Sir John Kerr’s decision to dismiss Gough Whitlam as prime minister – and his government with him – in 1975 was the apex of Australia’s greatest political crisis and has sparked furious debate in books and newspapers in the years since. On July 14, a new cache of documents called the Palace Letters that had stayed secret since they were written in the 1970s revealed more about how the dismissal happened and the Palace’s role in it than almost anything since 1975.
So what are the Palace Letters? Who wrote them? And what do they say?
What are the Palace Letters?
The “letters” are more than 1200 pages of letters, telegrams and clippings sent between Sir John Kerr as governor-general of Australia and Sir Martin Charteris, then Queen Elizabeth’s private secretary. They span the years 1974 to 1977 and shed light on an array of topics including, most notably, Sir John’s dismissal of the Whitlam government in November 1975. That was triggered by opposition leader Malcolm Fraser’s decision to block the government’s supply bills, starving it of funds, and sparking a constitutional crisis.
What do they show?
Sir John does not tell the Palace he plans to dismiss Gough Whitlam and dissolve his government but confers with Sir Martin about his power to do so and is given guidance about whether it would be wise. In one letter, Sir Martin points the governor-general to a scholarly text that argues he can dissolve a government.
In another, before the dismissal, Sir Martin says while Sir John has the powers to dissolve parliament, he ought “only use them in the last resort and then only for constitutional and not for political reasons.”
Later, after Mr Whitlam’s sacking, he praises Sir John’s decision not to inform the Queen as showing “admirable consideration”, implying it has shielded her from criticism and kept the issue in Australia, and says if Mr Whitlam were to be reappointed prime minister he ought to be “grateful” to Sir John.
Why were the letters kept secret for so long?
Public documents created by federal officials are usually eligible to be released after 30 years. However, Sir John’s files were given to the National Archives of Australia on a “personal” basis and with the condition that they only be released after 60 years and in consultation with the monarch’s representative.
Later, that was changed to 50 years and the Queen’s approval. If those conditions held, the documents would have been eligible for release in 2027 but may never have seen daylight. Documents that are eligible for release do not automatically become public and the archives, which checks to see if documents can be released, has a backlog of tens of thousands of applications it has not yet processed. Some have been waiting for years although thousands are made public annually.
How were they released?
Monash University historian Professor Jenny Hocking, who has written extensively on Mr Whitlam, fought a court battle stretching across three-and-a-half years, arguing the National Archives had misclassified Sir John’s files. Supported by a pro-bono legal team, Professor Hocking argued the files were actually public records because they were created while Sir John was fulfilling his official role as the governor-general.
Both the National Archives and the Morrison government opposed the release in court. Speaking at the release of the letters, the archives’ director-general, David Fricker, said the institution was “pro-disclosure” but had viewed Sir John’s papers as personal records that were not yet eligible for release. However, the High Court took Professor Hocking’s side in May, deeming them public papers and opening the way for their release.
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Nick Bonyhady is industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based between Sydney and Parliament House in Canberra.