guilty man in all of the arrangements which have been associated with the lowering of the prestige, the influence and the public credibility of the very important office of Governor-General.

Mr SPEAKER -Order! I ask the Leader of the Opposition to withdraw the term ‘guilty’ with reference to the Prime Minister. It should not be used in relation to any member of the House.

Mr HAYDEN -Mr Speaker,I withdraw the word ‘guilty’ and substitute the words ‘responsible for’. The question that crossed my mind as I listened to the Prime Minister was: Did the Prime Minister speak once again in that conspiratorial way with Sir John Kerr in the last few days? Did he speak to him in the wake of the discussion which took place in this Parliament earlier and which was the source of so much critical comment by the media of this country. Just as the appointment of Sir John Kerr had been the cause of so much critical comment by the Australian media, what is transparent is that this is the second time that Sir John Kerr has been forced to resign by the Prime Minister.

We must not lose sight of the irreparable damage which has been done to the office of the Governor-General by the quite inexcusable actions of the Prime Minister. He has brought that office into the gravest disregard in the community. Much more than 40 per cent of the Australian community is irrevocably alienated from holding any regard or respect at all for that office. That is most unfortunate because the present incumbent is a man who enjoys a very high regard personally in that office. But the damage has been done.

Let me remind honourable members of the nature of that damage. Important principles have been shattered. It is quite improper that a Governor-General should be put into the position where it can be seen or at least suspected that he stood to gain some sort of reward if he were prepared to be accommodating to a rather demanding Prime Minister. That is the way in which the situation is seen by so many people. The fact is that the Governor-General receives an extremely generous pension as do members of the judiciary and for a very sound reason: On completion of his term of office, as is the case upon completion of the term of office of members of” the judiciary, it is expected that they will be separated from any of the decision making processes which happen in this country. That is they must maintain their impartiality and must be seen to maintain that impartiality even through their retirement.

Honourable members interjecting-

Mr SPEAKER -Order! There are too many interjections coming from my left. I ask the honourable member for Shortland to remain silent.

Mr HAYDEN – It is quite improper that an ex-Governor-General, subsequent to service as Governor-General, should accept an inferior or subordinate position serving in the Public Service, serving below people from whom, as Governor-General, he should have maintained his separateness. This is especially so in regard to the Public Service and, I believe, in many respects to the Ministry. The Governor-General has an important role in authorising actions by government, by signing Executive Council Minutes. It is a proper standard that any action proposed in Executive Council Minutes should be consistent with the authority of government, consistent with the laws of the land. I recall some occasions when Governors-General have raised queries- for instance, Sir Paul Hasluck- about the consistency of proposals outlined in Executive Council Minutes and the law of the land, the authority of government. The crux of my concern is the way in which the role of GovernorGeneralship has been lowered in its esteem in the community by the Prime Minister, has become the focus of mistrust generally by the public and apparently has been made by him in the crudest and most vulgar sense as nothing more than an extension of the political patronage system. To all intents and purposes the President of the Liberal Party could sit out at Yarralumla, such is the regard the public now has for this office as a result of the Prime Minister’s actions. It is the Prime Minister who is the offender in this matter. It is the Prime Minister who has done irreparable damage in the community to the office of Governor-General.

The Prime Minister suggested that in 1975 the Government of the day placed the Governor-General in a reprehensible position, forcing him to dismiss that Government. The simple fact, which he has forgotten, is that the Government of that period had at least seven weeks Supply with which to conduct the affairs of Government. I am not canvassing the issue of the conventions which are so easily shattered and destroyed by a man of the Prime Minister’s character; I am just talking about a simple practical fact, namely, that the government of the time had at least seven weeks Supply lawfully available to it to conduct the affairs of this nation.

It was quite clear at that time that several members of the Opposition parties in the Senate were wavering in their opposition to the course of action upon which the Prime Minister had set himself. They regarded it as quite improper that the lawfully elected government of the country, which is situated in this House and not in the Senate, was being thwarted in its legitimate expectations of passing the Budget, of obtaining further Supply, to administer the affairs of this nation. Given a period of time such as thatseveral weeks- it is quite conceivable that some of the honourable senators who were wavering in their attitude, several of whom had firmly stated their opposition to the course of conduct or misconduct, as one should properly say, on the part of the Prime Minister, would have followed the logical extension of their opposition and not persisted further with the obstructionism of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has done so much damage to the conventions of proper conduct in the parliamentary system of this country.

Let me dwell for a few seconds on the conventions of proper conduct. Not everything can be enacted; not everything can be laid down in rules of proper conduct and guidelines for proper behaviour. If our system is to operate properly, certain aspects of it must be fulfilled by the common sense and sense of propriety of people in responsible positions. I say very clearly and forthrightly that the Prime Minister is not the sort of man that we in the Opposition feel we can trust. We feel uneasy with him. We feel uneasy about the Prime Minister having a lot of authority. We feel uneasy about the way in which he likes to assume authority. We feel uneasy about the way in which he likes to deport himself when authority is available to him. There are so many qualities about the Prime Minister which, when taken in conjunction with his record in this House as a person who walks clumsily and destructively over conventions which are necessary to make this system function properly, not only leave us uneasy but also leave a great proportion of the Australian community uneasy and mistrustful of his presence.

The Prime Minister says that the nation owes Sir John Kerr a great deal. For what does it owe him a great deal? For dividing society, for embittering the people, and for fostering suspicion and mistrust in the community? It is true that the Prime Minister owes him a great deal. That is not an issue which is in contention any longer. Not even the most conservative media in this country would believe otherwise.

I conclude with the questions I asked earlier: Has the Prime Minister been in touch with Sir John Kerr in the last few days? Is this the second occasion on which we have seen Sir John Kerr forced to resign in rather ignominious circumstances because of the intercession of the Prime Minister? I repeat what I said earlier: The appointment of Sir John Kerr to UNESCO was certainly not greeted with relish by the Australian community. His resignation will not be greeted with any sorrow either.

Mr MALCOLM FRASER (Wannon-Prime Minister)– Mr Speaker, I seek your indulgence to answer one of the questions asked by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Hayden).

Mr SPEAKER -The Prime Minister seeks my indulgence and I grant it.

Mr MALCOLM FRASER -Sir John Kerr initiated a call to a senior officer in my Department. I have not spoken with him.

Mr Charles Jones (Newcastle) -How can we believe you?

Mr SPEAKER -Order! The honourable member for Newcastle will withdraw that remark.

Mr Charles Jones (Newcastle) -I withdraw that remark; but on the performance of the Prime Minister in recent years one can never take any notice of what he says.