Burnt files, lost files and denial of public access: censoring archives and the falsification of history

Dec 14, 2023
The Dismissal

From the destruction of Gough Whitlam’s ASIO file, Sir John Kerr’s burnt Royal letters of support reduced to ash in the Yarralumla incinerator, to the missing 1975 Government House guest books, these lost archives raise serious concerns about the care with which our vice-regal records are maintained, and our capacity to write a full and transparent history of the dismissal of the Whitlam government.

The following is an edited extract from the Rod Wallace Memorial Lecture delivered at the National Film & Sound Archive. Canberra. 28 November 2023.

The importance of archives to history lies not only in building and preserving a comprehensive collection of records, but also in bringing it into the public arena as a shared, transparent and accountable, history. And the key to that, is public access. UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Archives; adopted in 2011, recognises open access as central to democratic practice: ’Open access to archives enriches our knowledge of human society, promotes democracy, protects citizens’ rights and enhances the quality of life’.

The appointment by the Whitlam government in 1975 of Professor Robert Neale as the inaugural Director-General of the Australian Archives, the forerunner to the National Archives, cemented the commitment to public access as integral to archival practice. Professor Neale was a respected historian, committed to the facilitation of historical research, grounded in the presumption of public access to its records and through that, to our history.

This presumption of public access was given legislative expression in the 1983 Archives Act which provided for records to enter the public access period after 30 years, now 20 years, unless strictly defined criteria for exemption were met. Making archives ‘available for public access’ was a defining feature of the Act and an expectation of historical research into our nation’s past – no matter how unpalatable. This presumption of open access to archives under the Act has been seriously undermined in recent years by excessive delays, redactions and denials of access, to the point where we might validly ask whether it still prevails at all.

Restrictions on access can take many forms, of which a simple denial of access is only the most obvious. Access is also denied through the destruction of files, the loss of files, redactions of publicly released documents, revenue raising through a pricing regime for access, and the failure to respond to requests for access, sometimes for years at a time. These restrictions have a profound impact on our capacity as historians to write a complete, unexpurgated, history.

A recent addition to the panoply of restrictions on access by the Archives is the imposition of controls – not on the archives themselves, but on the researchers seeking to access them. This constraint on the capacity of historians to access documents that, although in the open access period are yet to be opened by the Archives, effectively on the capacity to conduct original archival research, is deeply concerning.

Archives have been fundamental to my work over the last 20 years as a biographer and political historian. From large national holdings to private papers, prisoner records, personal interviews, military records, personal interviews, and local historical societies – archives have played a central role in bringing to life the story of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and the 1975 dismissal of his government by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr. The critical point here, and something I’ve become increasingly focused on in recent years, is that the insights these various archives bring to our knowledge and understanding of the dismissal, and ultimately to our history, are only available to us because these records are open for public access. Hundreds more files in the UK and Australian Archives still remain closed for public access, and the impact of this closure on historical understanding is immense. It raises the question, at what point does this archival constraint shift from the closure of records to the censorship of history?

King Charles recently handed the task of culling the late Queen Elizabeth II’s, immensely significant archives, to her recently retired footman. This long-serving Palace aide, with no training either as historian or archivist, is now entrusted with the momentous task of deciding which of these irreplaceable royal records to destroy, keep secret, or make publicly available, from the Queen’s letters, diaries, and official communications.

Whatever remains after this appalling vandalism of our shared constitutional history will be placed in the Royal archives, not in the UK National Archives, under a  100 year embargo – until the future Monarch grants access, if at all. It is this ‘obsession with secrecy’, as Professor Phillip Murphy describes it, that routinely keeps royal documents out of public view and away from the consideration of history. And it does so through the imposition of a claimed ‘convention of Royal secrecy’.

The presumption of Royal secrecy maintains a veil of secrecy over royal records and has a profound impact on how we perceive and write about our history. It shields the activities of the monarch and the broader royal family, from the consideration of history, by ensuring their collective absence from the public record; ‘the effect being that public knowledge of key constitutional and political events is limited’. This constructs an inevitably incomplete and distorted history in which the Monarch and the royal family feature, if at all, entirely on their own terms.

The High Court’s 6:1 ruling that the Palace letters are not ‘personal’, overturning Royal secrecy and the Queen’s embargo, led to the letters’ release in May 2020 and turned the dismissal history on its head. The Palace letters give the lie to the foundational myth of the dismissal as a solo act by the governor-general who ‘protected the Queen from getting involved’. They reveal that the Queen was involved in Kerr’s deliberations from September 1975 when she first entered into correspondence with him about the possible use of the reserve powers against the government, his concern for his own position as governor-general, and his preparedness to defy the advice of both the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, and the Australian solicitor-general, Sir Maurice Byers, in doing so. As NSW solicitor-general, Michael Sexton KC described on the release of the letters; ‘Kerr’s likely course of action was known to the Palace and so to the Queen, but completely secret from Whitlam and his ministers’.

The release of the Palace letters signalled a rare moment of forced archival transparency in the face of determined refusals of access. It was a great victory for history, a highpoint in public access, and the harbinger of a significant recalibration of the dismissal history. The archival journey to secure them however, also revealed a disturbing destruction and loss of archives, and denials of access, which continue to evade the scrutiny of history. From the destruction of Gough Whitlam’s ASIO file, Kerr’s burnt Royal letters of support reduced to ash in the Yarralumla incinerator, to the missing 1975 Government House guest books, these lost archives raise serious concerns about both the care with which our vice-regal records are maintained, and our capacity to write a full and transparent history.

Far more prevalent and no less severe for researchers and for history, is the Archives’ failure to deal with routine requests for access to its records. A consistent thread through the many submissions to the 2020 Tune review into the National Archives, is the lengthy delay in dealing with requests to access files, with researchers waiting at times more than a decade for a decision. I currently have 33 outstanding access requests with the Archives dating back many years, 6 of which I applied for more than 12 years ago. And my experience is, regrettably, by no means unique.

Shifting restrictions from the Archival record to the researcher
As if this were not troubling enough, a novel addition to the panoply of restrictions on access to archives came with a 2018 amendment to the Archives Act by the Morrison government. This was done through the imposition of a ‘cap’ on the number of requests for access to documents in the open access period, which have not yet been opened by the Archives. The ‘cap’ or limit is set at just 25 requests, which Archives considers a ‘high volume’ of requests, and which is a completely unworkable, minuscule, number of archives for sustained original research into large holdings such as the mass of material on the dismissal. Researchers who exceed this imposed limit of 25 requests for access to new files, enter a Kafkaesque archival limbo known as ‘the consideration period’.

The ‘consideration period’ upends the principle of equitable open access by increasing the length of time the Archives can take to deal with these access requests, beyond the statutory 90 days, once those requests exceed 25 – and that time expands still further if any more requests to access files are made. Effectively, locking out researchers engaged in extensive new research into new archival holdings. As a result, all my requests for original records made in the last 8 months, have now been pushed back to late 2024 which, with a book contract waiting to be completed, makes my work simply impossible.

Let’s look at what this means in practice. Take Sir John Kerr’s papers, a vast and extraordinarily important archival collection. There are over a thousand individual records in Kerr’s papers and when I first began examining them nearly 20 years ago, very few were yet open for public access. If the ‘cap’ of just 25 requests had existed at that time, the intense examination of hundreds of Kerr’s papers would simply not have been possible, and the revelations from them – of the role of High Court justice Sir Anthony Mason, Kerr’s notes on his discussions with the Queen and Prince Charles, the royal vetting of Kerr’s autobiography Matters for Judgment by the Queen’s private secretary – would still be unknown today. And the Palace letters case, for which those documents formed the critical empirical base, would not have happened.

The reappraisal of the history of the dismissal of the Whitlam government over the last decade, has been possible only because of public access to the archives that revealed it. The continued closure of archival records decades after the events they describe, diminishes historical inquiry and is entirely antithetical to the core functions of the National Archives; ‘to collect, manage and make public’, Australia’s most significant archival records. If Kerr’s papers had remained closed through the imposition of a ‘cap’ on original research, the history of the dismissal would have stalled with them – unchanged from 1975, inaccurate and incomplete.

There can be no historical reckoning without access to the documents that would tell it to us.


You can view Professor Hocking’s Rod Wallace Memorial lecture  here.

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