Just weeks after taking up the role in 1974, Sir John wrote to Sir Martin about concerns within the federal public service.
Sir John said he had “made it his business” to talk to most of the senior departmental heads, noting there seemed to be “a tension” between them and a government that appeared in a hurry to get policies into place.
“The whole subject is a complicated one and I am looking at it quietly with a view to seeing whether I can, within the proper constitutional limits, do anything about it,” he wrote.
Sir Martin replied in a letter that extended the Queen’s sympathies for the recent death of Sir John’s first wife, Lady Alison, and discussed the issue of political advisers in ministerial offices.
“At the moment they flourish in Whitehall like ‘the Green Bay tree’. I think they are the inevitable offshoot of a Radical Party coming to power after many years in the wilderness of opposition,” he replied.
Sir John told Sir Martin about his desire for people to no longer curtsy to him and instead follow a Canadian protocol where a handshake or a “slight bow” was the form of greeting. In the same letter, he wrote that he had told state governors to include eight bars of Advance Australia Fair whenever the royal salute was played in their honour.
“It could be argued that the addition of the eight bars to the Governor-General’s royal salute would encourage widespread acceptance of the new national anthem,” he said.
Later in 1974, Sir John wrote to Sir Martin about a proposal from Prince Charles to buy property in NSW.
The idea was abandoned, with Sir Martin noting that while the purchase was an idea close to the prince’s heart, it would be misunderstood by Britons “at a time of great economic difficulty”.
By early 1975, the Cyclone Tracy disaster dominated the discussion. Sir John, who had visited Darwin on January 2, reported the devastation was beyond comprehension, with almost all of the city’s residents left without accommodation.
He also noted that a framed picture of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, given to Darwin only a few months earlier, had been badly damaged. The Queen would within a few weeks replace the photograph while supplying some colour televisions to local nurses.
Sir John also sought to keep the Queen informed about the Whitlam government’s move to replace royal honours with an Australian system.
He told Sir Martin he was concerned the Queen would be unable to deliver her own special awards to people because of the new system, which was largely based on a change introduced by Canada.
Sir Martin, in reply, downplayed the governor-general’s concerns and noted the system proposed by the government should be beyond reproach.
“The distinguished Council of neutral and impartial persons who will be recommending the awards should certainly give confidence,” he wrote.
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Shane is a senior economics correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.