Sir John Kerr’s secret ‘Palace letters’ to be released

Jul 13, 2020

History will be made this week with the release of hundreds of secret letters between the Queen and the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, relating to Kerr’s 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government.

The full and unredacted release of the ‘Palace letters’ marks an extraordinary moment in our history, they will be the most significant addition to the history of the dismissal for decades. Their release is the end of a long campaign and a successful High Court action, overturning decades of Royal secrecy in this country which have seen Royal communications routinely closed as ‘personal’ until and unless the Monarch decides we can see them.

There are 212 letters largely through the Queen’s private secretary and the Governor-General’s official secretary between July 1974-December 1977, and together with the extensive attachments to Kerr’s letters, over a thousand pages in six files will be released by the National Archives. Their release will answer one of the great unknowns about that tumultuous time – just what the Governor-General and the Queen discussed in the months leading up to the dismissal. With such a staggering number of letters there is no doubt that they will provide an extraordinary window onto Kerr’s planning, his options, his fears, and his eventual decision to dismiss the government. At the same time, the Queen was aware that Kerr was remaining ‘silent’ to the Prime Minister, and that he had failed to warn Whitlam even of the possibility of dismissal, while he was nevertheless raising these same matters with her. Yet the Queen must remain above politics at all times.

It is a defining feature of a Constitutional monarchy that the monarch ‘has to remain strictly neutral with respect to political matters’. The Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, was insistent on this very point in a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Gordon Scholes, after the dismissal; ‘The Queen has no part in the decisions which the Governor-General must take in accordance with the Constitution’. Yet Kerr’s papers have shown that he raised with the Queen matters that can only be seen as political: the possibility of a double dissolution election, the crisis in the Senate over supply, the Independence Day celebrations in Port Moresby in September, and reporting on his meetings and conversations with the Prime Minister and other political figures in great detail over several months.

Kerr writes that he raised with both Prince Charles and Charteris his concern over his own position as Governor-General as he considered dismissing the government. For Kerr to raise this in any way with Prince Charles and, through Charles, Charteris and the Queen, was utterly improper and for the Palace to engage with Kerr about his tenure as Governor-General, much less assuage that concern, equally so. The appointment or recall of the Governor-General is a matter solely for the Prime Minister to determine and to advise the monarch. This was established beyond any question at the Imperial Conferences and the Balfour Declaration that followed. The only possible proper response by the Queen to any concern expressed by Kerr for his own position must be, as King George V said to Prime Minister Scullin, ‘being a constitutional monarch I must, Mr Scullin, accept your advice’.

The Palace letters are being released against the Queen’s express wishes, and against the submission of Government House and Buckingham Palace to the Federal Court that they must remain embargoed by the Queen. The federal government also argued against their release in the High Court, and the National Archives has spent close to $2 million fighting the case. With the release of the Palace letters this week, we might be about to find out why.

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