Last updated on December 12, 2023
By Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra
Sir John Kerr was the worst of Australia’s Governors-General and his legacy was to delay the emergence of an Australian republic, former Labor minister Gareth Evans will tell a seminar today.
Professor Evans will say that Sir John, who dismissed Gough Whitlam from the prime ministership, had a “catastrophic” tenure.
It was not marked by dignity, competence or effectiveness. He showed “far less dispassionate non-partisanship than any politician incumbent of the office [of Governor General].”
Professor Evans, Chancellor of the Australian National University, will open the seminar on “Values and Visions of Australia’s Governors-General,” at ANU.
Recalling that he has written and edited books on the dismissal period in his previous incarnation as a constitutional lawyer, he says: “My views on Kerr’s values, vision and understanding of the office have not mellowed – either as a Labor politician, with all the emotional baggage that might be thought to go with that, or as a lawyer, being as intellectually objective as I can.”
The bitter political divisions generated by Sir John’s action have barely healed to this day, Professor Evans says.
“One interesting side effect of the Kerr legacy is that it has delayed the emergence of an Australian republic rather longer than would otherwise have been the case, given the majority sentiment which has long existed for having a home grown head of state,” he says.
Such a change would not mean in practice doing away with the office of the Governor-General, “but rather transforming it from a representative position to a fully fledged head of state one in its own right.”
Professor Evans says the 1999 referendum on a republic failed essentially because of divisions in the republican side between those wanting the head of state to be popularly elected and those – including him – who feared this would, unless the formal constitutional powers of the position were also curtailed, create a situation where an incumbent might feel emboldened to misuse their powers in the way that Kerr had done.
Evans says Sir John was followed by several of Australia’s very best Governors-General, including his two immediate successors, Sir Zelman Cowen and Sir Ninian Stephen, “who rose magnificently to the task of healing national divisions over 1975 and restoring… respect for the office.”
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.