A collection of more than 200 letters between former governor-general Sir John Kerr and Queen Elizabeth II has revealed for the first time how much Buckingham Palace knew of the 1975 dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s ALP government.
The letters, released this morning via the website of the National Archives of Australia, show that on the day of the Dismissal, November 11 1975, Sir John Kerr wrote to the Queen:
I should say I decided to take the step I took without informing the palace in advance because, under the Constitution, the responsibility is mine, and I was of the opinion it was better for Her Majesty not to know in advance, though it is of course my duty to tell her immediately.
Other letters show that Kerr discussed the legal validity of dismissing Whitlam for months with the Queen’s private secretary Sir Martin Charteris.
They also reveal that in early October, six weeks before Whitlam was dismissed, Kerr discussed with the palace the possibility that Whitlam might ask the Queen to dismiss Kerr.
To prevent such a scenario from occurring, Kerr did not warn Whitlam of his intent.
If in the period of 24 hours in which [Whitlam] was considering his position he advised the Queen that I should be immediately dismissed, the position would then have been that either I would be, in fact, trying to dismiss him while he was trying to dismiss me — an impossible position for the Queen. I simply could not risk the outcome for the sake of the monarchy.
Monash University emeritus professor and Whitlam biographer Jenny Hocking has fought long and hard to have the veil of secrecy lifted from the letters, having been knocked back by the National Archives, a Federal Court judge and then the full bench of the Federal Court before finally prevailing at the High Court in May.
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Hocking told Crikey: “I remember at the time it made me think very carefully, ‘how does democracy work?’ How is it possible that an elected government can be removed by an appointed official in this way and I do remember being utterly shocked by the circumstances.”
The dramatic events of 1975 were months in the making but picked up pace in October of that year when, amid mounting scandal engulfing Whitlam, Liberal opposition leader Malcolm Fraser elected to block supply of the budget in the Senate.
Pushing the issue to the brink, Fraser insisted that Whitlam call a double dissolution. Whitlam had another plan: he would call a half Senate election, with the hope of gaining the numbers he needed.
According to Hocking, letters between Kerr and the palace are key to those two events: the blocking of supply on October 17, and Whitlam’s move to call a half-Senate election around November 6. Five days later, on November 11, the governor-general dismissed the Whitlam government and appointed Fraser caretaker prime minister.
Hocking describes the volume of correspondence between Kerr and Charteris as “dramatic” and a major departure from the convention of governors-general before and since.
“The conventional arrangement was that governors would report on some sort of basis each year. Some did that annually, the most they would have done that was quarterly. so you might have expected 12 letters from Kerr over a three year period, not 116.”
The Palace responded with 95 letters.
Hocking explains that governors-general would normally report to the Queen “at the end point of something”, rather than communicate constantly over a month “considering particular options or strategies which appears to be the case here”.
This inevitably raised the question of whether there was any sort of involvement by the monarch in terms of Kerr’s decision making, Hocking says.
The mere existence of so much correspondence refutes the suggestion that the palace was a distant and disengaged player in the unfolding drama of the Dismissal, according to Emeritus Professor John Warhurst, former national chair of the Australian Republican Movement, now an academic at the ANU.
“Living through 1975 you saw the Queen as barely even an observer, being 12,000 miles away, as if these were essentially Australian politics between the governor-general and the prime minister, as if Buckingham Palace had no prior knowledge about what was going on,” he told Crikey.
“Indeed a lot of the argument was about whether Gough Whitlam could have saved himself by contacting the Queen to dismiss John Kerr.
“But that close relationship between the GG and the Queen is part of the story of which we were unaware back in 1975 just as we were unaware of the relationship Kerr and [chief justice of the High Court] Garfield Barwick and later [High Court justice] Anthony Mason.”
According to Hocking it was “problematic” that the palace was involved, even if only through Kerr’s own letters.
“At the same time as corresponding with the Queen, Kerr had made it very clear that he had decided to remain silent — that was his word — to the prime minister. That’s a preposterous position for a governor-general to put himself in, that he is remaining silent to the PM on the very matters that he ought to be discussing with the PM and that is different options and strategies in the lead-up to the Dismissal.”
Hocking dismisses the notion that the palace directed Kerr in any way, pointing to a more subtle form of engagement.
“It seems to me that a governor-general raising issues that a GG ought not to be raising that is then engaged with by the Queen, you know you have to ask how would Kerr have read that?” Hocking said. “So if the palace or the Queen had said to him — as I believe she ought to have said — look we cannot have this conversation, you ought to be having this conversation with your PM, of course Kerr would have seen that as a brake on anything he might have been contemplating in secret from the PM.”
From Warhurst’s point of view the letters also put paid to the idea that the GG was the effective head of state, “or as some would say, the constitutional head of state”:
“These letters show the governor-general acting as the Queen’s representative and reporting to the palace on a regular basis, taking advice from the palace on a regular basis. It shows the essential one-ness of the relationship between the GG and the British monarchy. For republicans that’s the important thread in this whole story.”
The High Court’s decision to order the opening of the letters accepted the legal argument that the correspondence between governor-general and monarch was not personal, as it had been styled by Kerr. It was therefore subject to the Archives Act. The ruling is also the first of its kind when it comes to royal records.
“It’s been a real colonial upstart of a decision,” Hocking said, pointing to the fact that Australian law had taken precedence over the Queen’s wishes — even if it took nigh on 45 years.