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What the butler saw in the governor-general’s bedroom in 1975

There was, of course, a fair dollop of entertainment to be had. The escapades of sacked treasurer Jim Cairns and his principal private secretary, Junie Morosi, were deliciously scandalous by the standards of the time.

The use by the Whitlam government of the shady Pakistani banker Tirath Khemlani to broker a $4 billion loan in petrodollars from the Middle East seemed mind-boggling.

Jim Cairns (centre, face obscured) and Junie Morosi (far right) by the pool at the 1975 ALP conference in Terrigal.

Jim Cairns (centre, face obscured) and Junie Morosi (far right) by the pool at the 1975 ALP conference in Terrigal.Credit:Russell McPhedran

I knew a little of Fraser – he came from my home territory in western Victoria and he was the first person of note I had interviewed when I became a journalist way back in 1970.

But none of this had much claim to the heart at the super-cool Canberra musical equipment business that employed me in 1975, nor during the long nights at clubs and theatres where I roadied for bands and tried my hand at sound mixing, even if I actually ended up mixing a mighty sound for Whitlam himself after he was defeated.

I had quit journalism. Having given the first four years of my 20s to reporting and writing and editing, I was on a quest to reclaim my youth.

It would last only through 1975. But it was quite a year.

Canberra may not seem the gravitational centre for rock ’n’ roll, but those days the city was full of young affluent people transferred by the public service from Melbourne and Sydney who were in desperate need of distraction.

There were no poker machines, meaning clubs and pubs needed to attract patrons by other means, and cheapo disco, with just a turntable and a disc jockey, hadn’t yet displaced actual musicians. Rock ’n’ roll bands flourished. I was in the right place at the right time.

John McLaughlin lets rip during a Mahavishnu Orchestra gig at Sydney's Hordern Pavilion in November 1974.

John McLaughlin lets rip during a Mahavishnu Orchestra gig at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion in November 1974.Credit:Age archive

Life became a parade of screaming guitars, drums, sizzling synthesisers and sound systems so stacked with high-powered amplifiers that it sometimes took a day to get back one’s hearing.

Smoky nights were spent drowsily discussing the merits of jazz-rock gods like Chick Corea or John McLaughlin of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the importance of funk bands like Little Feat or the guitar gymnastics of Joe Walsh.

And then, happily, I met a girl. She would, later, become my wife.

Canberra, it turned out, was a small place. My new girlfriend’s stepfather was the butler at Government House. He ran Sir John Kerr’s household.

One of my girlfriend’s sisters owned a horse that, thanks to the butler’s influence, was stabled at Government House, which sits on 53 hectares of sprawling parkland. The horse hadn’t been ridden for months and needed a bit of quietening.

And so I was persuaded to drive out to Yarralumla each morning to saddle up what turned out to be an evil-spirited pony.

Security wasn’t what it is today. I simply turned up, a guard tipped his hat and I – a long-haired neo-hippy in a broken-down sports car – drove on to the viceregal grounds.

Sir John Kerr and wife Lady Anne Kerr at Sydney Airport in 1978.

Sir John Kerr and wife Lady Anne Kerr at Sydney Airport in 1978.Credit:Fairfax Media

It led to my one close encounter with John Kerr.

One morning the pony, having finished its routine foul-tempered bucking, bolted across the grounds, refusing to answer to the rein.

And there ahead was a white-haired gentleman taking a morning constitutional beside his rose garden. The horse, with me helplessly aboard, hurtled at full gallop towards the governor-general of Australia.

When Sir John finally heard me bellowing “look out, look out”, he looked very startled indeed as horse and rider hurtled past, almost grazing his nose.

When, later, I confessed to Kerr’s butler this act of potential viceregicide, I was surprised to be greeted with hoots of laughter. The butler was normally discreet about the doings at Government House but it emerged he was lately much unimpressed with the G-G and, in particular, the new Lady Kerr.

He let slip that Her Excellency (as she insisted upon being called) had taken, in the mornings, to calling for breakfast to be served to the viceregal bed. And when the butler had trudged up the stairs, placed the tray just so, and made it all the way back down the stairs, a bell would ring.

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Sir John’s toast was cold or the orange juice wasn’t cold enough, came the regular cry from upstairs, and the governor-general wanted the offending items taken away and replaced. Forthwith.

All these years later, the butler’s view from Kerr’s bedroom in that year of rock ’n’ roll feels as telling of the man who took it upon himself to dismiss an elected government as all his letters to the Palace combined.

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