Release ‘the Palace letters’! Why I am taking a Federal Court action against the National Archives to release correspondence between Sir John Kerr and the Queen.
When the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, took the unprecedented and divisive action of dismissing the Whitlam government, he claimed to have acted alone, to have ‘made up my mind on my own part’. In this solo performance, as insistently and repeatedly presented by Kerr, he at no stage raised even the possibility of Whitlam’s dismissal with the Queen. By ensuring her ignorance, Kerr claimed, he had ‘protected the Queen from getting involved’. Nothing could be further from the truth.
By the time Kerr dismissed Gough Whitlam on 11 November 1975, the Queen was already involved. Like the Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Garfield Barwick, High Court justice Sir Anthony Mason, and the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser, the Queen had become involved through Kerr’s own careful cultivation of the Palace in the months before the dismissal. Kerr had engineered quiet approbation and tacit support at the highest institutional levels through a series of secret communications and pre-emptive assurances, of which ‘the Palace letters’ were critical.
These letters, between Kerr and the Queen, her Private Secretary and Prince Charles – ‘the Palace letters’ – are a vital part of our national historical record. They are the final missing piece in the history of the dismissal. If we are ever to understand what really happened on 11 November 1975, these letters are fundamental to it and yet they remain secret, withheld from the Australian public at the behest of the Queen. Unlike Kerr’s official records which became available after 30 years, the Palace letters are embargoed until 2027 – and even then the Queen’s Private Secretary retains a final veto over their release. It is quite possible that they will never be released. This is because the National Archives claims that the Palace letters are Kerr’s ‘personal’ and not ‘official’ records – despite Kerr’s own description of them as ‘despatches’ and as part of his ‘duty’ as Governor-General.
There is only one way to overturn this decision, and that is through an application to the Federal Court of Australia. That is why I have taken this unprecedented action. In a remarkable spirit of historically concerned generosity, a team of senior lawyers in Sydney is working on this case on a pro bono basis in order to secure the release of the Palace letters. I have also launched a crowd-funding campaign through Chuffed, ‘Release the Palace letters’, to support the case: https://chuffed.org/project/release-the-palace-letters The response has been remarkable with more than a third of our target reached in the first week, and we still have a long way to go. I encourage you to support this important case and help reclaim our history. Only with the release of the Palace letters will we know the full story of the dismissal of the Whitlam government.
We now know that, far from being blissfully unaware of Kerr’s contemplation of dismissal, the Queen was in regular correspondence with Kerr, who was sending her ‘full reports on what was happening’. Kerr’s letters were frequent, even obsessive, and at times he wrote several in a single day. At the heart of this still secret vice-regal correspondence was the prospect of the dismissal of the Whitlam government. As early as September 1975, as I revealed in Gough Whitlam: His Time, Kerr had confided in Prince Charles his overwhelming concern for his own position – that he might himself be recalled if he moved to dismiss Whitlam. Kerr describes Charles’ solicitous response, ‘but surely Sir John the Queen should not have to accept advice that you should be recalled at the very time when you were considering having to dismiss the government’. This discussion took place four weeks before Supply had been blocked in the Senate and well before there was a ‘crisis’ yet to deal with. It raises the obvious question of why Kerr was even contemplating dismissing the Whitlam government at that time?
We also know that, just days after the dismissal Kerr received a remarkably partisan royal intercession in the form of a letter from the Queen’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, congratulating him on his ‘courageous and correct action’. Kerr considered Mountbatten’s letter ‘of outstanding value to me’. It was, according to the Official Secretary David Smith, later accidentally burnt in the Yarralumla incinerator – and so it too is unavailable to us.
After repeated attempts to gain access to the Palace letters from the National Archives, I also pursued a Freedom of Information request through the Office of the Governor-General. In likewise rejecting my request the Governor-General’s office revealed that the letters are kept under ‘strict embargo’, ‘At Her Majesty The Queen’s instructions’. This is an extraordinary situation, at once a national humiliation and a post-colonial absurdity. It is a denial of our national sovereignty and a rejection of our right to access critical documents in our own history.
The Queen’s embargo of these historic letters continues the secrecy and the subterfuge that marked the history of the dismissal for decades. In the years after Whitlam’s dismissal a powerful narrative took shape, marked by errors, omissions and, too often, outright distortions. The denial of access to the Palace letters simply continues this pattern of quasi-colonial historical condescension. It is the last gasp of the remnant ‘colonial relics’ that the Whitlam government had been so determined to end. How different our history might have been had it succeeded.
Professor Jenny Hocking, Whitlam biographer and author of Gough Whitlam: A Moment in History, Gough Whitlam: His Time and The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975. National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University.
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