Forty-five years after the dismissal of Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, and after four years of legal challenges, the full correspondence between governor general Sir John Kerr and the Queen was released on Tuesday morning.
The full 211 letters, stretching to 1,200 pages, were uploaded online but then unavailable due to the National Archives website crashing.
Before the full release, director general of the archives, David Fricker, presented a quick briefing of some of the key letters. Historians, including Prof Jenny Hocking, have long-argued that the letters may shed light on the Queen’s prior knowledge of Kerr’s decision in 1975 to dismiss Gough Whitlam as prime minister.
What are the palace letters?
In 1975 the Australian government led by Gough Whitlam was sensationally sacked by the governor general, Sir John Kerr, the Queen’s representative in Australia. The “palace letters” are hundreds of previously secret letters between Kerr and the Queen about the dismissal. Many believe they hold the key to understanding what role the Queen played in Whitlam’s downfall.
Why are they being released now?
The historian Jenny Hocking has mounted a four-year legal battle to have the letters released from the National Archives of Australia, where they have been held as “private” records for decades under embargo by the Queen. In May the high court of Australia finally ordered that the letters were in fact commonwealth records and must be released.
But wait, don’t Australians democratically elect their prime ministers?
Many Australians think they alone have the ability to vote governments in and out but, under the country’s constitution and because Australia is not a republic, ultimate power rests with the governor general as a representative of the Queen. Kerr’s move to force Whitlam’s reforming leftwing government from office, after the conservative opposition had blocked appropriation bills in the upper house of parliament, remains one of the most controversial moments in modern Australian politics.
What’s that famous quote again?
“Well may we say ‘God save the Queen’ because nothing will save the governor general.” – Gough Whitlam, 11 November, 1975.
Here is what we know so far:
On 11 November, 1975, after he dismissed Whitlam, the governor general, Sir John Kerr, wrote to the Queen’s private secretary that he had done so “without informing the palace in advance”.
He wrote: “I decided to take the step I took without informing the palace in advance ... I was of the opinion it was better for Her Majesty not to know in advance.”
But other letters from as early as July showed that Kerr had discussed, with the palace, the legal validity of his dismissing Whitlam for months before the decision.
In a letter sent to the palace on 3 July, Kerr enclosed a clipping from the Canberra Times that raised the possibility of his dismissing Whitlam.
The article said: “The governor general has certain clear powers to check an elected government... He could, for good and sufficient reasons, revoke the commissions of a prime minister or other ministers…The good government of Australia, especially at a time of grave economic disruption, is the only thing that counts and the most extreme steps to ensure this must be taken if there is no other way.
Kerr wrote that he had “no intention of acting in the way suggested,” but said the newspaper was “a responsible, high quality paper”. “The editorial may be of general interest as background,” he wrote.
The Queen’s private secretary, Martin Charteris, wrote to Kerr on 4 November that: “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 … but to use them is a heavy responsibility and it is only at the very end when there is demonstrably no other course that they should be used.”
In a letter after the dismissal, Charteris also wrote: “In NOT informing the Queen what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with perfect constitutional propriety but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position.”
He also joked that if Whitlam won the resulting election, then Whitlam “ought to be extremely grateful” to Kerr.
Kerr also told the palace on 20 November that he did not warn Whitlam of his intention to dismiss him, in case Whitlam moved to revoke his commission as governor general before that could happen.
Kerr wrote that Whitlam told him at a Melbourne Cup reception that the “only way” a House election could occur “would be if I dismissed him”. This was in a letter on 6 November, his last to the palace before he dismissed Whitlam,
After his dismissal, Whitlam called Buckingham Palace as a “private citizen” and asked to be reinstated as PM.
“Mr Whitlam telephoned to me at 4.15am (our time) on 11th November,” Charteris wrote on 17 November. “Mr Whitlam prefaced his remarks by saying that he was speaking as a ‘private citizen’...and said that now supply had been passed he should be re-commissioned as prime minister so that he could choose his own time to call an election.”
In a letter on 24 November, Kerr also wrote that friends had cut ties with him, believing he had conspired with Malcolm Fraser.
In June 1976, well after the dismissal, Whitlam and his wife dined with Charteris and, the next day, Whitlam had an audience with the Queen.
Charteris wrote to Kerr that Whitlam had “at least conceded” that it could possibly be argued that Kerr acted in line with his constitutional duty during the dismissal.
“Mr Whitlam was in excellent form and the conversation at dinner range agreeably from Sir Harold Wilson’s resignation honours list to the characters of politicians in the country and in yours!” he wrote.
“I had about half-an-hour’s private talk with Mr Whitlam after dinner and he remained sweet and reasonable, spoke warmly of the Queen, and at least conceded that it could be argued that you had acted in accordance with the constitution!”