Secret correspondence between Buckingham Palace and the governor general of Australia reveal discussion of a “last resort” option to dismiss then prime minister Gough Whitlam, but the final decision on the sacking was kept from the Queen as it “was better for Her Majesty not to know in advance”.
The historic trove of letters between the Queen, her representatives, and then governor general John Kerr in the lead-up to Whitlam’s dismissal clearly shows the extent to which the palace was drawn into Kerr’s 1975 plans to remove the Labor leader from office.
The 211 letters, dubbed the palace letters, were finally released on Tuesday, after a four-year court battle launched by historian Jenny Hocking to remove one of the final veils of secrecy still shrouding one of Australia’s greatest political crises.
That crisis reached its peak on 11 November 1975, when Kerr sacked Whitlam.
Prior to the dismissal, Whitlam was under immense pressure from Australia’s conservative opposition, which, buoyed by a series of scandals and a resounding by-election win, was using Australia’s upper house to block the supply of money to government in an attempt to force an early election.
As the crisis dragged on, the palace letters show that Kerr wrote to the Queen’s private secretary, Martin Charteris, raising an intention to intervene and his power to sack Whitlam and dissolve parliament.
On 4 November 1975, a week out from the dismissal, Charteris told Kerr that he was “playing the vice-regal hand with skill and wisdom”.
“Your interest in the situation has been demonstrated and so has your impartiality,” Charteris wrote.
He said the fact that Kerr had the powers to dissolve parliament “is recognised but it is also clear that you will only use them in the last resort and then only for Constitutional – and not for political – reasons”.
“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,” he wrote.
Charteris also cautioned Kerr that then opposition leader Malcolm Fraser wanted him to believe that the country was in a constitutional crisis, because he believed he would win the ensuing election.
On the day of Whitlam’s dismissal, 11 November 1975, Kerr wrote to the palace. He made it clear that he had not informed the palace directly of his decision.
He did so to protect 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,” Kerr wrote.
Charteris later responded:
“If I may say so with the greatest respect, I believe in not informing the Queen of what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with Constitutional propriety, but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position.”
In a statement to the Guardian, a Buckingham Palace spokesperson said the letters showed that the Queen and the royal household had no part in Kerr’s decision. The palace said the Queen had at all times honoured her oath to govern the peoples of Australia “according to their respective laws and customs”.
“The release of the letters by the National Archives Australia confirms that neither Her Majesty nor the Royal Household had any part to play in Kerr’s decision to dismiss Whitlam,” the spokesperson said.
Palace sources stressed that it is a long standing convention, which the Household still believes and still upholds, that conversations between prime ministers, governors generals and the Queen are private.
They said the letters made it clear that the Queen has always pledged her support for Australia and the Australian constitution and the Australian people, something that they said was made clear by Charteris’s statement that the Queen cannot intervene in the matter.
The letters also further confirm that, in the lead-up to the dismissal, Kerr feared Whitlam might try to have him sacked as governor-general.
That might explain why Kerr did not give advance warning to Whitlam of his intentions.
Writing on 20 November 1975, Kerr explained to the palace that he had not wanted to put the Queen in a difficult position.
“History will doubtless provide an answer to this question, but I was in a position where, in my opinion, I simply could not risk the outcome for the sake of the monarchy,” he wrote.
“If, in the period of say 24 hours, during which he [Whitlam] was considering his position, he advised the Queen in the strongest of terms that I should be immediately dismissed, the position would then have been that either I would, in fact, be trying to dismiss him while he was trying to dismiss me – an impossible position for the Queen.”
Until Tuesday, the letters were kept secret from Australians by a potentially indefinite Queen’s embargo, despite their critical importance to the nation’s history.
The secrecy was aided by the classification of the records as “personal” communications between Kerr, the Queen, and her private secretary, thereby exempting them from the usual 30-year public release provisions applying to Commonwealth records.
Hocking challenged that interpretation through Australia’s federal court and high court, and was ultimately successful in dismantling the notion that the records were “personal”.
Hocking told the Guardian following the release that it was a “great day for transparency”. Hocking was still working through the letters on Tuesday, but said she had felt “tremendously excited” to finally read them.
“This is a really historic moment in terms of the release of secret letters, but from a Queen to the governor general, so it’s a really important day for accessing material that’s going to shed a huge amount of light on just what transpired.”
David Fricker, the director general of the archives, said he was similarly pleased to have the documents made public.
He said the very function of the archives was to enable public release, but said it must do so according to the law.
“I am happy about [the release] for a number of reasons,” Fricker told the Guardian. “One, these documents are of intense interest, without doubt. We’ve never disputed the historic significance of these documents,” he said. “Not only are they historically significant, but they’ve inspired a lot of people in Australia to become interested in Australia’s history and I think that’s a good thing.”
The release of the palace letters is likely to spark renewed debate about the role of the monarchy in an independent Australia. The secrecy alone has been seized upon by the Australian Republic Movement as evidence of the “absurdity” of having a foreign monarch interfere in an independent democracy.
“This kind of transparency should be the norm in a democracy, not the exception” the ARM’s national director, Sandy Biar, said. “It’s time Australia had an Australian as our head of state that is accountable to Australians and Australian laws.”
Hocking has previously described the letters as the “single most important set of documents about the dismissal of the Whitlam government to have been released in the last decade”.
Kerr dismissed Whitlam on 11 November 1975 as a deep crisis engulfed his reformist Labor government.
Plagued by the damaging loans affair, the sacking of his deputy, Jim Cairns, and a bitter byelection defeat in a safe Labor seat, Whitlam was thrown further into turmoil when the conservative opposition blocked supply in the Senate, Australia’s upper house.
Fraser demanded Whitlam call an election. Kerr, a staunch monarchist, involved himself closely in the affair and sent dispatches back to the palace without Whitlam’s knowledge.
Five days before the 11 November sacking, Kerr reported to the palace that Whitlam would not call an election and that the only option for his removal was for the governor general to sack him.
Whitlam, though, had planned to go ahead with a scheduled half-Senate election and went to tell Kerr as much on the day of his dismissal.
When Kerr instead sacked him, it sparked a constitutional and political crisis that gripped the nation and led to years of rancour.
Whitlam retained the confidence of Australia’s lower house following his dismissal, but was soundly defeated in an election held weeks later.
Separate records, including Kerr’s 1980 journal, had previously suggested the importance of the letters in completely understanding Kerr’s motives, potential hesitations, and the extent to which he shared his plans with the palace.
Some of the content of Kerr’s dispatches have already been publicly revealed, including his advice that Whitlam was unlikely to call an election and that sacking him was the only option left for his removal.