16 August 2022

The Dismissal's man on the steps, Sir David Smith, dies, aged 89

| Ian Bushnell
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Whitlam Dismissal

Sir David Smith, official secretary to the Governor-General, reads out the proclamation to a furious crowd on the steps of Parliament House in 1975 as Prime Minister Gough Whitlam looks on. Photo: National Library of Australia.

The man who in 1975 read out the proclamation sacking Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on the steps of the then Parliament House has died in Canberra, aged 89.

It was a career-defining moment for Sir David Smith, who was Official Secretary to five Governors-General, but one from which he never resiled.

He may have only been the messenger for Sir John Kerr on the day, but his son, Canberra public servant Richard, says he always believed it was the right course of action.

Richard was 18 at the time and knew the Dismissal was happening by hearing it on the radio, but he was not aware of any of the behind-the-scenes activity.

His father talked about it over the years but Richard never got the “dirt” on what happened.

“He was private and totally respected confidentiality and doing things properly,” Richard says.

“Clearly, he was his [Sir John’s] principal adviser at Government House, outside of Chief Justices and what have you.

“He had input but would never have been driving the direction that John Kerr wanted to take it. He would have been just doing his job.”

READ MORE Palace letters reveal Queen was not told about Kerr’s dismissal plans

What miffed him was the way certain elements, particularly the “Gough Whitlam fan club”, have chosen to rewrite history to try to paint the sacked PM as much more of a victim than he was and the desire to portray the Palace and the Queen in a less than favourable light.

“Quite frankly, you only have to look at the election result in 1975 and 1977 to see Whitlam wasn’t a victim at all,” Richard says.

“The people spoke and the events played out as they should have.”

Sir David believed republicans wanted it both ways in arguing for the Queen to go.

“On the one hand, they say the Queen was behind this, and then when it became clear that the Queen had no involvement at all, they’re trying to use that as an argument to support us becoming a republic – the Queen had no input, what use is she?” Richard says.

Sir David attracted the haters for playing such a prominent role in the Dismissal, something he kept from his children.

“It was only when we were clearing some of Dad’s things at home that we found some of the hate mail he’d been receiving,” Richard says.

“He was particularly hurt by some members of the Jewish community who felt he was partly responsible and turned on him.”

For some reason, he kept one particularly revolting anti-Semitic letter the family destroyed.

Sir David Smith

Sir David Smith at his desk in Government House. Photo: Supplied by Richard Smith

A staunch supporter of constitutional monarchy and author of Head of State: The Governor-General, the Monarchy, the Republic and the Dismissal, which argues that the role belongs to the Governor-General, not the Queen, Sir David was quick to point out the difference between that and being a royalist.

He was always frustrated by the republican movement trying to exploit people’s general ignorance of the Governor-General’s role compared to where the Queen is in terms of the Constitution.

“He had a strong belief in our system of government. He defended this system and promoted this system right to the very end,” Richard says.

Apart from being involved in the momentous times of the Dismissal, Richards says his father was proud of his role in the establishment of the Order of Australia and the transition from the Imperial honours to an Australian honours system as the inaugural secretary.

“He was hugely proud of having an AO awarded to him, which was later gazumped when the Queen made him a knight,” Richard says.

“But that was in the Victorian Order for personal service to the monarch; that was important to him.”

Sir David was a delegate to the constitutional convention ahead of the referendum on the republic and was a regular sparring partner with republican and future PM Malcolm Turnbull.

But the pair became friends and Richard says Mr Turnbull sent Sir David a copy of his book inscribed with words to the effect: “Well may you say God Save the Queen but there will only ever be one David Smith”.

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Richard says Sir David was an extremely private and modest person but a very proud Australian who always reflected on what his father, a Polish immigrant, said about this country: “I’ve come here penniless and my son has become the Official Secretary to the Governor-General. What an incredible country.”

He says that as head of the family, everyone admired and respected him.

“The more time they spend with him, the better they became. He taught them old-fashioned manners and how to conduct themselves. All his grandchildren benefited enormously from his influence,” Richard says.

Sir David, his wife June and their young family, moved to Canberra from Melbourne in 1957 and made it their home.

He retired in 1991 and was a stalwart of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy.

ACT and Region Convenor Gary Kent said Sir David was a major force in the organisation since its foundation.

“His contribution to the local branch could not be overestimated,” Mr Kent said.

Sir David is survived by Lady Smith, 87, and his three sons, Michael, 66, Richard, 65, and Phillip, 63.

A private funeral service for family only will be held next week.

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Capital Retro10:05 am 18 Aug 22

Thank you Ian Bushnell for stoking the eternal rage fire.

Peter Graves4:04 pm 18 Aug 22

It does go to the proper role and performance of the Governor-General. At any time.

As I noted, nothing prevents the same from happening again. Only unwritten “convention”.

I’m happy to see that history has judged Kerr as a buffoon.

David Smith while clearly doing his duty did his own legacy no favours by later defending Kerr & ignoring the elephant in the room – that Kerr lied and misled the PM & was only interested in saving his own skin.
Whitlam’s words about Kerr’s cur were indeed prophetic.

Peter Graves2:34 pm 17 Aug 22

Reading “The Palace Letters” by Professor Jenny Hocking provides a much wider background about Whitlam’s dismissal – the direct involvement of the Palace, the G-G, the Leader of the Opposition, the-then Chief Justice of the High Court and another of his Justices, who actually drafted the Dismissal lettter used by Kerr.

The subsequent elections of 1975 and 1977 proved nothing about that dismissal and its complete illegitimacy. It was a conspicuous breach of convention – unwritten though and nothing stops that occurring again.

Disappointing that Richard bring up that old lie that the 1975 election results justify Kerrs action. They are totally irrelevant.

Kerr clearly misled Whitlam. He should of had the courage to advise him that a double dissolution was an option if Supply could not be passed.

Kerr was more interested in saving his own skin rather than showing honesty and integriry.

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