TUMBY BAY - There’s an interesting conversation currently taking place in the Australian media following the release of letters exchanged between Queen Elizabeth II and Sir John Kerr, the former Australian governor general who dismissed the Whitlam government in 1975.
The release of the 211 ‘palace letters’ from the Australian Archives follows a protracted effort by historian Jenny Hocking who wanted to know what role the queen might have played in the dismissal of an Australian prime minister.
Kerr was obsessed with his own importance and besotted with the queen and saw his role as much more than symbolic.
He undertook an energetic flow of information with “the palace”, apparently seeing himself as the queen’s chief informant on Australian and even other countries’ affairs.
Kerr’s inflated opinion of himself and his habit of poking his nose into matters where it was unwelcome annoyed quite a few important people, including the then prime minister of New Zealand, Bill Rowling.
Among those he annoyed was the governor general of Papua New Guinea, Sir John Guise, who had a prickly reputation at the best of times.
Guise did not suffer ignorant and ego inflated individuals gladly, no matter their position or colour.
A Tasmanian "supporter" of Kerr had written to Guise, complaining about his decision to cancel a visit to Australia.
In typical style, Guise didn’t mince his words when he replied:
“Thank you for your unwanted and paternalistic letter,” he wrote.
“You have no right whatsoever to dictate to me your ill-informed statements in your letter regarding the cancellation of my trip to Australia. I have every confidence and trust in the Commonwealth Government, led by the Right Honourable Minister M Fraser.
“The invitation by the Australian Government is still open to me, and not to you. It is clearly my prerogative to visit your good country when I am ready to do so, but not before. I offer no apology to no one for not going to Australia at this point in time.
“Who are you to lecture me? I am very much a man and a leader, much older than you are and I have been in the forefront in the battle to win freedom for my homeland.
“Keep to your business of making money and don't ever write and preach to me again. Any further letters from you will be burned by my Honourable Domestic Servant!”
The response must have given Kerr a moment of pause because he forwarded the letter to Sir Martin Charteris, the queen’s private secretary noting that it "may be of psychological interest".
The inference being that Guise was somehow an unstable and decidedly uppity ex-colonial subject who didn’t know his place.
Kerr had poked his nose into the ex-colonial world and the inherent racism involved and been severely nipped and didn’t like it. So, like a spoilt brat, he had gone running to complain to his mum.
What Misis Kwin made of Guise and his letter is unknown. Presumably, as she is wont to do, she would have disclaimed any knowledge of either if asked.
Eight weeks after PNG independence, at which he was present, Kerr dismissed Whitlam. Mark Lynch, a former kiap who was an aide to Guise, later wrote:
“….following the Whitlam dismissal, Sir John Guise informed me on a personal basis that he thought Sir John Kerr had made the wrong decision. He went on to tell me that, on the night of Independence Sir John Kerr discussed with him at great length the powers of the governor-general to dismiss a prime minister.”
So, as the ‘Palace letters’ now confirm we know that Kerr had Whitlam’s dismissal on his mind well before the deed – and that PNG’s prickly and astute Sir John Guise had received a private indication of this.