Last updated on January 27, 2024
Sir John Kerr died in Sydney on March 24, 1991.
The former Governor-General, responsible for the Dismissal of the Whitlam government on November 11, 1975, was 76.
During the Condolence motion in the House of Representatives, the then Treasurer, Paul Keating, intervened in the debate after hearing the Opposition Leader, Dr. John Hewson, speak.
Audio and video of Hewson and Keating appears below.
- Listen to Prime Minister Bob Hawke (22s)
- Listen to Opposition Leader John Hewson (14m – transcript below)
- Watch Hewson (14m)
- Listen to Deputy Prime Minister & Treasurer Paul Keating (4m – transcript below)
- Watch Keating (4m)
Transcript of Opposition Leader John Hewson’s speech to the House of Representatives on the condolence motion for Sir John Kerr.
Dr HEWSON (Leader of the Opposition) —The death of the Right Honourable Sir John Kerr on 24 March marked the passing of a great Australian. His greatness will be measured not by the verdicts of his contemporaries nor by our words here today but by history’s judgment of the breadth of his achievements and on his quiet but unmistakable moral courage. That is exactly the way Sir John would have wanted it. At his memorial service last Saturday, one of his sons, Philip, recalled his deep love of history. It is appropriate, therefore, that history will be the judge and will, I believe, judge him favourably.
Mr Speaker, I do not intend to record the detail of Sir John Kerr’s many achievements in his academic, professional and public life. The Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) has already cited many of them and others will undoubtedly recall even more. My purpose today is a quite different one. I want to set out briefly what seemed to me to be the attributes that made Sir John Kerr a great Australian and that explain why he was held in such great affection by those who knew him well.
There is no such thing as an ordinary Governor-General. But of all the extraordinary men who have held that high office in Australia, Sir John Kerr stands out. He stands out because of his extraordinary achievements prior to his viceregal career; he stands out because he was Governor-General during an extraordinary period in Australia’s political history, and he stands out because he brought such extraordinary insight and courage to the discharge of his duties.
Let me say at the outset that it would be a travesty of Sir John’s life and his achievements in so many fields if our reflections on him become little more than an excuse to try to rewrite the history of the 1975 constitutional crisis. Sir John’s actions in November 1975 are, of course, a source of continuing debate and, regrettably, still some rancour.
Certainly no assessment of Sir John Kerr’s life and his achievements can neglect the high drama of late 1975, but his greatness is not dependent on his actions at that time. His greatness was, I believe, enhanced by the moral courage he showed in 1975. But it is not those events alone that mark him as a great Australian. It is his achievements throughout his life and his basic human qualities that are the true measure of the man and the true mark of his greatness.
First, Sir John Kerr was a true nationalist who loved his country without deluding himself about its shortcomings. He described himself in later years as a Europhil who still calls Australia home. His achievements were the product of his own hard work; he owed nothing to patronage or to favour or to privilege. The achievements of his life, therefore, were the product of a country that gave him a fair go and that allowed him to fulfil his extraordinary talent. In turn, he never forgot what Australia had made possible for him. He remained throughout his life distinctly and proudly Australian.
Second, Sir John was an internationalist ahead of his time. He recognised long before most others and quite early in his own life that Australia could never have an effective foreign policy if it failed to perceive the winds of change in its own regional neighbourhood. For example, as early as his time at Fort Street Boys High School he won the Evatt Memorial Prize for the best essay on the subject, `Should Australia become more enterprising in the Pacific?’
His wartime service in the Army’s Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs created an intense interest and expertise in the processes of decolonisation. He became principal of the Australian School of Pacific Administration from 1945 to 1948 and implemented far-sighted and very progressive views on what was needed to achieve effective autonomy and independence in the Pacific territories, and Papua New Guinea in particular. In the late 1950s Sir John became energetically involved in planning for the future of Papua New Guinea, and it was fitting that in September 1975 he was present as Governor-General at Papua New Guinea’s independence celebrations.
Third, Sir John provided the Australian legal profession with a unique quality of leadership born of his outstanding legal knowledge, his willingness to promote sensible change and his capacity to galvanise potentially divided opinions in a common cause. His brilliant university career was followed by a distinguished period as a barrister, as a legal administrator, as a judge, as Chief Justice and as Governor-General. In all these phases he was a towering and inspiring figure in the profession. He was at various times President of the Law Council of Australia, foundation President of the Law Association for Asia and the Western Pacific, and President of the New South Wales Bar Association. In all these leadership roles he challenged his own professional colleagues, insisting that standards be maintained but never afraid to promote the cause of reform, especially in administrative law and judicial reform. In both areas he has left an indelible mark.
Fourth, Sir John Kerr had an intellectual fearlessness and a moral courage which few Australians have surpassed. His intellectualism was not of the ivory tower kind; it was intensely practical. It was concerned in particular with how the administration of law affected ordinary people, their rights, their aspirations, their values. Sir John’s clear sense of duty and moral courage was evident throughout his career. It was evident in his struggle against communism in the trade union movement during the 1950s; it was evident in his work as a judge on the Commonwealth Industrial Court; it was evident in his law reform work; it was, above all, evident in the constitutional crisis of 1975.
I said earlier that Sir John Kerr’s actions in November 1975 enhanced his greatness but did not alone create it. This is not the occasion to debate in depth the rights and wrongs of the decision made on 11 November 1975. But, in so far as they involve Sir John Kerr, the following needs to be said: Sir John Kerr was required to involve himself in a crisis that was not of his making. At a critical moment in our history, no Governor-General was better qualified in terms of legal expertise and practice to cope with such a constitutional crisis than was Sir John Kerr. He did his duty well as he saw it, knowing full well that many of his oldest friends would revile him for it. He acted properly and courageously in the discharge of his duties.
It is most revealing to note that two of the most important writers on the reserve powers of the Crown under the Westminster system were men of the Left: Dr H. V. Evatt in Australia, with whom Sir John Kerr shared a close personal and professional relationship, and the Canadian socialist and constitutional expert Dr Eugene Forsey. Dr Evatt was not alive to comment on Sir John Kerr’s action. Dr Forsey was, and his verdict was clear. Dr Forsey wrote in the epilogue to Sir John’s book Matters for Judgment:
Never for a moment did I doubt the correctness of the action Sir John took. For the life of me, I could not see, and still cannot see, what else he could have done in the circumstances. The constitutional right of the Senate to refuse, or defer, supply seems to me incontestable. Perhaps it should never have been given that right. But it was.
Dr Forsey’s conclusion is one I heartily share. His verdict was that Sir John Kerr’s actions in November 1975 were `constitutionally correct, necessary and inescapable’. The French put it well when they say, `We owe respect to the living and to the dead nothing but truth’. In his lifetime Sir John Kerr did not always get the respect that his talents and public service deserved. In death, this Parliament and all Australians owe it to him to record the truth about his life and not to indulge in myth making.
Let us be honest about a few things. Let us acknowledge openly that Sir John Kerr became the easy target for many whose personal ambitions for power were frustrated by his action. It was easier to blame the umpire than to try to understand why the Australian people voted as they did in December 1975. It was easier for politicians at the time to make Sir John Kerr the issue than to admit their own failings. Let us recognise that for too long there was an excessive focus on how the 1975 constitutional crisis was resolved-not on how it arose and how it escalated. Without that escalation there would have been no constitutional crisis in 1975. It escalated because a Prime Minister, denied Supply by an upper House, failed to do his constitutional duty of either resigning or advising a dissolution of the lower House. Yet it was Sir John Kerr alone who became the focus of the blame for the crisis.
Let us concede that if there are defects in our Constitution, it is our responsibility to fix them and not to blame honest men and women who implement the Constitution as it stands. Above all, let us consign for ever to the dustbin of history all those myths that embittered opponents of Sir John’s actions have created or have encouraged over the years-myths such as that Sir John acted without legal authority, or that he deliberately acted in a politically partisan way, or that he alone was responsible for dividing the nation, or the familiar but irrational taunt that he was somehow a traitor to his class. If ever there was a case of embittered men and women playing the man and not the ball, it was the case of Sir John Kerr and his role in the 1975 crisis. The myths about 1975 that some people still try to cultivate reflect only on them, and not on the integrity and not on the contribution of Sir John Kerr.
Sir John Kerr was a great Australian, not just because of the qualities and achievements I have touched on: his patriotism, his foresight about our region, his legal career and his moral courage. He will also be remembered as a great Australian because of his human qualities: his love for his family, his joy in living, his sense of humour, his capacity for warmth and friendship, his kindness and compassion, and his humility-all the qualities so movingly referred to by his friends and family at his memorial service last Saturday. Two of them referred in particular to the words of one of Sir John’s friends, the poet James McAuley, who wrote of him:
He is in fact a soft-hearted person who greatly dislikes taking part in the infliction of hurt on anyone, though in the end he will do what a commonsense practical judgement seems to require as right and necessary.
That is an epitaph that most of us would happily settle for.
Of all Sir John Kerr’s great human qualities, however, none was greater than his lack of bitterness and his basic humanity. Few Australians in our history have been the subject of such an intense personal vilification as that directed at Sir John Kerr. None has been as dignified as he in his refusal to respond in kind. Indeed, he relied on the power of rational and substantive argument. Those who vilified him in such a personal and vindictive way or who insisted that we all maintain our rage against him will have to live with their own conscience. But Sir John’s conscience was always clear and he never stooped to returning their bitter words.
In Sir John Kerr’s passing Australia has lost one of its most outstanding citizens. Lesser people have tried to tear him down. Some will continue to try. But they will not succeed, because in the cool light of history Sir John Kerr’s achievements and human qualities will be seen for what they truly were. Sir John began his book Matters of Judgment with a quote from the American Declaration of Independence, which reads:
Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Sir John Kerr’s private life and public career were inspired by that ideal.
To Sir John’s wife and children, who were the real centre of his life, I convey the deep sympathy of all members on this side of the House and our admiration for his distinguished contribution to Australian life.
Transcript of Treasurer Paul Keating’s speech to the House of Representatives on the condolence motion for Sir John Kerr.
Mr KEATING (Treasurer) —I would also like to pass on my condolences to Sir John Kerr’s wife and family and lament the fact that he died a controversial figure in what has become generally recognised as a tragic completion of a very promising career. The Leader of the Opposition (Dr Hewson) has just made a very partisan and militant speech, without which I probably would not have spoken on the condolence motion. However, I think a few things need to be said as a result of his remarks. The Leader of the Opposition was not here in those times, and one needed to be here then to understand the ambience and the sequence of the events.
Sir John Kerr was a person of substance. He was very interested in public affairs and public life. He is like a lot of frustrated people of quality: they want to be in public life, but never ever make the jump; they never quite take the chance. He was such a person. For him it was always a dalliance at the edge of public affairs. He became Governor-General on the recommendation of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam because he was known to him and known also for his interest in public life and public affairs. It was with that in mind that I think the government of the day had great expectations of him at least having a role in public life, a role which otherwise had been denied to him over the course of his career. It was not that it had been a public life without distinction, because his service as the Chief Justice of New South Wales and as a barrister of note meant that he was a very well regarded person. As the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) said earlier, he was well regarded legally in all quarters. He had a reasonably close affinity with the labour movement; that is why he was trusted by the Australian Labor Party.
The fact of the matter is that the Labor Party makes the political heroes in this country. When people cross the Labor Party they wear the crosses it puts on them, whether it be Billy Hughes or Joe Lyons-that is the truth of it. Sir John Kerr has worn the admonition of the Labor Party. That is really what the Opposition is talking about now. He does so for one reason-he deceived his Prime Minister. He did not tell him that he was prepared to sack him.
I was at Government House with the then Prime Minister on the last occasion he saw Sir John Kerr, at an Executive Council meeting of three to appoint the Chairman of the Darwin Reconstruction Authority. The meeting was filled with bonhomie, cordiality and the like. As we left and walked down that long corridor at Government House, the Prime Minister was saying complimentary things to the Governor-General. The Prime Minister intimated to me that the Governor-General was a very proper person who would observe the constitutional position and prerogatives, including telling the Prime Minister what he intended for him.
Had the Prime Minister known that he intended to deceive him and dismiss him, another course of action would have been available to him. That is the nub of Sir John Kerr’s problem with the Labor movement and those who support it, and it will last forever. It is a sad thing for him, but it is a fact.
Anyone who has made a contribution to this country is to be admired. In a personal sense, Sir John Kerr did not come from privileged circumstances, but he surmounted any difficulties in those circumstances. He was a person of substance. But, in the end, one has to follow that substance with integrity. He lacked the integrity in dealing politically with the Prime Minister and he has suffered history’s admonition as a result.