Turnbull says Kerr was wrong on The Dismissal 107



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It’s a big day in history. 40 years ago, The Dismissal occurred and much blood was lost in Australian Politics and it is blood that we all remember differently, even the politicians of the era. But today we need to ask how you remember it? Do you remember it the way Whitlam saw it with the Governor General showing a bias or differently?

Our Liberal PM launched a book about the dismissal of Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam this morning, poignantly called The Dismissal. And not a beat was missed in the opportunity by Turnbull, who used the moments in front of national media to ram home his message of economic stability being at the core of a tough recovery in difficult economic times. In fact, Whitlam’s centre-left political position looks more close to Turnbull’s centre-right position than some of the people in their own parties following todays speech and the analysis that is unfolding across the media.  Turnbull presented himself as a man with a social heart, and an economic mind, something Whitlam was also renowned for.

Malcolm Turnbull was a 21 year old writer in the period when Whitlam was dismissed, and his words from back then cannot go unread. But his words today showed an empathy with the Labor Leader that can only be borne of respect. In fact he called out situation as being handled inappropriately.

Turnbull firmly stated in his speech today that he believed that Sir John Kerr should have given notice of his intentions to dissolve government.

And his opinion hasn’t changed for four decades.  The then 21-year-old Malcolm Turnbull wrote an article in the National Review smashing the governor-general’s actions three days after the Whitlam dismissal indicating at his belief that the decision to dismiss the government was “not an act of last resort”.

“By dismissing [former prime minister Gough] Whitlam he has condemned himself to an eternity in the history books portrayed as a villain,” Mr Turnbull wrote back in 1975.

And it seems, Mr Whitlam concurred.  In a letter by Mr Whitlam to Martin Charteris (private secretary to Queen Elizabeth II) of 26 December 1975, Mr Whitlam accused the Governor General of favouring one political party over the other.  Here is an excerpt of the letter from the National archives.

Whitlam letter to the queen December 1975

Anyone living in Australia in the 1970s will remember the period leading up to Whitlam’s dismissal for it challenges and Turnbull was not afraid to align this period with the period preceding his own appointment to Prime Minister.  It was, not unlike last year in government, an economics-led debate that saw the country forced into constitutional debate over the Fraser Governments unwillingness to pass the budget, instead choosing to block supply.

Malcolm Turnbull today dredged up the old memories, saying he thought there were many secrets that go untold of the era, and that the crisis that ensured could have been managed much differently by Sir John Kerr.  He suggested, even back then, that the Governor General could have changed the path of history by publicly calling on the Liberals to pass supply bills or by telling Whitlam there had to be an election, and giving him a choice of how to approach it.

“The other option that Kerr should have explored … was to tell Whitlam there had to be an election and give him the choice of going into it as prime minister or leader of the opposition,” Turnbull wrote in his 21 year old political insight piece.

Today’s speech, without a doubt opened the can of worms again, and Paul Kelly, the author of The Dismissal was no doubt happy to see it opened.  Turnbull used the similarity of the situation to reinforce his concentration on the economic situation Australia finds itself in, rather than other political issues.

“Australia survived this crisis without civil unrest or violence exercising their power of democracy,” he said.  “Ultimately people voted on economic management not because of the constitutional crisis.  He then went on to quote Bill Clinton’s famous words “It’s the economy stupid”.

Looking back, do you think the decision made by Sir John Kerr should have been a different one?  Are you surprised to see Malcolm Turnbull defending the challenges faced by Gough Whitlam today? 


Rebecca Wilson

Rebecca Wilson is the founder and publisher of Starts at Sixty. The daughter of two baby boomers, she has built the online community for over 60s by listening carefully to the issues and seeking out answers, insights and information for over 60s throughout Australia. Rebecca is an experienced marketer, a trained journalist and has a degree in politics. A mother of 3, she passionately facilitates and leads our over 60s community, bringing the community opinions, needs and interests to the fore and making Starts at Sixty a fun place to be.

  1. He was, indeed, but he effected the most scandalous act in Australia’s political history because he was a weak man with incredible pressure on him, from both within and without.

  2. If I feel something is not right , I will come in here and say but I am giving Turnbull credit where credit is due, this will do a lot to heal old wounds and clear the air. It takes a big man to say they were wrong. It took 40 years to say it but at least many of us who lived through those years are still alive to hear it

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  3. Kerr certainly was wrong, his actions were those of a man out of his depth in almost every way. but Kerr was not the catalyst for what happened, Gough did that, he was far to often out of the country. He allowed his ministers to feed at the public trough blatantly. He was a brilliant man from an ordinary background, and his party was involved with the loans affair. It was political suicide, mores the pity.

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    • That sounds like the Liberal Government today, they have doubled the deficit and have been rorting

    • Rosalind Battles yes Labour racked up 30 billion during the best economic times we had and now they think it’s sinful for debt to accumulate unless it’s them doing it. next you’ll be saying that the current government wants to increase the GST, only labour voters and politicians believe the rhetoric get over it it tired and its done.

    • not done at all Fred Avery, this will come up at the next election..fasten your seat belt and that interview occurred only recently

  4. I heard Shorten thank Turnbull on Parlimentary question time, I was astounded, well done Turnbull

  5. Much new information is coming about this now, for instance they have found evidence the Fraser was in collusion with Kerr, Fraser lied about it till he died, probably not thinking files would be released, good on Turnbull for admitting it but I suspect he knew more information was to come out

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  6. Democracy ruled the vote was a landslide against the Whitlam led Labour Party get over it

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  7. Best thing that ever happened in Australian Politics.

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  8. I am surprised that the Australian people accepted the move by the Queen and her henchman. To remove a democratically elected government is unacceptable.

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    • Don’t think the Queen had a say, and I’m not a monarchist. Others blame the Governor General, but 40 years on, get over it.

    • The Governor General had to inform the Queen, he is her representative and people didn’t accept it, there were National strikes and still today, many are not happy with the dismissal, hopefuly this will help heal some old wounds, it is just a shame Whitlam is no longer with us to hear it

    • The correspondence between The Queen and kerr cannot be released until 50 years after Kerr’s death, but Turnbull is trying to get released now

    • Helen Petty Get over it ? An attack on the democracy ? Of course, the Queen had a say. How could she not ? The GG is not elected – he is appointed by the Queen. To think that he could have or would have acted with the approval from Buckingham Palace is ludicrous.

    • Claims were raised in 2015 that Kerr had consulted with the Queen’s Private Secretary, Martin Charteris, and Prince Charles as early as August 1975 on the possibility of dismissing the Whitlam government. The consultation between Kerr, Charteris and Charles was maintained to ensure that the Queen and UK Parliament were not part of the discussion. This was due to the Queen being constitutionally required to take advice from the UK Prime Minister, and in turn from the Australian Prime Minister.

    • Where does it say in the constitution that the Queen takes advice from the UK P.M. ? She appoints him and has the right to dismiss him.

    • Graeme Condely Whitlam was elected by the Australian people. What the Queen did was an attack on the democracy, irrespective of whether you approval of Whitlam’s policies or not.

    • The Australian Constitution firmly places the prerogative powers of the Crown in the hands of the Governor-General as the representative of the Queen of Australia. The only person competent to commission an Australian Prime Minister is the Governor-General, and The Queen has no part in the decisions which the Governor-General must take in accordance with the Constitution. Her Majesty, as Queen of Australia, is watching events in Canberra with close interest and attention, but it would not be proper for her to intervene in person in matters which are so clearly placed within the jurisdiction of the Governor-General by the Constitution Act.

    • Christa Caldecott I did hear the other day on the TV that Queen was upset over what Kerr had done and the Palace tried to ease him out of the job, I don’t blame The Queen, I blame a drunken old Kerr

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