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Brandis: Kerr “A Good And Decent Man Demonised”

On the 25th anniversary of The Dismissal, this is the text of a speech delivered by Queensland Liberal Party Senator George Brandis, as recorded by Hansard.

Senator George BrandisTomorrow we mark the 25th anniversary of the dismissal of the Whitlam government on 11 November 1975. No political event in our history, I dare say, created more controversy at the time. None was so dramatic. For some Australians, none caused more lasting bitterness. Certainly none gave rise to more myth making.

With the perspective of history, we can—and, in fairness to the protagonists, we should—judge those events dispassionately. We should sort the essential from the superficial; the facts from the myths; the law from the politics. When we do so, the events of 1975 amount to this: a historically important constitutional crisis created by a deadlock between the executive and the parliament was resolved by the popular will at a general election. That general election—the democratic resolution of the crisis—was forced by the then Governor-General after it had been refused by the Prime Minister.

Both men were custodians of a high public trust. Both were constitutionally and morally obliged to put the interests of the nation ahead of personal advantage. The Prime Minister breached that trust; the Governor-General honoured it. The Prime Minister put his political interests as a party leader ahead of his constitutional obligations as a head of government. He put politics above the Constitution. The Governor-General reluctantly, but conscientiously, intervened to stop the Prime Minister’s unconstitutional behaviour, at a terrible personal cost to himself.

For years, that Prime Minister, Mr Whitlam, has claimed to be the victim of the events of 1975. I must say, I think he did rather well out of them. By the stroke of a pen, Whitlam’s reputation was redeemed. No longer would he be remembered primarily as the leader of the most economically illiterate, incompetent government in the history of the nation. In an instant, he was instated by popular culture as a figure of political grandeur. None of the policy failures, the scandals, the sheer opera bouffe incompetence that marked the Whitlam government will last for so long in the historical imagination as the iconic image of Whitlam’s speech from the steps of Old Parliament House that November afternoon. For a man whose whole public life was dedicated to striking heroic poses and uttering lapidary cadences, it was, paradoxically, a triumph: a triumph of rhetoric over reality, of gesture over substance. Unburdened by the prosaic responsibilities of government to which he was both temperamentally and intellectually unequal, Whitlam was left free to pursue a hugely enjoyable career as a political martyr.

This afternoon I want to say a few words about the man who was the real victim of the dismissal: Sir John Kerr. For a generation, Whitlam has made good on his malign threat that nothing would save the Governor-General by leading a campaign of abuse, calumny and vilification against him, more savage, I think, than anything this nation has witnessed. The purpose of that campaign—advertent and declared—was to destroy Sir John Kerr’s reputation. No significant figure in our history has been so consistently lied about; none has had his motives so misrepresented. The time has come for the truth about Sir John Kerr to be known, for he was, in every sense, a better man than the one who made it his life’s work to humiliate him.

I came to know Sir John and Lady Kerr when I was a student in England in 1982. This was the time at which, according to popular myth, Sir John Kerr was in exile. That is the first myth that should be exploded. Sir John and Lady Kerr had a deep love both of England and of France and they enjoyed the time they spent in those countries with all the enthusiasm and cultivated appreciation that was so characteristic of both of them. Anyone who has any doubt about that need do nothing more than consult Lady Kerr’s charming memoirs, Lanterns Over Pinchgut, to sense their joy in those years, strengthened by the deep love they so obviously felt for each other.

Even more pervasive has been the myth that Sir John Kerr was bitter. After what he and his wife had been subjected to, he certainly had every right to be. Wounded he was, deeply. Conscious of the verbal and physical violence against himself and his wife he was, certainly.

Senator Conroy — Did you offer him a drink?

The PRESIDENT — Order! Senator Conroy, I draw your attention to the standing orders.

Senator BRANDIS — But perhaps the most remarkable feature of the man I came to know was his very lack of bitterness or anger towards those who had degraded him. I can best illustrate that with an anecdote about a small event, but in many ways a revealing one.

Senator Conroy — You are a disgrace; a hypocrite and a disgrace.

The PRESIDENT — Order! Senator Conroy, withdraw those remarks.

Senator Conroy — I withdraw.

Senator BRANDIS — Quite often in those days a small group of Australian students consisting of myself, Tom Harley, Donald Markwell—now the warden of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne—and Timothy Potts, who was, until recently, the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, welcomed distinguished Australian visitors to Oxford. On one occasion we entertained Gough Whitlam. On many occasions, we entertained Sir John and Lady Kerr. We kept a visitors book—an autograph book really—in which we invited our guests to record their visits. As it happened, Sir John Kerr’s first visit came only a couple of weeks after Gough Whitlam’s. We realised that, if we were to ask Sir John to sign the book, he would be placing his signature immediately beneath Gough Whitlam’s and that that might cause embarrassment. In the end, we decided to ask him anyway.

How it happened I am not sure—perhaps he was not listening very carefully—but when I made the request of Sir John Kerr that would have placed his name in such close juxtaposition to Whitlam’s, he misunderstood what I was saying. He thought I had said that Gough Whitlam was also to be in Oxford that day and that I was proposing that they meet. I will never forget his response. He said, after only a short moment of reflection, `Oh well, Gough and I are both human beings; we’ve both got to live on the same planet.’ He said that he would like to meet him again. It was only then that the mistake was corrected. I think Sir John was a little sad that he would not have the opportunity for what might have been a chance occasion for a personal reconciliation. It is a small tale but how much it tells us of the measure of the man, after all he had suffered at the hands of Whitlam.

There are many other stories I could tell of the real Sir John Kerr. Even today, so long after his death, I can scarcely speak of him without emotion: both anger at the way in which a good and decent man has been demonised and gratitude for the abundance of his kindness, the generosity of his friendship and the sheer pleasure of his company. Like all of us, he too had flaws, but they were flaws born of generosity of heart rather than flaws made of meanness of spirit. There is only one word fit to describe the way he bore himself in the years after 1975 and his forgiveness, even towards those who had punished and calumnised him merely for doing his duty as he saw it. He was a noble man.

Senator Conroy — Vain and drunk.

The PRESIDENT — Senator Conroy, if you have something to say, you can speak at the appropriate time, not during the speech of another senator.

Senator BRANDIS — As it happens, there is this weekend another anniversary—although it is not the anniversary of a particularly famous event. Sixty years ago this Sunday, on 12 November 1940, Sir Winston Churchill delivered to the House of Commons the eulogy of his predecessor in the office of Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain—a man around whom there had also raged, in Churchill’s words, `fierce and bitter controversies’. Churchill said of him:

The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sin-cerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, for we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.

Every one of those words could apply equally to my beloved friend Sir John Kerr. He faithfully discharged his oath of office, he bore himself nobly in the face of almost unendurable provocation, and he marched always in the ranks of honour.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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