Pressure is building on the Prime Minister to intervene in the long-running dispute over the release of the Palace letters, the secret correspondence between the Queen and the governor-general Sir John Kerr in the months before Kerr’s 1975 Dismissal of the Whitlam government. These letters are held by the National Archives in Canberra where they have been designated as “personal” — not official — correspondence and embargoed “on the instructions” of the Queen until at least 2027, with her private secretary retaining a final veto over their release even after that date. The reality is that we, as Australians, do not own our history, while these historic letters, written at the height of our greatest constitutional crisis, remain hidden from us at the behest of the Queen.
Turnbull now faces pressure to intervene on three fronts: from his own rash commitment in 2015 to seek the release of the letters from the Queen, from an important question in parliament about the letters which the Prime Minister has so far refused to answer, and from the Federal Court action that I have taken against the National Archives, seeking the release of the letters, and which is to be heard on 31 July.
For more than 40 years the Palace letters have been locked away in the National Archives, designated as “personal” despite their obvious status and significance, denied to us and lost to our historical memory. Into this morass of royal secrecy and vice-regal intrigue stepped the newly installed Prime Minister, Australia’s most prominent republican, Malcolm Turnbull, confidently asserting that he would “resolve the impasse” and approach the Palace to secure the release of this historic correspondence. Turnbull’s commitment was made on the 40th anniversary of the Dismissal, November 11, 2015, and he appeared then to accept that Kerr’s communications with the Queen were of historic significance and that their release would be in Australia’s national interest.
It was a breath of fresh air, a feel-good moment of colonial up-startery not seen since Gough Whitlam’s attorney-general, Lionel Murphy, arrived at a press conference in London in 1973 and derided any residual constitutional links with Britain as “colonial relics”. Here was Malcolm Turnbull in his best Spycatcher mode, promising to sever the last of these same “colonial relics” — the Queen’s quasi-imperial embargo over her correspondence with the governor-general.
Turnbull may now be regretting making such a politically fraught promise to secure the release of the royal correspondence, which would, in effect, challenge the authority over them, and over Australia’s post-colonial independent status, asserted by the Queen. These letters are central to the history of the Dismissal and their release would answer once and for all the lingering questions over exactly what the Queen knew about the Dismissal of the twice-elected Whitlam government by her representative in Australia, Sir John Kerr. Turnbull’s commitment to assert Australia’s authority over its own historical documents was therefore met with great excitement by those wanting the full story of Kerr’s unprecedented dismissal of the Whitlam government to be told.
In the end it was all a bit of a damp squib. Turnbull’s brash colonial vigour led only to his silence, inaction and refusal even to answer questions about his much-vaunted promise to assert our post-colonial independence and secure the release of the Palace letters. Like so many of this Prime Minister’s promises, the result has been not very much at all.
There it might have rested as just another hollow promise, made more for public effect than political action, had it not been for the Labor member for Bruce, Julian Hill, who would not let the Prime Minister off the hook quite so easily. Hill’s question on notice to Turnbull in the House on the final sitting day last year sought to draw him out about his previously stated commitment to the release of the Palace letters:
“In respect of his reported position in November 2015 that he would formally advise Her Majesty the Queen to release the correspondence known as the ‘Palace Letters’ between her and the then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, in 1975 on the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, has he done this; if not, (a) why not, and (b) when will he; if so, (c) on what date, and (d) what response has he received?”
Turnbull has never responded to Hill’s question. And so, last month the Speaker of the House Tony Smith, who has developed a reputation for independence despite his Liberal party credentials, wrote to the Prime Minister under Standing Order 105 reminding him that he had thus far failed to answer Hill’s question within the specified 60 days. He is still yet to answer and we are no clearer to knowing whether he ever acted on his promise of nearly two years ago to formally approach the Queen to secure the release of the Palace letters.
Turnbull is now under growing pressure to make good his promise to advise the Queen to release her secret correspondence with Kerr at the time of the dismissal. His dilemma is that if he keeps his promise he will come under even greater pressure from the Palace and Government House to maintain the protocol that this royal correspondence remains secret. If he formally advises the Queen to release the letters it would raise significant constitutional issues and potentially, the palace would argue, unsettle relations between the Queen and her (post)-colonial governors — and not just in Australia.
Even worse, for the Palace to refuse to release the Palace letters following Turnbull’s advice to do so would be an unthinkable imperial impertinence, opening the way for a renewed push for a Republic. What a fine irony that final reverberation from the dismissal of the Whitlam government would be.
*Professor Jenny Hocking, Whitlam biographer, is the author of Gough Whitlam: A Moment in History, Gough Whitlam: His Time and The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975.