Revelations from the secret correspondence between the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, and the Queen in the months before the dismissal of the Whitlam government have shed new light on a persistent puzzle. When Kerr dismissed Gough Whitlam at 1pm on 11 November 1975 why was the leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser already there, secreted at the other end of the Yarralumla corridor with the Governor-General’s private secretary, David Smith?
This intriguing question has been given renewed impetus by the Federal Court case against the National Archives seeking the release of the secret ‘Palace letters’. I commenced this case in November 2016 with the support of a crowd-funding campaign through Chuffed https://chuffed.org/project/release-the-palace-letters and a legal team working on a pro bono basis, led by senior counsel Antony Whitlam QC with Tom Brennan. Although the Palace letters are held by our own National Archives they are embargoed on the grounds that they are personal and not Commonwealth records, and withheld on the ‘instructions’ of the Queen until after 2027 and only to be released with the permission of her private secretary.
We are calling on the National Archives to recognise the Palace letters as Commonwealth records, to be dealt with under the provisions of our own Archives Act, and for them to be released for public access. These letters are critical historical documents, they are formal exchanges between the Queen and the Governor-General at a pivotal moment in our history, and yet they have been embargoed for over 40 years.
There is a peculiar lingering colonial mentality at work here, in which we cannot be trusted to know our own history where it involves the Queen and her representative. The Palace letters are of the greatest significance to our knowledge and understanding of the dismissal and one of the last remaining gaps in its troubled history. In the absence of the letters themselves we are expected simply to accept without question the assurances of the Palace that it knew nothing about the dismissal prior to Kerr’s action, and to take those assurances as a substitute for historical fact. Not very likely! Every aspect of the history of the dismissal has been recast in recent years with a series of dramatic revelations, including the role of Sir Antony Mason. In this context nothing can be presumed.
As I revealed in Gough Whitlam: His Time this interaction between Kerr and the Palace began with a remarkable conversation between Kerr and Prince Charles in September 1975, during which Kerr told Charles that he was considering having to dismiss Whitlam. In his 1980 Journal Kerr wrote that he told Charles that he was concerned Whitlam would try to remove him as Governor-General if Whitlam heard that he was contemplating dismissing the government. Kerr reports that he found a willing ear in Charles, who made the politically preposterous suggestion that the Queen could ignore the advice of her Australian Prime Minister; ‘surely the Queen should not have to accept advice that you should be recalled … when you were considering having to dismiss the government’.
On any reading this was an extraordinary communication between a Governor-General and the future monarch and it was clearly improper at the highest level. Charles took Kerr’s concern to Sir Martin Charteris, the Queen’s private secretary, who wrote to Kerr about this ‘contingency’ telling him that the Palace could ‘try to delay things’ should Whitlam seek to recall Kerr. With this constitutionally fraught exchange, as described by Kerr, he had secretly involved the Palace in a matter solely for the advice of the Australian Prime Minister – the choice of Governor-General. In setting this out to Kerr, the Palace had indicated firstly, that it was prepared to thwart the advice of the Prime Minister, and secondly, that it had no issue with Kerr’s possible dismissal of Whitlam – for it had raised no concern with Kerr about it nor warned Whitlam of it.
With this pivotal discussion Kerr had inextricably linked his concern for his own position with his planning for Whitlam’s dismissal. From that point on it was impossible to consider one side of this deceptive equation without the other. It cannot be claimed as some continue to do that the Palace knew of, and advised Kerr on, his fear of his own recall yet somehow remained oblivious to the fact that this fear existed only because he was considering dismissing Gough Whitlam.
Which leads us back to the carefully stage-managed scene in Kerr’s study at 1pm on 11 November 1975. In Kerr’s feared post-dismissal scenario, on hearing of his dismissal Whitlam would immediately try to contact the Palace and seek Kerr’s recall – although Whitlam in fact did no such thing. Kerr’s planning was meticulous, precise and above all protective of his own position. To that end Kerr had already prepared the necessary documents – the letters of dismissal of one Prime Minister and appointment of another and his statement of reasons – and they now lay face down on the Governor-General’s desk. Most significantly, Kerr had already signed the letter of dismissal terminating Whitlam’s commission.
The leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser, left the House of Representatives at 12.35pm and arrived at Yarralumla soon after. He was ushered into an ante-room with David Smith, his car parked out of sight and his presence there kept secret from Whitlam and out of the media for the next 24 hours. A guest at Yarralumla recalls that Kerr was called away from their pre-lunch drinks at 12.50pm – after Fraser’s arrival and before Whitlam’s. Whitlam arrived at Yarralumla after 1pm, having left the House of Representatives when it rose for lunch and collecting the letter advising the half-Senate election for 13 December that he and Kerr had confirmed that morning.
As Whitlam handed Kerr his letter advising the half-Senate election Kerr refused to accept it, telling Whitlam, ‘I have already terminated your commission’. Whitlam then was already no longer Prime Minister when he entered the Governor-General’s study. Which leads to an intriguing possibility: when Kerr dismissed Gough Whitlam on 11 November 1975, was Malcolm Fraser already Prime Minister?
Professor Jenny Hocking is research professor at Monash University and author of the two-volume biography of Gough Whitlam, Gough Whitlam: A Moment in History and Gough Whitlam: His Time. Her latest book is The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975.