Sir John Kerr - complained about the reception he got in New Zealand; then dismissed Australia's Whitlam Labour Government

An Australian Governor-General complained to the Queen about the reception he got in New Zealand from former Labour Prime Minister Sir Wallace (“Bill”) Rowling. 

He put his general indifferent reception in New Zealand to the fact that the people were “jealous of Australia’s growing wealth and power”; we had an inferiority complex and were “slightly irrational”.

The complaint has been released this week by Buckingham Palace and the Australian Archives as part of the communications between the Governor-General and the Queen over the dismissal by him of Gough Whitlam’s Australian Labour Government in 1975.

Whitlam stood on the steps of Canberra’s old Parliament Building and memorably said: “Well may we say “God save the Queen”, because nothing will save the Governor-General.”

The Governor-General was Sir John Kerr who had been a lawyer and later a Judge with close connections with New South Wales trade unions and the Labour party.

He was appointed Governor-General in 1974, and his dismissal of the Whitlam Government occurred in November 1975.

According to the historian, Philip Knightley, after that, his remaining years were miserable ones.

“He was subject to relentless harassment whenever he appeared in public,” he wrote.

“He, therefore, moved to London where he could be seen most days, usually the worse for wear, at one or other gentleman’s clubs.”

Kerr made a formal visit to New Zealand in May 1975.


The third Labour Government was in power; Bill Rowling had become Prime Minister the year before after Norman Kirk had died.

Rowling was widely regarded as an ineffective campaigner and was described in Labour’s official history as “no match” for then-Opposition leader, Sir Robert Muldoon.

The Wellington property investor, Bob Jones famously erected a billboard on one of his buildings describing Rowling as “a shiver looking or a mouse to run up.”

He then liberated a fake mouse in the Avalon TV studio when Rowling was being interviewed there.

Rowling faced not only Muldoon with his huge “Rob’s Mob” rallies but also the Maori Land protest and numerous other protests on everything from abortion to the cost of living.

It was therefore perhaps not surprising that when the Australian Governor-General here six months out from the 1975 election for a formal visit with some “pleasant sightseeing” he was not at the top of Rowling’s agenda.

“So far as New Zealand was concerned, the hospitality and kindness of their Excellencies, Sir Denis and Lady Blundell was most marked, and I enjoyed my stay with them,” Sir John told the Queen.

“The attitude of the Prime Minister was quite different.

“ It was not that he was unfriendly on the few occasions when I saw him.

“He certainly had the excuse that his Party was holding its Annual Conference, but I feel there was no doubt that he was himself adopting a very “low key” approach to my visit.

“He was present at the welcome at the airport, made a short call for a quarter of an hour that afternoon, during which nothing of any significance was discussed, attended the Governor-General’s dinner that evening, but arrived very late just in time to be seated.

“This was the last I saw of him.

“He did not come to Auckland for any of the farewell activities.”

Instead, Rowling delegated that job to Labour Minister, Arthur Faulkner.

“I was given no explanation and certainly no apology for the absence of the Prime Minister from his own Government’s banquet.

“His party conference was over.

“My staff enquired about the reason, but no one was able to give an explanation.

“I was told the Prime Minister would ring to explain. He did ring but simply said he would not be there giving no reason or regrets.”

Kerr said he read a report from the Australian High Commission in Wellington on Rowling and  “Sir Denis rather tended to confirm in a diplomatic way that the Prime Minister was somewhat inexperienced in handling these matters, rather off-hand in his approach to Australians and that one should not draw any conclusions about the attitudes of New Zealand to Australia or to myself from the rather perfunctory approach of the Prime Minister to the visit.”

Kerr wrote in his despatch to London: “I accepted what Sir Denis said and told him that I was mentioning the matter on a very personal basis only in case there was something that I ought to know so that I could decide whether any kind of action on my part might be necessary to cope with any conceivable problem that might exist.”

POLITIK Sir Wallace “bill” Rowling, New Zealand Prime Minister 1974 – 75.

But Sir John worried that there might be more to Rowling’s snubs than at first appeared.

“I have felt it proper to indicate in broad outline what happened so far as the Prime Minister was concerned.

“ I am inclined to think that he has it in mind rather to write down the position of his own Governor-General and one reason why his approach was somewhat muted might well have been to make the point that he does not have it in mind that there should be very much in the way of overseas visits by the New Zealand Governor-General.  

“I also have a feeling that the Prime Minister may feel that with Papua New Guinea moving to independence and a monarchical constitution and close friendship with Australia and with Australia so strong in Fiji and New Zealand we may be too dominant as he sees things.

Of course, I may be wrong about this, and it may be a matter upon which advice could be otherwise obtained.”

He doesn’t sound as though he thinks he is wrong and sets off to complain in general about New Zealanders and their attitude to Australia.

“I detected in New Zealand a fairly widespread sensitivity or inferiority complex about Australia and Australians.

“They are very fond of us.

“They love to make teasing jokes and make the occasional derogatory remark about our convict origins, and they appear to have a feeling of mild jealousy or resentment about our growing wealth and power by comparison with their own.

“They are very dependent upon us for tourist income and worry about their trade relations.

“They want to be helped in various ways, and all this seems to induce a slightly irrational quality which does not, I believe, affect the basic friendship and goodwill between the two countries and their peoples but is nevertheless quite detectable.”

There is a hint of exasperation in reply to Kerr from the Queen’s Private Secretary, Martin Charteris, over the letter.

“It is regrettable that your reception in New Zealand was less satisfactory in so far as the Prime Minister’s attitude was concerned,” Charteris wrote.

“Your analysis of the reasons for this attitude are most interesting/, but I do not feel competent to comment on them, apart from saying that I am sure there was nothing personal in Mr Rowling’s approach but that it was dictated by the sort of considerations you ascribe to it.

“The Queen thanks you for your expression of loyalty and sends her warm good wishes to you and to Lady Kerr.”

Perhaps the Australian Labor Party could posthumously recognise Bill Rowling for being able to spot a “class traitor”, as Kerr came to be called before Gough Whitlam did.