(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Well after more than a day and a night luxuriating in the folds of the Kerr-palace letters the first thing one can say is: wow. Wow. Maybe you have to know what you’re looking for but this collection is dynamite.

It exposes how the power relations of the UK and Australia worked and still work, the many forces behind the Whitlam government dismissal, the clash of personalities that drove it to some degree and, most extraordinarily, the character of Sir John Kerr. 

And with all that are its gaps and absences, all that is unsaid and unspoken but which guided the players and may be of greater significance.

Above all this cache reminds anyone on the left once again what a crime and a tragedy was not only the dismissal but the faltering of the Whitlam government, how its removal set the conditions for the place we live in now, much diminished, the runt of the settler-capitalist litter. 

You want a simpler takeaway? Leaving aside many other factors which went into Kerr’s actions, my take is that Buckingham Palace wanted to strengthen the legitimacy of the Crown office of governor-general in relation to Australian elected offices.

With the 1975 struggle over supply becoming more entrenched, and Kerr in frequent communication with the palace, it recognised his weaknesses and played to them to get a clarifying result. Bizarrely, it turns out it’s all Canada’s fault. I shall explain.

And so the letters began …

First, what the documents are. Four years of correspondence between Kerr and the palace, the respondent being Sir Martin Charteris, the Queen’s private secretary. Within that are 1200 pages — about 200 letters, news clippings and articles sent by Kerr, and some forwarded letters that he comments on.

They begin with Kerr’s appointment after the 1974 election. He begins bombarding the palace with six-page, single-spaced typed missives on marbled blue notepaper about — everything. The political state of play. What’s happening inside the parties. The problem of inflation. His decision to wear morning suits to official events. Whether the curtsy should still be employed. And on and on.

“I regret to say I have two letters of yours which I am yet to answer … ,” Charteris replies in a crisp white note in December 1974. Much of early 1975 is taken up with Whitlam’s Australian honours list whose structure Kerr objects to and tries to undermine.

By autumn it has turned to the emerging political crisis, as the Liberal government of New South Wales and the National government of Queensland broke convention by appointing replacements for departing Labor senators not from Labor, thus giving the Coalition a Senate majority.

Opposition leader Billy Snedden, seen as ineffectual, is replaced by Malcolm Fraser who makes clear he will not be bound by the convention that the Senate does not block money bills. 

Kerr is energised. He starts to include clippings in his letters, like your grandma sending you items from the paper. The question of constitutional powers begins to be discussed. Fraser publicly argues that extreme and reprehensible circumstances could justify a denial of supply, forcing an election. 

He gets it when it’s revealed that Whitlam’s resources minister Rex Connor has misled parliament — and Whitlam — by continuing to use a shadowy agent Tirath Khemlani to find a $2-$4 billion loan (5-10% of GDP; $50-$100 billion today) from petro states to develop Australia’s resources sector. By mid-October Australia is in political crisis. 

The crisis is multiple because in order to open up a new flank, Whitlam’s staff have outed a CIA agent, Richard Stallings, as operating in Australia, without Australian government knowledge. Stallings had built the US Pine Gap spy base in the 1960s.

The leases of that and other bases were up for renewal on December 9 and Whitlam was making noises about not renewing them. He was also planning to announce in parliament — on November 11 — that the US had lied about Stallings and other CIA operatives in Australia.

‘The crisis has broken’

However, that matter does not appear in the Palace Letters. Instead Kerr begins a process of reporting and thinking out loud to Charteris. And here’s where the story starts to diverge from the account Kerr later gave. 

On October 17, 1975, Kerr tells the palace “the crisis has broken”, with the misleading of parliament now out in the open. However, on October 20 he notes that the Senate has “deferred” not “rejected” supply and that Whitlam has said that he, Whitlam, would never give way to the Senate.

He also mentions an AFR article by Andrew Clark which sets out various scenarios. These included the possibility that Kerr could move to use the governor-general’s “reserve powers” — i.e. to act without prime ministerial advice — and that Whitlam could gazump Kerr by advising the Queen to sack him. 

By convention, the reserve powers had been supposed to no longer hold. A governor-general was meant to do exactly as a prime minister advised. But in that week the shadow attorney-general Bob Ellicott had issued a paper/press release (which Kerr includes) claiming that the reserve powers still exist in full force.

Whitlam meanwhile is battening down the hatches. In that week he asks the Queen to remove the “dormant commission” from Queensland’s governor Colin Hannah (the capacity for state governors to become an acting governor-general if the post is vacant). Hannah had made party political statements saying the Whitlam government should go. 

Kerr is thus left in no doubt that Whitlam will use the direct route to the palace if he has to. Nevertheless, in letters on both October 27 and November 3, Kerr explicitly states that the money would not run out until the end of November. Kerr has sought advice on the reserve powers, in two directions: one, do they still exist, and two, do they compel him to sack a government as soon as its appropration bills are rejected by the Senate? 

Over these last two weeks in October the shift in Kerr’s tone is unmistakable. For a year or more he has been rather pompous and long-winded, obsequious as regards titles etc. In October he understands he is at the centre of a national political crisis. 

This is an era, remember, when there is still a left. Key trade union leaders — Laurie Carmichael, John Halfpenny, Norm Gallagher and others — are actual communists. In the UK a year earlier, miners’ strikes had brought down a government. The letters of October and early November to my reading don’t just sound worried that Kerr may lose his plum job — there is worry that things are about to get out of control. 

Things get really complicated …

In this final week it gets really complicated. On November 3 Kerr writes that Fraser has offered a compromise — an immediate half-Senate election, an early Reps election by June 1976 — but that Whitlam refused. Whitlam is going to use the crisis to break the Senate’s power over supply once and for all. Still, Kerr asserts that the political back and forth will, and can, run to end of November.

But on November 5 and 6, two letters from Charteris — dated November 4 and 5 — “cross back” to Kerr, replying to his letter of October 27. In that he had mused about the reserve powers, and said:

I should welcome any observations on a private or personal basis which you would care to make.

In the November 4 letter, Charteris obliges:

… It is often argued that such [reserve] powers no longer exist. I do not believe this to be true. I think those powers do exist …

In the November 5 letter, he quotes a Canadian prime minister, Arthur Meighen, on the powers of the governor-general:

It is [the governor-general’s] duty to make sure that parliament is not stifled by government, but that every government is held responsible to parliament, and every parliament held responsible to the people.

These two letters, taken together, are a political intervention by the Crown in Australian politics. There is no other way to see them. Charteris had the option of saying to Kerr: “It is for your judgement alone, and Her Majesty has complete confidence in you etc.” But he doesn’t. He affirms, casually, the highly contentious idea that reserve powers are still active.

Crucial to this is the quote from Meighen, Canada’s prime minister in the 1920s at the time of the “King-Byng” crisis, in which governor-general Lord Byng refused Liberal prime minister Mackenzie King’s request for a new election and gave the Conservatives, led by Meighen, the chance to try to form a government.

Meighen’s argument about the powers of the governor-general reaffirmed the notion that the executive power of commonwealth “dominions” still resided absolutely in the Crown. 

There’s a lot more that happens in the five or six days between Kerr reading that letter and sacking the Whitlam government (including simplistic, purely political advice from chief justice Garfield Barwick that “of course” the reserve powers still exist), but what’s clear is this: either Kerr changes his mind about the timeline of the crisis, when and how he must act, or his prior letters to the palace have been a carefully constructed dissembling.

A smoking gun …

I do not believe the latter scenario for a second. And here’s a smoking gun of sorts. In a letter of November 17, as the country is in uproar and Whitlam is asking the Queen to re-seat him as prime minister (since the Reps had voted confidence in him), Kerr says:

The Senate might, I suppose, have given in … but after three refusals of supply … I am sure I had to get the matter to the people …

So deferrals have become refusals post-hoc. The end of November timeline has gone and the language of the justification — “the people”– are the words of Meighen’s that Charteris had quoted to Kerr, played back to him.

Kerr hadn’t really taken this line — that the governor-general was a people’s representative against the government and parliament — before. Charteris — by profession a courtier — had flattered and influenced a man who, on the evidence of the letters, was more tremulous about events that we have previously credited. 

But here’s the real kicker about why this matters. Meighen’s statements derived from a crisis that occurred in the period when these countries were dominions — when the governor-general was responsible to the British Crown via the British government which had veto powers over laws enacted by dominion parliaments. 

It was the King-Byng crisis and the Scullin-Isaacs crisis of 1930 (when PM James Scullin threatened to go to an election on the issue of whether the Australian PM or the British chose Australia’s governor-general) that prompted the end of the dominion system in 1930-1931. That gave commonwealth parliaments sovereign power, and contributed to retrenching the reserve powers.

Playing back the King-Byng crisis, and later recommending a pro-reserve powers book to Kerr, was the Crown’s way of using the crisis to strengthen its executive power in Australia. It saw the opportunity and took it. 

There was more, much more, to Kerr’s decision, as I’ve outlined before and will return to tomorrow. But anyone who can’t see the palace playing power politics in these letters is kidding themselves. Or trying to kid others. 

Peter Fray

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