Sir John Kerr; Overturned Government of Australia

<i> From Times Staff and Wire Reports</i>

Former Gov. Gen. Sir John Kerr, who used what was considered a largely ceremonial position to overturn a government, sparking one of Australia’s bitterest political controversies, has died. He was 76.

No specific cause was given, but Kerr was hospitalized in January for a brain tumor. His death Sunday was not announced until Monday after he was buried in Sydney.

In 1975, Kerr sacked the Labor Party government of then-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam after the conservative opposition blocked the government’s money supply in the Senate, Parliament’s upper house.


Kerr stepped down as governor general, Queen Elizabeth’s representative in Australia, two years later. At the time, he was still dogged by protests over his sacking of the Whitlam government.

Raised in a working-class Sydney neighborhood, Kerr rose through the legal ranks to become chief justice in New South Wales state in 1972.

In 1974, Whitlam made what he called “my greatest error” by offering Kerr the post of governor general. Although the post was considered largely ceremonial, Kerr surprised the country by using what most had regarded as purely nominal power to dismiss his benefactor despite the fact that Whitlam retained the support of the House of Representatives.

The Whitlam government was planning to borrow billions of dollars from Arab sources who intended to buy into Australia’s highly lucrative natural resources industries. The opposition, led by Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser, then blocked the government’s budget bills and cash flow.

The move was designed to force an early election, but Whitlam refused to cooperate. Kerr then dismissed him, and called on Fraser to form a caretaker government while arrangements were made for an election that Fraser won handily.

Kerr grew to be so unpopular that his portrait in Parliament House in Canberra is hidden away to prevent it being defaced.

Kerr always defended his decision, saying Whitlam should have resigned or called an election.

A year after Kerr stepped down, Fraser revived the position of ambassador to UNESCO in Paris--a position Whitlam was later to hold--and offered it to Kerr, who accepted. But there was such an outcry that three weeks later, on the day he was to start work, Kerr declined the post after all.