Contrary to the accepted story that the Queen was not involved in the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975, it is now clear that the Palace had a significant role in the process. Those involved, in Australia and in Britain, kept this involvement hidden from the Australian people in a process of collusion, deception and artifice.
The recent revelation of British involvement in the dismissal of the Whitlam government demolishes some long-standing historical ‘truths’, notably that the Queen was not involved. Despite repeated public and parliamentary denials, it is now clear that British authorities pressed Kerr in person and through intermediaries on his ‘duty’ to protect the Queen, in a staggering breach of Australian sovereignty.
The dismissal of the Whitlam government by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, on 11 November 1975 was the culmination of months of political subterfuge, planned in secrecy and executed in deception. It created a deeply polarised history, marked as much by myth as fact, and rent by the same divisions as the dismissal itself. In the 42 years since, even its most basic facts that were once considered settled, have proved to be false.
Kerr always claimed that he acted alone, that the Palace did not know, that the Leader of the Opposition Malcolm Fraser did not know, that this was a solo act taken in solitude. As he wrote in his memoirs: ‘I made up my mind on my own part’.
Kerr’s own archival papers have shown that this was simply untrue. In the months before the dismissal, Kerr confided in members of the High Court, legal academics, the Opposition and Prince Charles, drawing them into his thinking and planning, and creating a web of support for his action at the most senior levels.
In the decades since, the central pillars of the accepted history of the dismissal have crumbled and a different story, of collusion, deception and artifice, has emerged. It is now known that Kerr and Fraser were in secret communication in the weeks before the dismissal; that Kerr conferred for several months with the then High Court justice, Sir Anthony Mason, about his powers and that Mason drafted a letter of dismissal for Kerr; and we know that Kerr attended secret ‘tutorials’ with senior legal academics at the ANU months before the dismissal, at which the theme for discussion was the Governor-General’s discretionary powers, in particular the power to dismiss a government.
Kerr’s 1980 Journal in his archives revealed that he told both Prince Charles and the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, in September 1975 that he was considering dismissing Whitlam. Charteris then wrote to Kerr about this prospect and Kerr noted in his papers, ‘Charteris’ advice to me on dismissal’. This communication between Charles, the Queen’s private secretary and the Governor-General, is politically and constitutionally shocking. It reveals the Palace to be in deep intrigue with Kerr in the weeks before the dismissal – unknown of course to the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. It was to Kerr a royal green light for continued deception of the Prime Minister – after all, the Palace was doing just that – and for the dismissal of the government.
With these documents from Kerr’s archives, first revealed in Gough Whitlam: His Time and on the record now for five years, speculation that the Palace was involved in the dismissal could no longer be rejected. Nevertheless, an ever-diminishing coterie – a mix of NewsCorp recidivists, Kerr protectors and monarchists, continues to deny as mere ‘conspiracy’ what is now undeniable – that the Queen and the Palace were involved in the dismissal.
The files of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), detailed in the latest edition of The Dismissal Dossier: The Palace Connection – Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975, contain extraordinary evidence of further British involvement, in the name of the Queen, in the Australian electoral process itself. The FCO and the British High Commission in Canberra discussed their intervention in Australian politics in the weeks before the dismissal. That they can intervene is never doubted in these discussions, the only question raised was one of timing:
Any intervention by us (in effect in Australian domestic politics) could have serious implications and both the nature and the timing thereof would need very careful consideration. Mr Whitlam, if he heard of it, would inevitably suspect the U.K.’s involvement. We should do nothing for the time being, except to continue to watch developments carefully.
By late October 1975, as Whitlam moved to end the crisis over Supply in the Senate by calling the half-Senate election which was due at that time, the FCO discussed a more specific intervention – ‘the question of our possible involvement in the half-Senate election’. It is impossible to overstate the significance of these words, as with them the FCO had entered into the manifestly improper domain of British intervention in Australian politics, specifically in the half-Senate election
Let us just consider the enormity of what is being proposed here. This is not mere contemplation of British involvement in an Australian political matter of mutual national interest, this is the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office discussing British intervention in the Australian electoral process, specifically in the half-Senate election, which they knew that Whitlam was intending to call if supply was not passed since it had been unanimously approved as the government’s end-point to the crisis from the outset.
On the day that Supply was blocked in the Senate, the most senior bureaucrat in the FCO, the Permanent Under-Secretary (designate), Sir Michael Palliser, visited Kerr and confirmed that ‘the Governor-General could be relied upon’ to protect the Queen in any action he might take in relation to the Supply crisis. Palliser sought and received, from Kerr and Sir Roden Cutler, ‘comforting confirmation’ that, ‘Sir John Kerr could be relied upon’ to protect the Queen.
This interest in protecting the Queen, whether from receiving conflicting advice or from becoming involved, is entirely and essentially a British interest. It has no place in, and should have played no role in, any decision by the Governor-General of Australia. Yet there is no doubt that it did. Kerr later wrote that in dismissing Whitlam he had met ‘his duty to the Monarch’ by ensuring that she had ‘not become involved in our crisis’. Kerr also told the British High Commissioner, just weeks after the dismissal, that, ‘a factor which weighed very heavily on his mind had been the need to protect the Queen’ – what ‘need to protect the Queen’?
The Governor-General of Australia has no duty ‘to protect the Queen’. The Governor-General’s Oath of Office states that they will ‘do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of the Commonwealth of Australia’ – in which a ‘duty to the Queen’ does not feature. The essence of a constitutional monarchy is that the Governor-General acts on the advice of the Prime Minister, not on the advice of or to protect the interests of the former colonial power. It is an unforgiveable breach of our independence and our national sovereignty that British authorities approached the Governor-General at this critical time in our history – in pursuit of their duty, not ours, ‘to protect the Queen’.
What this remnant expression of colonial power reflects is the fundamental incompatibility at the heart of Australia as a Constitutional monarchy – between independent democratic government and an unarticulated residual power of the Crown. The disjuncture this intervention reveals, between protecting British self-interest and upholding Australian constitutional government, can never be resolved until Australia becomes a fully independent Republic — with an Australian head of state.
Professor Jenny Hocking is Gough Whitlam’s biographer. The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975 – The Palace Connection, has just been published by Melbourne University Press.