Jenny Hocking. ‘The Governor-General, the Palace and the Dismissal of Gough Whitlam: The Mysterious Case of “the Palace Letters”’

Feb 22, 2016


The dismissal of the Whitlam government by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, was marked by secrecy and collusion on a scale that has only recently been uncovered. Its history has been no different. From the outset we were treated to a carefully constructed narrative that masked the Governor-General’s secret collusion with members of the High Court, with the leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser, and his acknowledged deception of Whitlam regarding the half-Senate election that Whitlam was set to announce on the afternoon of 11 November 1975.

All of this, and more, has come to light only in recent years, much of it with the continuing revelations from Kerr’s papers in the National Archives of Australia. These included Kerr’s remarkable 12-page record of his lengthy secret discussions with the High Court justice, Sir Anthony Mason, and Mason’s own drafting of the letter of dismissal for Kerr. With those revelations in Gough Whitlam: His Time in 2012, others soon followed. LINK: A combination of the posthumous records of key participants, historical reinterpretation and detailed exploration of Kerr’s papers, has changed our understanding of the dismissal forever. Chief among these was final confirmation of Kerr’s secret telephone conversations with Fraser in the week before the dismissal, an unconscionable betrayal of the very essence of parliamentary government that had been repeatedly and emphatically denied by Kerr and Fraser for decades. LINK:

Although we are now much clearer on the reality of that exceptional episode in our political history, one key element remains hidden from us, as deliberately and as carefully concealed as every other aspect in that blighted history. These are ‘the Palace letters’, letters between the Governor General and the Queen, her private secretary Sir Martin Charteris, and Prince Charles – in the months leading up to Kerr’s dismissal of Whitlam.

Kerr’s extensive official papers were deposited with the Archives in the early 1980s and were opened for public access, as required after 30 years since the date of their creation, under the Archives Act. But not the Palace letters. Unlike any other part of these papers, Kerr’s correspondence with the Palace is embargoed until 2027. Even once this embargo has been lifted – still more than 10 years away – the Archives say that these letters can only be released if authorised by the Governor-General’s Official Secretary and the Queen’s Private Secretary. In 2027, more than 50 years after the dismissal, according to the Archives we will still be beholden to the Queen’s Private Secretary as to whether to allow the Australian public access to this vital correspondence between Australia’s Governor General and the Palace, during one of the most contentious and significant episodes in our political history.

In denying my several requests for access to the Palace letters, the National Archives referred to Sir John Kerr’s ‘Instrument of Deposit’ in which Kerr had set out the conditions of access to his records. However a corresponding FOI request, which I made in 2015 directly to Government House, elicited a rather different back story. In denying my FOI request Government House stated that these letters had been deposited with the National Archives where they remain ‘under strict embargo’, due not to a decision of Sir John Kerr, but of the Queen; ‘At Her Majesty The Queen’s instructions’.

How has this extraordinary situation come about? How is it that, for Kerr’s correspondence with the Palace, the clear provisions of the Archives Act – to make Commonwealth records available for public access after 30 years – do not apply? The answer is very simple, and it has just two words, ‘personal’ and ‘private’. With that simple designation, ‘personal and private’, the National Archives have removed the Palace letters from the reach of the Archives Act. Since they are ‘personal’ the National Archives say the 30 year access provisions do not apply and, even more worrying, nor do the appeals mechanism provided for by the Archives Act – because that Act applies only to Commonwealth records. The Palace letters then cannot be accessed because they are personal not official, and their designation as ‘personal’ cannot be appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

It seems that a very neat, impenetrable, Catch-22 has been created, locking the letters from public view and locking that decision itself from administrative oversight. However, this does not mean, as Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston have erroneously claimed, that the only means for ensuring their release is to appeal to the Queen herself – an unnecessary and humiliating deference given the quasi-colonial relationship this whole matter reflects. Instead, as Sydney barrister Tom Brennan has recently discussed, this is a matter of Australian law and a matter for Australian law to determine. LINK:  Without the possibility of an appeal to the AAT however, this remains an expensive and daunting prospect. Chalk that up to two very powerful words.

‘Personal and private’ may be powerful covers, but they are also entirely inappropriate. One wonders how it is, from common sense alone, that the Governor-General’s correspondence with the Palace could in any way be seen as ‘personal’ and not official. Even Sir John Kerr himself did not believe that absurdity, far from it. In his autobiography, Matters for Judgment, Kerr describes his correspondence with the Queen during the blocking of Supply in 1975 in terms of his ‘duty’ to keep the Queen informed, as part of the Governor-General’s regular reports to the Queen; ‘There are no rules about how often or in what detail reports are to be made; the duty is simply to send despatches which keep Her Majesty informed’. ‘Duty’, ‘despatches’, keeping ‘Her Majesty informed’ – these are clearly descriptors of official records, not of personal correspondence.

Kerr’s Journal, which he maintained for some months during 1980 and also left in his papers in the Archives, also makes it clear that he had not wanted this correspondence with the Queen to remain embargoed, and that he had explored means of releasing it earlier. Kerr even went as far as prevailing on Sir Philip Moore, Charteris’ successor private secretary to the Queen, to enable the release of the Palace letters. Moore was by Kerr’s account shocked at the very suggestion. Kerr also writes that he would like the correspondence to be released during the lifetime of his children. It was his belief that the Palace letters would validate his own version of these events and he sought their release strongly. If Kerr himself had wanted them released then how and why are they now being withheld on the grounds that Kerr’s own ‘Instrument of Deposit’ with the National Archives specifies that they not be?

Despite the fact that the Palace letters have been removed from public view, Kerr himself provided another means of retrieving them from their pre-emptive closure as ‘personal’. For, among his papers Kerr also left a copy of extracts from some of his letters to the Queen, unidentified as such and placed on open access by the Archives. While working on his memoirs, published in 1978, Kerr had arranged for a copy of his letters to the Palace to be sent to him, as part of his research. He then left extracts from those copies with his material in the Archives in an unidentified file simply titled ‘Extracts of letters’.

There are 6 extracts, which I detailed in The Dismissal Dossier as being from Kerr’s letters to the Queen, dated from 20 September to 20 November 1975. LINK: Each of these extracts describes contemporary political developments as they unfolded. They cover conversations between the Governor-General and the Prime Minister, between the Governor-General and the leader of the Opposition, interactions at an official dinner with the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and at an official reception at Government House in Melbourne. They include the Governor-General’s letter to the Queen of 11 November 1975 setting out his version of the dismissal, by him as Governor-General, of the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. The content of these letters provides no grounds whatsoever for their description as ‘personal’.

There is quite simply no part of these extracts that could be described as anything other than official – in their nature, their content and in their style. Each letter is typed, each letter is formal and none reveals even a moment of informality, of light-hearted or private reflection. Each considers in some way the serious and unprecedented vice-regal action of removing the Whitlam government that Kerr was soon to take. Most significantly, these extracts from Kerr’s letters to the Queen reveal that the Palace was well aware of the possibility of dismissal and of the Governor-General’s deception of the Prime Minister – the letters themselves were part of that deception – and the abuse of his vice-regal position this constituted, months before Kerr moved to dismiss Whitlam.

The perverse attribution ‘personal and private’ given to the Palace letters can also be measured against a series of personal letters between Sir John Kerr and Prince Charles, held by the Archives. What is decidedly peculiar is that these letters written in 1981, three years after Kerr resigned as Governor-General, have been deemed official Commonwealth records and made available for public access. And yet, they are clearly personal. They are handwritten, on personal letterhead simply headed ‘Sir John R. Kerr’. They are conversational, referring to Charles’ future wife, Princess Diana, their marriage, family and to previous exchanges between them. The ‘Palace letters’ by contrast are typed, they are descriptive and they focus only – at least in the extracts in Kerr’s published papers – on political matters.

It seems both perplexing and troubling that these clearly personal letters between Kerr and Prince Charles have not been subject to the claimed conditions of access to personal records set out in the ‘Instrument of Deposit’ from Kerr to the Archives. We have an Alice in Wonderland situation in which black has become white. The clearly personal letters between Kerr and Prince Charles have been deemed ‘official Commonwealth records’, while the clearly official ‘despatches’ between the Governor-General and the Queen have been deemed ‘personal’. This raises the obvious question as to whether the label ‘personal’ has been applied inappropriately yet conveniently, only to the Palace letters, in an attempt to remove them from the oversight and access requirements of the Archives Act. 

The chronology of the passage of the Archives Act suggests that this is more than just a disturbing possibility. The lodging of Kerr’s papers with the National Archives straddled two critical, related, events – the March 1983 election which saw the Fraser government defeated and the election of the Hawke Labor government, and the passage of the Archives Act later that year. One of the Fraser government’s Bills still before the parliament at the time of the 1983 election was the Archives Bill. With the Fraser government’s defeat the Archives Bill was slightly but significantly revised, and re-presented in 1983 by the Hawke government. A critical change was this: the 1981 Archives Bill did not apply to ‘records of the Governor-General or of a former Governor-General’. Under the Fraser government’s Bill, no records of the Governor-General – or previous Governors-General – would have been made available for public access except in accordance with an Instrument of Deposit.

It seems that had the Fraser government’s Archives Bill prevailed, the revelations of Sir John Kerr’s secret interactions with, and involvement of, Sir Anthony Mason in the dismissal would still be hidden from us today. As it was, the election of the Hawke government resulted in the passage of the Archives Act 1983 that gave no such exemption to the records of Governors-General. We can now see that the use of the words ‘personal and private’ has served that same function, enabling a reversion to the exemption of the Archives Bill as if the Archives Act is merely an arbitrary constraint for a Governor-General. The designation ‘personal and private’ is shielding the Palace letters from public access and historical reflection. Once again the history of the dismissal of the Whitlam government is proving to be as distorted, deceptive and disturbing as the dismissal itself.


Professor Jenny Hocking is Gough Whitlam’s biographer and ARC DORA Professorial Fellow with the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. She is the Inaugural Distinguished Whitlam Fellow at Western Sydney University and author of The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975 (MUP 2015)


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