'Kerr’s Cur’ speech - Gough Whitlam

Title:
'Kerr’s Cur’ speech - Gough Whitlam
NFSA ID:
156392
Year:
1975
Courtesy:
7 Network Australia
Category:

This clip directly follows David Smith, official secretary to the Governor-General, reading a proclamation dissolving both houses of Parliament on the steps of old Parliament House, Canberra, on 11 November 1975, a few hours after the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, had dismissed the government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Mr Whitlam follows Mr Smith’s proclamation with some famous words on what will befall the Governor-General.

Summary by Paul Byrnes

Gough Whitlam was already warmed up by this stage. He had been addressing a large crowd for some time before Smith was brought forward by the Usher of the Black Rod and the Sergeant-at-Arms, with the clerks of both houses of Parliament. There was some concern for his safety, given the emotions of the crowd.

Whitlam’s delivery gives a good sense of his skills as an orator. The pauses are long, for maximum effect. He speaks slowly and clearly, waiting for the effect of each phrase on the audience, saving his more powerful phrases for the end of each sentence. There are a number of news microphones recording his words. 

Television news cameras captured the speech and this material was used extensively in the climactic final scenes of the miniseries The Dismissal (1983). Margaret Whitlam describes her version of the day’s events – including her advice to her husband that he should have ripped up Sir John Kerr’s letter dismissing him – in The Life and Times of Margaret Whitlam (1993).

 

'Kerr’s Cur’ speech synopsis

On 11 November 1975, on the steps of Parliament House, the dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam delivers his now-famous verdict on the day’s events.

 

Curator's notes

These are among the most famous lines in our political history – a pithy, even witty summary of the bitter emotions felt at the time, on both sides of the political argument. The spontaneity of Whitlam’s attack on the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, is obvious, prompted by the final words of the Governor-General’s Official Secretary, David Smith, ‘God Save the Queen’. That they were not scripted is confirmed by Whitlam’s then Press Secretary, Evan Williams, speaking in 2010, ‘They came straight out of his own head and very much on the spur of the moment. They were not scripted.’

What was not fully understood until the publication of David Smith’s book Head of State in 2005 was that there was a history to the words used by Smith, a subtext that may have influenced Whitlam’s reaction. In April 1974, the opposition led by Billy Snedden refused in the Senate to consider two appropriation bills passed by the lower house. Prime Minister Whitlam used this as the trigger for a double dissolution, where both houses face a simultaneous election. When the proclamation to dissolve parliament arrived on David Smith’s desk, he pointed out to the then Governor-General, Sir Paul Hasluck, that the customary words ‘God Save the Queen’ were not on the bottom of the proclamation. Smith wrote that he asked the deputy secretary of the Attorney-General’s department, Ewart Smith, for an explanation.

‘He told me that the proclamation had been submitted to the Prime Minister in the customary form, but that it had been returned to the Attorney-General’s Department with a wavy line drawn through the request to the Almighty and with a notation in the margin in Whitlam’s handwriting, “We’ll have no more of this nonsense”.’ Nineteen months later, at 1 pm on 11 November 1975, Sir John Kerr, Whitlam’s own appointee, sacked Whitlam and swore in Malcolm Fraser, leader of the Opposition, as caretaker Prime Minister after requiring him to sign a promise to call an immediate election of both houses. David Smith was required to call Ewart Smith again, to prepare a proclamation to dissolve both houses. On his own volition, David Smith told Ewart Smith, ‘One more thing, Ewart, don’t forget to put “God Save the Queen” back in’.

This was the proclamation that David Smith read on the steps of Parliament House at 4.45 pm that Tuesday afternoon. It’s clear that Whitlam reacted directly to hearing these words, because he starts his response by repeating them. ‘Well may we say “God Save the Queen” …’

It is likely that only he and David Smith understood the significance of these words in the proclamation at that moment. Whitlam’s prediction was prophetic: Sir John Kerr was vilified and denounced by demonstrators at many of his public appearances after this day, until he stepped down prematurely as Governor-General in December 1977.