Today marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most divisive and corrosive episodes in our history, the dismissal of Gough Whitlam as prime minister by the governor-general Sir John Kerr. Kerr’s action in removing the twice-elected Whitlam government and appointing the leader of the opposition, Malcolm Fraser, prime minister on November 11, 1975, was an abject subversion of our political process and it continues to be vigorously contested. The dismissal was steeped in deception then and since and the history of it has been similarly flawed — incomplete, politicised and at times deliberately distorted. It is only now, 40 years later that we have if not the full story, then most of it. If the dismissal is a battle over the judgement of history, the evidentiary direction has been all one way. For Kerr and Fraser in particular, it is damning.
In my book The Dismissal Dossier I reveal the startling posthumous revelations from Malcolm Fraser and his former strategist and coalition Senate leader, Reg Withers, both of whom left embargoed interviews in the National Library. In an interview embargoed until after his death, Withers finally confirms that Fraser and Kerr had been in secret telephone contact prior to the dismissal of the Whitlam government. Withers recounts his presence in Fraser’s office when Kerr rang on Fraser’s private line, after which Fraser said to Withers, “You never heard that conversation.” This secret private contact was repeatedly and consistently denied by both Fraser and Kerr, its posthumous confirmation carries implications not only for the historical record. As Whitlam’s former private secretary John Menadue wrote in his recent post on this critical revelation: “It also highlights personal deceit by the Governor General” and, it must be said, of both Fraser and Withers. (See also this Menadue post).
In the course of establishing this corrective to history, the question of how much Buckingham Palace knew has come more clearly into view. Much of this has come from the wealth of archival material I uncovered in 2012 during research for the second volume of my biography of Gough Whitlam, Gough Whitlam: His Time. In these private papers, notes, journal and extensive reflections, Kerr reveals that the palace knew that he was considering the prospect of dismissing Whitlam from as early as September 1975, when he confided his concern for his own position to Prince Charles in Port Moresby. Kerr raised with Prince Charles his concern that Whitlam might move to recall his commission if he became aware of the possibility of dismissal, and Kerr recounts Charles’ solicitous response: “But surely, Sir John, the Queen should not have to accept advice that you should be recalled at the very time when you were considering having to dismiss the government.” This is an astonishing revelation by Kerr, one that profoundly challenges our previous understanding of the Dismissal.
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Kerr here is stating that Prince Charles knew that he was “considering having to dismiss the government” as early as September — one month before the supply bills were even blocked in the Senate, and two months before the dismissal. Kerr’s concern was conveyed from Charles to the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, who then wrote to Kerr just weeks before the dismissal and told him that should this “contingency” arise, the Queen would try to delay things for as long as possible. The implications of this are startling, the palace had conveyed to Kerr that it would delay implementing a decision of the prime minister of Australia on his recall, a decision that was entirely and properly Whitlam’s to make. The Queen has consistently been portrayed as determined not to become involved in the events of 1975, and yet by entering into this communication with Kerr over his own position, and agreeing even to consider a means of delaying it, the palace had interposed itself directly into matters of Australian politics. In the process it had highlighted the real effect of what Whitlam termed the “post-colonial relics” still impeding our national sovereignty.
Kerr’s letters to the palace are embargoed for 50 years from the end of Kerr’s tenure as governor-general, until 2027, and I was only recently denied access to them. I was informed by Government House that the letters remain embargoed, “at Her Majesty, the Queen’s instructions”. As if it were not bad enough that our access to critical documents in our own history is determined by a foreign monarch, even once this 50-year embargo is lifted, it is the Queen’s private secretary who will advise on later requests for access. In other words, we may never see this correspondence unless the palace determines that we can.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has indicated that he will request that Buckingham Palace release “the Palace Letters”. For the full story to finally be told, it is essential that this request include not only Kerr’s correspondence with the Queen, but also his correspondence with both Sir Martin Charteris and Prince Charles. Much of the content of Kerr’s letters to the Queen is, in fact, already known, since Kerr himself revealed it.
However, among Kerr’s private papers are six “extracts from letters” in the weeks leading up to the dismissal that I identified, also in 2012, as extracts from his letters to the palace. In his own way Kerr had left a posthumous record of the key points from his letters to the palace that he knew would be long embargoed. In all but one of those letters Kerr refers to the prospect of having to dismiss Whitlam and it simply defies the mounting evidence to the contrary to continue to deny that the palace knew of this possibility.
Also among Kerr’s private papers is a handwritten note headed “Dismissal” in which Kerr lists key points in the trajectory of the dismissal and which includes, “Charteris’s advice to me on dismissal”. There could scarcely be a stronger indication of the prior knowledge of, if not involvement in, Kerr’s thinking than this, that not only was the palace aware that Kerr was considering the possibility of dismissal, the Queen’s private secretary had provided “advice” to him on it. The insistent claims that the palace was entirely unaware that Kerr was considering dismissing Whitlam, now appear as increasingly desperate attempts to shore up a crumbling historical position.
Few would deny that Kerr should, at the very least, have warned Whitlam. That he did not do so was Kerr’s great moral and political failing — and the very reason why the palace became immediately drawn into the furore that followed. Yet despite knowing of Kerr’s concerns for his own position in the context of his consideration of dismissal, the Palace at no stage urged Kerr to warn Whitlam first, nor warned Whitlam themselves of the substance of their communications with Kerr. Their silence on this point could only have been read by Kerr as a “royal green light”. It told him that the palace held no fundamental concern for the act of dismissal itself — for if so, they would surely have advised him of it. Kerr certainly read their silence as such as his papers make clear. The few comments from palace officials in the decades since have confirmed this view, the response has never been to demur from Kerr’s action in dismissing Whitlam, merely to suggest that in their view Kerr acted too soon. Their only concern about the dismissal appears to have been one of timing.
The dismissal of the Whitlam government was so contentious and so polarising that its history inevitably became bound up with its politics. With such political urgency embedded in its history, every unfolding revelation and every re-interpretation of that dramatic time has become part of the struggle to secure the historical record. The dismissal of the Whitlam government is simply too significant, and far too interesting, to continue to constrain in this way. It is time we let the dismissal pass from politics to history and, 40 years later, to finally accept what that history tells us.
*Professor Jenny Hocking is the author of The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975, Melbourne University Press, 2015
*This article was originally published at John Menadue’s blog, Pearls and Irritations