Historical myths die hard. And historical myths have plagued our understanding of the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government by the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, on 11 November 1975. Chief among these foundational myths is the claim that the dismissal was a solo act by Kerr, a lonely and isolated decision, that no other person was involved in its planning or knew of its execution. Not the leader of the Opposition, not the High Court justices, and certainly not the Queen.
One by one these myths have been exposed as just that, self-serving constructions aimed at protecting the reputations of key public figures by hiding their involvement, and driving a flawed and distorted history.
Kerr’s secret interactions with the leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser, his deception of the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam over several months, his refusal to accept Whitlam’s advice to call the half-Senate election which was then due, and the startling revelation of the lengthy and active role of the High Court justice, Sir Anthony Mason, are now well known. The discovery of Mason’s role in particular, revealed after 37 years of remarkable secrecy in my 2012 biography of Gough Whitlam, was seen as the most important research find about the dismissal in decades.
These revelations, many of them from Kerr’s own papers, transformed the history of the dismissal, pointing to collusion and deception on a previously unimagined scale. It is now undeniable that Kerr acted improperly, dishonestly and in fundamental breach of his duty in a constitutional monarchy, in dismissing without warning a government which retained the express confidence of the House of Representatives. Even Sir Anthony Mason now claims that Kerr ‘had a duty to warn the prime minister of his intended action’.
In light of these continuing revelations the claim that the Queen had no knowledge of the dismissal has come under increasing scrutiny. It has not held up well. Kerr kept the Queen well informed in the months before the dismissal, writing to her regularly and frequently, sometimes several letters in a single day, detailing his interactions with Whitlam, with the leader of the Opposition, at official functions, discussions and decisions, including his account of the dismissal itself. These ‘Palace letters’ are held by our National Archives in Canberra where they are kept secret from us, embargoed until 2027 and remaining under the final veto of the Monarch even after that date, potentially indefinitely.
In an effort to prise the Royal grip from these historically significant letters I have taken a Federal Court action against the National Archives seeking their release. As we wait to hear the outcome of the ‘Palace letters’ case, one thing is already clear, the Queen knew far more about the dismissal than we had initially been led to believe. Yet despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, an ever-diminishing coterie of Kerr supporters, Whitlam detractors and Royal apologists, continue to claim that the Queen and the Palace more broadly had no knowledge of, played no part in, and was most displeased by, the dismissal. This view is now simply unsupportable.
Kerr writes that he was left with the ‘comfortable assurance’ that the Palace ‘welcomed’ the way he was dealing with the situation in the weeks before the dismissal, and the months that followed could only have reassured him of this continuing Royal approbation. Shortly after the dismissal, Kerr received a letter from the Queen’s cousin and Prince Philip’s favourite uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, expressing his admiration and complete support. Mountbatten called on Kerr during a visit to Sydney the following month to again express his strongest admiration and congratulate him on his ‘courageous and correct’ actions.
Sir John and Lady Kerr were the weekend guests of the Queen at her private country estate at Sandringham two months after the dismissal and Lady Kerr was then appointed by the Queen a Sister Commander of the Order of St John in early 1976. Sir John Kerr was appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order by the Queen the following year. These Royal honours are made in recognition of ‘distinguished personal service to the monarch’ and awarded at the absolute discretion of the Queen. Such public commendations hardly suggest a Queen unhappy with her Vice-Roy’s actions.
As Governor-General, Kerr took his role as the Queen’s representative in Australia literally. He was a committed monarchist who saw his primary duty as being to the Queen. In December 1975 Kerr told the British High Commissioner that in dismissing the Whitlam government ‘the need to protect the Queen’ had been ‘very much in the forefront of his mind’ – not the need to protect Australian law, its democracy or the Australian system of governance, but to protect the Queen. What aspect of the Governor-General’s role – ‘to protect the Constitution and to facilitate the work of the Commonwealth Parliament and Government’ – involves ‘protecting the Queen’?
Kerr’s records reveal the extent to which he drew the Queen into his planning and the prospect of his dismissal of the Whitlam government. Indeed, they show that the one scenario that Kerr feared most from the dismissal, his own recall as Governor-General by the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, had been rehearsed with the Palace beforehand. Kerr states that he discussed this concern first with Prince Charles in September 1975 and then with the Queen’s private secretary Sir Martin Charteris who wrote to Kerr in early October. Kerr quotes Prince Charles’ solicitous response to his concern for his own position, ‘but surely Sir John, the Queen should not have to accept advice that you should be recalled … should this happen when you were considering dismissing the Prime Minister’.
Even more disturbing is that, according to Kerr, Charteris then proposed a means of dealing with this ‘contingency’ should it arise, telling him that the Queen would ‘try to delay things’. The official secretary David Smith was also in secret communication with Charteris about this process before the dismissal. A handwritten note by Kerr setting out key points on the dismissal includes the critical point, ‘Charteris’s advice to me on dismissal’. There can be no doubt from these secret communications that the Palace was well aware that Kerr was considering dismissing Whitlam and, that by failing to alert Whitlam to their highly improper discussions, the Palace was itself involved in Kerr’s planning and his deception of the Prime Minister.
I have set out elsewhere the profound constitutional impropriety in these exchanges between the Palace and Kerr about the tenure of the Governor-General himself, secret from the Prime Minister. Its traducing of the post-colonial constitutional relationship was a breach of the highest order. The choice of Governor-General, their appointment and recall, is a clear and unambiguous matter for the Prime Minister alone, and has been since the Balfour Declaration of 1926 established the formal autonomy of the British dominions.
For the Queen to discuss the question of the Governor-General’s tenure with Kerr himself was not only a shocking breach of that elemental relationship. It also shows that the Palace was clearly aware that Kerr was considering dismissing the government and, moreover, had agreed to protect Kerr’s position should he do so by trying ‘to delay things’ if Whitlam moved to recall him. The affirmation this gave Kerr is stark.
It’s time to call out the lingering myth of Royal passivity and disinterest as a disingenuous, partisan, fiction.
Jenny Hocking is emeritus professor at Monash University, a distinguished Whitlam fellow at the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University and award-winning biographer of Gough Whitlam. Her latest book is The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know about November 1975 – The Palace Connection.