Diarist-at-large Richard Ackland flies about the nation. By Richard Ackland.

Kerr’s royal treatment

Professor Jenny Hocking at Monash Uni has come out with a new chapter in an updated edition of The Dismissal Dossier: Everything you were never meant to know about November 1975

Some of Gadfly’s readers may not have been around in 1975, but I’m sure the events surrounding the dismissal of the Whitlam government are taught in schools, preschools and creches around the nation. 

The new material, sourced from a thorough scrounge of the National Archives, concentrates on the then governor-general Sir John Kerr’s tax avoidance arrangements, concocted with the able assistance of law shop Allen Allen & Hemsley, and the fact that former prime minister Malcolm Fraser lied to parliament in denying he had discussed Kerr’s later appointment as ambassador to UNESCO. 

The “Paris option” was an essential ingredient in ways for Kerr to avoid paying up to $300,000 in tax on the income from his memoirs, known in the trade as an “Uncle Charlie Scheme”, well before the availability of Mossack Fonseca’s anonymity services.  

What is also lovingly detailed by Hocking in the new chapter is Kerr’s dissolute decline.

On the day of the sacking he swept into a lunch at Government House that included three candidates for aide-de-camp. He was already well lubricated and asked the stunned young military applicants whether he had made the right decision in dismissing Whitlam. 

Fraser gave Kerr a “Prince Philip” knighthood, the first in the newly created Knight of the Order of Australia. This was followed by a gong from the Queen, a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, for “personal service to Australia and the Monarchy”. 

To reinforce the appreciation the royals had for their man in Canberra, Lord Louis Battenberg had also written a grovelling letter to the old soak commending him for his “courageous and correct” actions. This letter, according to Yarralumla flunky Sir David Smith, was accidentally burnt by an overzealous cleaner. 

Little wonder the palace correspondence between Kerr, HM’s private secretary Martin Charteris, HM herself and Bonnie Prince Charlie is locked up until 2027, with release on the say-so of Australia’s monarch in London.

1 . Soaked in the mud

Back to the drinks. One year after the dismissal Kerr was at a St Andrew’s Day dinner in Melbourne, where his speech to the assembled Presbyterian burghers was drowned in “cheers, accolades and expressions of exuberant gratitude”. 

One-time Liberal Party leader Billy Snedden recalled the scene as Kerr departed: drunk and swaying, he raised his hands above his head as he staggered to the door, “like a boxer just having won the crown … It sickened me.”

Then, of course, there was the memorable occasion when Kerr fell into the mud after the champion dairy cow at the Tamworth Show stepped on his vice-regal foot. Local snapper Paul Mathews won a Walkley Award for best photographer with his shot of a prostrate viceroy. At the award ceremony he said, “… and last but not least, I’d like to thank the cow”. 

A few months later Kerr made his shickered appearance at the Melbourne Cup, where he slurred his way through a speech, referring to the hecklers as “static”. Gough Whitlam remarked, “How much better a pro-consul the horse would have made.” 

To cap it off Diamond Jim McClelland referred to the GG as a “vulgar racecourse drunk”. A raddled Kerr took the Paris option and scuttled out of the country seven years before his term of office was up.

2 . Hughes who’s who

Books, book, everywhere. A biography of lionised Sydney silk Tom Hughes is just out on the shelves. Historian Ian Hancock has done a marvellous job burrowing into various crevices of the great man’s life and, being the father-in-law of Malcolm Turnbull, it is only natural we search for references to the current PM. 

There was the occasion of an Oxford Union debate starring both father-and-future-son-in-law, where they were supporting the proposition: “That the private lives of public figures should be solely their own concern.”  

Liberal MP Clement Freud, grandson of Sigmund and brother of Lucian, spoke against the motion. Hancock says the debate was memorable for the clashes between Turnbull and Freud, where Malcolm’s famous anger managed to come to the surface. Even though Hughes thought Freud was a “queer customer”, he entered in his diary that Malcolm “will have to learn to take it on the chin”.

“Queer customer” is the least of it, as after he shuffled off the mortal coil women have come forward to claim Freud sexually assaulted them as children. 

All in all that was a pretty triumphant trip to England for Hughes. He won a Privy Council appeal, received a fee of $40,000, plus $200 a day expenses, making 1979 a productive year with a total of $320,000 in fees, or more than $1.5 million in today’s money, and that’s not taking into account his retainers with Packer and Fairfax. 

On the latter score, Hughes’s diary records his view about the venerable newspaper publisher: 

“I do not enjoy working for Fairfax. What a difference between the close rapport I have with Packer, when I am working for him, and the distanced relationship with the Fairfax people – they are … a stiff-necked mob.” 

In 1980, young Malcolm married Lucy Hughes at St Michael’s Church, Cumnor, just outside Oxford. Among the attendees were Francis James, best man John Glover and giver-awayer Geoffrey Robertson, and Betty Fairfax, Sir Warwick’s former wife.

Betty wrote perceptively to Tom Hughes, who was unable to attend the nuptials, saying that the groom was a “remarkable young man – very like you in lots of ways … you need not have any worries about Luce’s future with Malcolm”. 

Francis James observed that Lucy had a “streak of toughness [to balance] a quality of quietness [and] repose”. 

As for Malcolm, James said he “detected the slightest indication of self-consciousness in that young man”. Only the slightest, mind you. 

Nowadays there wouldn’t be careful entries recorded in a diary, the whole thing would be on Instagram accompanied by a string of emojis.  

3 . Bordering on out of line

Which brings us hurtling back to Canberra where we hear reports that Mike Pezzullo, the strongman in charge of the Department of Immigration, has slipped out of his civil servant’s suit and into the uniform of the Australian Border Force. 

One story doing the rounds about Mike is that he ordered a fellow in the departmental canteen to tuck in his shirt, only to be told by the untidy wretch where he could stick his lunchtime tray of meatballs and spaghetti. 

The Pezz Dispenser was on the verge of imposing a severe disciplinary sanction against this underling when it emerged that the offender came from the Bureau of Statistics, and was not within the Dispenser’s jurisdiction. 

So much for Border Force when you need it. 

4 . Taylor-made fundraiser

There’s much election news to hand. The Smellograph’s Miranda Devine and Little Winston Howard were the star attractions at the $1000-a-head Four Seasons fund-raising “Captains of Economics” banquet for darling of the Liberals’ right-wing Angus Taylor MP, assistant minister for cities and Goulburn farmer. 

Rural locals from the seat of Hume were wondering why the event wasn’t held at a nearby hotel where they could get close to the rousing speeches and endorsements. 

Gus has got the support of shock-jock Alan Jones, who adores the member, and together they rail against the evils of subsidising wind farms. Alan also has a unique way of putting the questions on radio: “But Angus, all this environment crap about carbon and wind turbines – how much carbon dioxide, if that’s the fear, if that’s the demon, how much carbon dioxide is created by building these blasted things?” 

Gus didn’t have a precise answer for that curly one. Anyway, to the amazement of habitués of the Bargo pub Alan, in a fuchsia-coloured check jacket, turned up to support Taylor, back-slapping old codgers quietly sipping their beers.  

Meanwhile, in Warringah, local member Tony Abbott is facing off against nine contestants who want his seat, including Labor, Greens, Xenophon, Independents, Arts Party, Science Party and Christians. 

On his election flyer, Tone describes himself as a “strong national leader”.

And in Tasmania, local MP Field Marshal Andrew Nikolic apparently did turn up to the Bass candidates debate at the Country Club, after saying he wouldn't. We're told this was only possible because the Greens candidate graciously withdrew, so giving the Field Marshal no excuse for his withdrawal.

The official reason originally conveyed was that the "Liberal Party is not interested in debating other candidates who have no chance of winning ...


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2016 as "Gadfly: Kerr’s royal treatment".

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Richard Ackland is The Saturday Paper’s legal affairs editor. He publishes

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