‘Forget conspiracy theories, this is the true reason behind Whitlam’s dismissal’

Jul 28, 2020
Sir John Kerr with Lady Kerr in 1977. Source: Getty Images

Conspiracy theories have always got up my nose. I’m not sure why, but perhaps it’s something to do with a repugnance for the wild-eyed, single-minded intensity of those who peddle them. Yet I’m more comfortable in thinking it is because of the historian in me — a preference for firm facts over feverish fantasy.

I was not among the permanently suspicious perched on the edge of their seats as the correspondence between the former Australian Governor-General Sir John Kerr and Buckingham Palace was finally released, because I have always believed that the keys to investigating a crime, say, lie in establishing motive and opportunity.

Certainly, the opportunity was there for skulduggery between Kerr and the Palace during the constitutional crisis of late-1975. But why would the Queen participate in a British plot to overthrow Gough Whitlam, with whom she got on very well? As we know, the Brits had pulled back from ‘east of Suez’ four years before, Labour’s Harold Wilson was back at Number 10, and there was no love lost between him and the United States likely to encourage the Brits to do any American bidding, so the idea of a Palace ‘coup’ sounded like bunkum to me.

I remember those events well, right down to where I was when told the appointed Kerr had just sacked the elected government of our country. I think the evidence shows how ludicrous conspiracy theories can be when peeled back to bare bones. At the time, Australia was awash with conspiracy theories, but they had nothing to do with Buckingham Palace. It was the Americans who were having the accusing finger pointed at them.

Many will recall the incoming Whitlam government and the Nixon administration got off to a bad start when a number of Australian Labor ministers participated in noisy demonstrations, in December 1972, against the American bombing of Haiphong Harbour in North Vietnam. Shortly after, the US appointed an experienced foreign service officer, Marshall Green, to be its ambassador to Canberra, instead of a personal crony of the man in the White House, which was the norm.

But that was enough for some conspiracy theorists. Playing on the Marshall Batteries advertisement, “When your battery’s actin’ up ornery, holler for a Marshall” the anti-American conspiracy slogan became, “When your country’s actin’ up ornery, holler for a Marshall”. Nice and tidy, eh?

Except that by November 1975, Marshall Green had left Australia months before, Richard Nixon’s trickiness had finally trapped him, sending him sinking from office in disgrace, and the Republicans under his successor, Gerald Ford, had suffered a drubbing in the 1974 mid-term elections. Therefore, by any realistic test, the American administration would hardly be spoiling for a fight abroad, especially as the 1973 oil shock had given them headaches aplenty at home to deal with. The ‘plot’ simply didn’t hang together.

To me, conspiracy theories about the overthrow of the Whitlam government never held any serious weight. Having grown up in the Menzies era and witnessed its cynical exploitation of any situation for political gain, I merely put the events of November 1975 down to a contemporary variant on Coalition ‘business as usual’.

Yet, after the dust settled and Sir John Kerr left office, repairing with his top hat to a spectacular penthouse at Kirribilli (quite close, I might say, to his former official home of Admiralty House overlooking Sydney Harbour), I found myself wondering what had in fact motivated him, not only to overthrow Whitlam, but to do so in such an underhand way.

I knew he would never talk to one of the hated reptiles of the Fourth Estate. But I thought I might be in with a chance, by way of an inside track.

In the five years I was a high school student at North Sydney Boys, I had studied (for want of a more accurate word) French and for at least two of those five years, my class teacher had been none other than Sir John Kerr’s second wife, the fabled Lady Anne Kerr. At that time, she was still married to Judge Hugh Robson (an ‘old boy’ of the same school) and she was known as ‘Nancy’. (Later, I learned that rather than adopting a more august name like ‘Anne’ when she married Kerr, as I had instinctively assumed, she was always Anne, but bore the quaint nickname of Nancy.)

Let there be no mistake, she didn’t like me and I didn’t like her, having been scorched by her acid tongue, but I figured that if I was prepared to accept the water under the bridge, so might she. In preparation for the great journalistic coup of the century, I went to the Fairfax ‘Block Room’ (aka the photographic library) and withdrew the voluminous file on Lady Anne Kerr. Intent on absorbing a ‘feel’ for the woman who had become the first or second lady of the country for a short but convulsive period in our history.

What a revelation it was! There were scores of glossy black and white prints, and they all pointed towards one conclusion.

There was Lady Anne in her long, slender, stylish dress, under a big floppy hat, as haughty as I remember her, swanning here and swanning there. Offering a regal hand here, a regal hand there. Bowing and being bowed to. But the most jaw-dropping sequence of shots were those taken on the inside of their official residence.

There was Lady Anne, in her long, elegant ball gown and tiara, but this time down on one knee, head lowered, while her husband, the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, was touching her shoulder with the blade of a sword. As Governor-General, Kerr was the ex officio Grand Prior of the Venerable Order of the Knights of Jerusalem, and here he was knighting his wife and investing her as ‘Dame Anne’ to enter the order’s hallowed halls.

It was an astonishing portrait with Kerr in all his vice-regal flummery and finery, the two of them rather like a couple of pooh-bahs from the set of one of those wretched movies, like Mayerling and Colonel Redl, about the death throes of the Habsburg Empire. While the world is visibly crumbling around their feet, the Austro-Hungarian nobility keep living their braided charade as though the world has no end. I felt sure I had my answer.

Whether I was unfair or not, I closed the file and returned it to the Block Room. I had no interest in interviewing my old French teacher, or her husband, about Canberra 1975 or, indeed, about Vienna 1875. To me at that moment, there was only one credible motivation for Kerr to bring down an elected, egalitarian government.

No big picture shadow-play of spies and intrigue on display here, for the boy from Balmain and the girl from North Sydney seemed like another pair of very ordinary social climbers.

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