The Palace Letters, the Dismissal and Australian Politics

Aug 4, 2020

The release of the Palace letters has reopened debate about the most significant political crisis in Australia post World War 2. We have been reminded again of the unresolved trauma and passion unleashed by John Kerr’s dismissal of the Whitlam Government.

The letters bring into stark relief Kerr’s deeply political outlook and the troubling role played by the Palace in its engagement with and advice to Kerr. And they raise anew deeper issues in the Australian body politic that continue to demand attention.

As a person coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the election of the Whitlam Government (and in South Australia, the Dunstan Government) brought with it great hope and a sense of more promising possibilities and opportunities. I can vividly remember the relief, calm and positive feeling that came when Whitlam removed fees for tertiary education. That decision immediately signalled what was possible through progressive collective action. Whitlam was bringing such action to bear across a wide terrain of Australian life. Therefore, it came as a great shock when Whitlam was dismissed by Kerr, a decision responding to complicated events in Canberra but in ways that usurped the authority and legitimacy of an elected government and which undermined the robustness of our political system. The fact that in the ensuing years, we remain as divided as ever about what went on then and what we should do about it is a major source of concern about the health of the Australian public sphere.

Trawling through the Palace letters has therefore been a necessary if not edifying experience given that they are filled with mutual and self-serving reinforcement between the protagonists. The political focus and content of the letters is very stark coming from what we expect to be apolitical institutions and roles. From the start of the letters in September 1974 just after Kerr’s appointment as Governor-General, the deeply conservative political preoccupations in the correspondence are truly amazing. All of the observations that have been made about Kerr’s repressed political ambition are on full and unfiltered display. All the way through there is a basic imbalance. On the one hand, Kerr’s fulsome commentary on events is often expressed with an apologetic tone about both the amount of detail his letters contain and the trouble his actions may have caused the Palace. On the other hand, the replies from the Palace are much briefer and are basically content to reinforce or stay aloof from Kerr’s commentary and analysis even if they express very loaded and one-sided political views.

The Murdoch media argue that there is nothing much new in what the letters reveal. Yes, Kerr was in very close contact with the Palace seeking and receiving advice, support and reassurance about his thinking and options. Nevertheless, Kerr was careful in keeping the Queen at arms-length from the decision to dismiss the Whitlam Government. There is no smoking gun demonstrating the Palace’s direct involvement in that decision. Indeed, there was considerable caution expressed to Kerr about the use of the reserve powers.

Others argue that the letters reveal a high and illegitimate level of political involvement by the Palace in shaping Kerr’s thinking. While it appears that the Queen wasn’t involved in the ultimate decision, for many the advice going to Kerr went well beyond the limits that should apply in such situations. Along with the Australian advice Kerr was receiving (some in secret), the Palace letters reveal a fundamental breach in what should have been said to him. The Palace gave strong support to Kerr over the months leading up to the Dismissal including agreeing with him that the reserve powers do exist even if they should be exercised with great caution. It would have been more appropriate had the Palace not taken sides in this way and advised Kerr to discuss the issues and options directly and openly with Whitlam. This is required by the Australian constitution respecting the primacy of the Australian parliament and the separation of powers in the Australian political system.

It is to be expected that the controversy and debate about the Palace letters would revive calls for Australia to become an independent republic. We have failed to progress that matter after a tortuous debate over a long period about the best way to achieve (or avoid) it. Even the basic question about whether the Governor-General’s reserve powers to dismiss a government if money supply is not guaranteed remains in George Williams’ evocative terms ‘an open wound in Australia’s democracy. It is long past time that Australia fixed this problem.’ It is surprising that we have failed to staunch the damage the Dismissal inflicted in this specific respect.

Letters from the Palace after the Dismissal highlight the fundamental problem in the current relationship between the Crown and Australia at times of crisis and support the case for Australian independence. In reflections on the security of tenure of the Governor-General and the assertion and exercise of reserve powers, Martin Charteris made the following comments in his letter to Kerr of 5 August 1976:

“The action you took last November undoubtedly saved the Queen from great embarrassment. Had Her Majesty been faced with a demand for your dismissal she would have been immediately and personally involved in the crisis and whatever she had done would have been open to criticism.

As you know, I do not believe she would have been able to resist the Prime Minister for very long had he been determined to get rid of you, and I do not consider she would have had any real choice other than to accept “advice”, extremely distasteful as it would have been to her, to do so.

But what would the Crown do in such circumstances if it had a real discretion? How could it, at 12,000 miles distance, and inevitably not in touch with the day to day events, have the knowledge and feel for the actual situation to make what would be a very difficult political and Constitutional decision, with incalculable consequences? This seems to me, from the common sense point of view, to present a real difficulty.”

While saving the Queen from embarrassment and criticism may not come to mind as most important given the serious issues at play, Charteris’ comments in the last paragraph capture the limits that inhere in the Crown’s role in Australian political and public life, and ground the case for fundamental change.

Some of the other issues brought home by the release of the Palace letters centre on just how riven we are about the Dismissal and its implications for the health of the Australian body politic and democracy, what the events of that time have done to notions of trust essential in providing the glue holding the system together, and wider questions about the purposes of our political system.

Certainly, Australian politics has moved on in fundamental ways. Political, social and economic change has wider causes than the legacy of the Dismissal. Nevertheless, that legacy has been profound and accounts for at least some of the falling away of faith and trust in government and public institutions, and the consequent inability to arrive at agreed ways of responding to public problems. The increasingly partisan nature of Australian politics is at least in some ways down to what some have called the ‘historical lesion’ and ‘democratic violence’ caused by the Dismissal. In his reflections on Gough Whitlam’s passing, Paul Keating noted the disappearance of goodwill in Australian politics after the events of 1975. For him, those events were the source of the schism or split which now shapes much Australian political debate.

It is interesting that the Palace letters contain reflections about these matters. In June 1977, Kerr’s letters gave notice of his resignation. His later letters contain details about Zelman Cowen’s nomination as his replacement and include some of Cowen’s articles about constitutional issues. In one of those articles, Cowen reflecting on the events of 1975 noted that Kerr’s actions had ‘provoked more intense constitutional debate than any event in my memory; indeed the last year has exposed the fragility of consensus in Australia in a way that few would have foreseen’ going on to note ‘that it by no means follows that the replacement of the Crown with a republican Head of State would dispose of the problem’.

In his final letters to the Palace, Kerr somewhat defensively makes reference to the ‘fragile consensus’ in the Australian political debates of the time while continuing to take sides. His practice throughout his letters to the Palace post 1975 was to include material that supported his actions contrasting ‘real scholars whose views are not distorted by politics’ from the ‘effusions of other academics who are in the grip of Labor ideology’. (21 September 1976)

By the end of his time as Governor-General, the Queen was asking Kerr for other material about the constitutional crisis to balance the opinions expressed in the books he was providing. If the Palace had been more ecumenical and balanced, and had asked more questions of Kerr earlier, things may have worked out differently in 1975. But the Palace letters demonstrate that the Queen and her advisors were insufficiently attuned to the significance of Kerr’s action. It was action that has had dramatic consequences for the health and vitality of Australia’s political system.

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