In the days and weeks since the release and publication of the so-called “Palace Letters”, I have done a lot of thinking about events of November 1975 in Canberra.
As one who was working at the centre of government during Gough Whitlam’s time as Australia’s prime minister I had a “ringside seat”, as they say, to the events that led up to his dismissal by then Governor-General Sir John Kerr.
When I heard the news in May that the High Court had decided the letters should be released, I knuckled down and began refreshing my memory of events of late 1975 so that once they were published I would be able to answer any and all questions put to me by members of the press or indeed any government official or any of those who were active in Canberra political circles at the time.
I trawled all of my personal diaries from the relevant period, did as much research at my local library as was possible in the current restricted pandemic times, and very quickly re-read some of the many books written on the period.
As it turned out, I was not required to respond to any questions from the press. Still it was best for me to be prepared for any eventuality.
Had someone contacted me for comment I could have enlightened them on a previously unreported fact about that period in our history that saw the opposition parties block supply and Sir John break the deadlock by sacking the government.
It is part of the historical record that, quite controversially, Sir John Kerr as Governor-General had sought and received advice from the then Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Garfield Barwick, who in turn had been a Liberal Party federal MP and cabinet minister. Sir Garfield’s advice backed Sir John’s decision to dismiss Mr Whitlam.
It has also become known that Sir John was also being advised by another High Court judge, Sir Anthony Mason, who told him he should warn the PM of the possibility of his dismissal — advice Sir John did not follow.
But information in my possession — and, I believe, in my possession alone — indicates that Sir John had several other advisers, none of whom has ever been identified publicly.
My information was gained during personal visits made to Government House in the days preceding Sir John’s sacking of Mr Whitlam.
At the time I was engaged as an adviser in the PM’s personal office after being seconded from my position in the public service as Acting Director of Personnel at the Decimal Currency Transition Board which, at the time was not consuming a lot of my time as I was then the only remaining employee of the board.
One of the tasks Mr Whitlam assigned me in what we then did not know were the last days of his administration was to liaise with the Governor-General daily and to then give the PM a full report.
So for the days leading up to November 11 in the undoubted atmosphere of political crisis I drove my trusty Hillman Minx to Sir John’s official residence Yarralumla first thing in the morning, often arriving around breakfast time.
I was always met by the Governor-General’s official secretary, Mr David Smith, who was to become a famous face in our nation’s political history as the person who read the declaration of the dissolution of the Federal Parliament on November 11 with Mr Whitlam looking over his shoulder before the then suddenly ex-PM made his famous “Nothing will save the Governor-General” speech.
But I digress.
On my inaugural trip Mr Smith advised me that it was expected by both Sir John and Lady Kerr to formally meet first-time visitors to their residence.
This meeting took place in a formal reception room on the ground floor of Government House and involved me standing at attention as Mr Smith had instructed while Sir John and his wife (his second wife to be accurate as the first Lady Kerr had sadly died the year before and Sir John had remarried soon after) entered to an accompanying fanfare played by a full military band stationed outside in the garden.
The couple then acknowledged my presence with a slight nod before taking their seats on two large gilded chairs covered in deep red velvet while an equerry read aloud my name and job title.
This mention of my current association with Mr Whitlam, I noticed, brought a slightly strained expression to Lady Kerr’s face and a brief lift of her eyebrows.
Sir John then proceeded to quiz me briefly, beginning with: “So Mr Badinage, is Mrs Badinage not with you today?”
At that I began what I admit was a somewhat lengthy explanation for the absence of my good lady wife Devon who right at that moment was on a lengthy sojourn on the Greek island of Lesbos with her very close and longtime lady friend Leslie O’Brien, or Les-O as Devon somewhat impishly called her.
Sir John raised his hand to cut me short before saying: “This is somewhat disappointing for Lady Kerr.”
The silence that followed was broken only when Mr Smith approached me to whisper in my ear that Lady Kerr rather enjoyed having female guests because of the opportunity it afforded for them to curtsy to her.
Mr Smith withdrew and left me staring in silence at the vice-regal couple before deciding to perform a curtsy myself.
This appeared to satisfy both Sir John and Lady Kerr who rose and departed the room, heading to Yarralumla’s formal dining room where, Mr Smith explained, they were to have breakfast.
I still vividly recall Mr Smith’s words to me as the couple left: “Sir John’s relying very much on Mr Walker these days.”
I asked after this mysterious Mr Walker — a Mr John Walker as Mr Smith explained, although he preferred a more familiar diminutive of his first name. It turned out he was an almost constant presence at Yarralumla, and held sway over Sir John for almost all of his waking hours although on my visits there I never saw nor spoke to him.
Until this column I have never breathed a word of Mr Walker’s presence and his undoubted influence over Sir John and his decision-making in those fiery days.
After Mr Whitlam’s dismissal I naturally no longer visited Yarralumla, and returned to my desk at the Decimal Currency Transition Board for several more years.
My only subsequent encounter with Sir John was when I received an invitation relayed from Mr Smith to be one of His Excellency’s guests at the 1977 Melbourne Cup where Sir John, who had by then announced his retirement, was to present the trophy to the winning jockey for the last time (main picture).
Mr Smith said Mr Walker would also be in attendance, but on the day I once again neither saw nor met him.
Rufus Badinage MBE, now retired, is one of Australia’s leading experts on politics and public administration having worked as a senior bureaucrat for various state and federal governments.