PROFESSOR JENNY HOCKING ‘I never had any doubts about the Palace’s attitude’: Sir John Kerr’s Royal secrets exposed

Letters between Sir John Kerr and Buckingham Palace show that the Palace pressured Kerr to omit from his autobiography his secret exchanges with the Queen’s private secretary before his dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. This Royally sanctioned erasure is one of several crucial omissions from Kerr’s autobiography, which raise key questions about the ‘Palace letters’ between Kerr and the Queen leading up to the dismissal.

Kerr placed great emphasis on the Palace letters as corroborating his autobiography – a work which simply cannot be relied upon. If the Palace letters corroborate, as Kerr claimed they would, his expurgated memoir then the question must be asked – did Kerr also mislead the Queen in his letters to her before he dismissed the Whitlam government?

In 1978, from the snowy solitude of Auvergne in the south of France, the former Governor-General Sir John Kerr was writing his autobiography, Matters for Judgment. Its release was keenly anticipated. It was barely a year since Kerr had taken a reluctant early retirement and he promised now to reveal ‘the facts’, ‘in the interests of truth’, about his 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government.

Although pitched as ‘partly autobiographical’, the real interest in Matters for Judgment was always Kerr’s contentious term as Governor-General and specifically his unprecedented use of the ‘reserve powers’ to dismiss the government which retained the confidence of the House of Representatives, without warning. Newly released files from the National Archives reveal the extraordinary value of that interest. Kerr was paid $85,000 by Fairfax newspapers for serialisation rights, negotiated in 1978 by his ‘agent to the stars’ Harry M. Miller. At nearly three times Kerr’s previous annual salary of $30,000 as Governor-General, this was a staggering amount.

For Kerr, Matters for Judgment was an opportunity to mount a counter-claim to what he called the ‘bogus history, falsehood and invention’ about that time, ‘a defence, in bare justice to myself’ against sharp criticisms of the dismissal, of his failure to warn Whitlam, and against the continuing claims of deception and collusion. Kerr’s lengthy apologia was to be a platform for personal and political rehabilitation, a chance to reclaim a reputation tarnished by public displays of insobriety and erratic behaviour, most notably his memorable finale swaying precariously at the Melbourne Cup, shortly before his early retirement. It was a tragic personal end to the public life of this once respected jurist and former Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court.

At Buckingham Palace, the prospect of Kerr’s autobiography promising to reveal ‘the facts’ of those turbulent events was met with consternation, and with good reason. The Queen, her private secretary Sir Martin Charteris, and Prince Charles had for some time been in secret communication with Kerr about the possibility of Whitlam’s dismissal. The critical factor in these vice-regal exchanges is that they took place without the knowledge of the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, towards whom Kerr had determined on the politically unthinkable path of ‘remaining silent to him’, of ‘playing his cards close to his chest’ – in relation to his own Prime Minister.

While remaining silent to Whitlam, his constitutional advisor, Kerr was discussing the possible removal of him and his government with the Queen and Prince Charles who, as the Palace itself insists, can play no role in Australian politics. These conversations as I have discussed previously, constitute the most profound breach of constitutional propriety and political authority in our Constitutional monarchy.

That the Queen, her private secretary, and Prince Charles were aware, at the very least, that Kerr was considering dismissing the government is now beyond doubt. As I revealed in 2012 in Gough Whitlam: His Time,Kerr’s archival papers include a hand-written note setting out key points on the dismissal which refers to his discussions with Prince Charles and to ‘Charteris’ advice to me on dismissal’. Kerr’s contact with the Palace went further than these exchanges about his prospective dismissal of the government, shocking though that is. He then discussed with both Prince Charles and Charteris how the Palace could protect his position as Governor-General should Whitlam recall him while Kerr was ‘considering having to dismiss the government’, as Prince Charles described it.

And it is at this point that the role of the Palace became an active one. The Queen, through Charteris, agreed to protect Kerr’s position through a policy of ‘delay’ if the Prime Minister recalled him.According to Kerr, Charteris confirmed the Queen’s response to this ‘contingency’ in early October 1975, writing that if Whitlam recalled Kerr – which was the Prime Minister’s sole prerogative – then the Queen would ‘delay things’, and not simply act on that advice as constitutionally required. As Kerr later confided to Sir Walter Crocker, the arch imperialist manquéLieutenant-Governor of South Australia, about his consuming fear of recall by Whitlam; ‘entre nous, for good reasons, I never had any doubt about what the Palace’s attitude was on this important point’.

It was this prior arrangement ‘entre nous’ with the Palace to protect his position if he moved to dismiss Whitlam which Kerr took as ‘a Royal green light’ for his actions. He could scarcely have interpreted it otherwise. The Queen’s assistant private secretary at the time, Sir William Heseltine, recently acknowledged that if Whitlam had sought Kerr’s recall the Queen would not have acted on Whitlam’s advice, and would have adopted a ‘policy of political delay’.

There is now no doubt that these exchanges between the Palace and the Governor-General about the dismissal took place. Even worse, as revealed earlier, is that they were kept hidden from our history in concert with Buckingham Palace, ensuring they were expunged from Kerr’s autobiography. With publication looming, and with it the prospect that Kerr might reveal their secret discussions, the Queen’s private secretary contacted Kerr asking for a copy of his draft manuscript. What followed was nothing less than a crude exercise of omission, an artful white-wash of history.‘I did my very best of course to omit any reference to the exchanges between Martin Charteris and myself’, Kerr reassured the Queen as he dutifully sent a copy to Buckingham Palace. The resultant expurgated history pleased the Queen and therefore pleased Kerr, who found it ‘particularly gratifying … to know that the result is satisfactory’.

That exchange alone gives doubt to Kerr’s promise to reveal ‘the facts’ of the dismissal in Matters for Judgment and his professed concern for ‘the interests of truth’. Privately, he acknowledged that he did no such thing. In his papers Kerr writes that in Matters for Judgment he would cover only what was already on the public record and ‘beyond that I shall not go’, keeping hidden the involvement of others. The recent revelation that Kerr and the Palace presided over the omission of his communications with Charteris prior to the dismissal, simply adds to this litany.

The omissions in Matters for Judgment are legion, the major ones are these: Kerr’s discussions with Charteris and Prince Charles as he considered dismissing the government and about his fear for his own position; their agreement that the Queen would protect Kerr’s position by delay should Whitlam recall him; Kerr’s secret meetings with and guidance of the High Court justice Sir Anthony Mason; Mason’s preparation of a draft letter dismissing the Whitlam government for Kerr; and Kerr’s conversation with Prince Charles in September 1975 in which Kerr confided that he was ‘considering having to dismiss the government’. None of these extraordinarily significant interactions is mentioned in Kerr’s autobiography, despite his claimed commitment to ‘truth’.

The proven unreliability of Matters for Judgment in turn has major implications for the ‘Palace letters’ held in the National Archives of Australia, Kerr’s correspondence with the Queen and Charteris which he assiduously penned throughout 1975 and are said to be embargoed by the Queen. That correspondence is the subject of my legal action against the National Archives seeking its release, which was recently granted Special Leave to appealin the High Court of Australia and will be heard on appeal most likely early next year.

Kerr always maintained that the release of the Palace letters would validate his account in Matters for Judgment,an account which has now been roundly discredited.The crucial omissions in that book raise important questions about the Palace letters, in particular, just what Kerr told the Queen in his contemporaneous reports of events leading up to the dismissal.

Did Kerr for instance, inform the Queen about the extensive role of Justice Mason, which remained secret for 37 years? Did he tell the Queen of his meetings with Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick, against Whitlam’s clear advice to the contrary? Did he reveal his secret telephone communications with the leader of the opposition, Malcolm Fraser, in the weeks before the dismissal? Did Kerr tell the Queen of the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s decision to call the half-Senate election? And, perhaps most importantly, did Kerr inform the Queen of the motion of no confidence of the House of Representatives in his appointed Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser which called on the Governor-General to restore the Whitlam government?

In this sense, what is not in the Palace letters will be just as important as what is in them.

Jenny Hocking is emeritus professor at Monash University and 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. Her appeal against the decision of the full Federal Court in the ‘Palace letters’ case is expected to be heard by the High Court of Australia in early 2020. You can support the important campaign to Release the Palace letters by donating here.

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11 Responses to PROFESSOR JENNY HOCKING ‘I never had any doubts about the Palace’s attitude’: Sir John Kerr’s Royal secrets exposed

  1. Lorraine Osborn says:

    Professor Hocking’s tenacity perusing this matter is so important. Australian’s must know the truth about all of these dreadful events. The original shock, anger and despair I felt in 1975 is blunted but the sense of injustice and wrong doing remains. A few questions have occurred to me reading this article; Apart from a born to rule mentality, what were the other reasons for Kerr, Barwick and Mason wanting to sack Whitlam? Was Fraser just an ambitious tool to be used? Why was the Prince of Wales, at the time, a very young twenty six or seven year old, involved? Keep fighting the good fight Jenny, many people support you.

  2. Philip Bond says:

    The truth will emerge.

    A side but not insignificant issue, events in 11th November 1975 show, the queen can dismiss a prime minister so, what price Boris now?

  3. Alberto Paludetto says:

    Prof Hocking,
    Thank you for making public a piece of the puzzle that concluded in Whiitlam’s dismissal. It not only gives confirmation of the narrative in your biography, it further damns the Governor General and participants in the event.
    Me thinks, Whitlam’s comment on the steps of the now Old Parliament House was, and will remain unchallenged.

  4. Peter Martin says:

    I would have thought that the monarch might well have explored an option which I believe Prof. Hocking revealed when dealing with Mason, J’s advice to Kerr, to the effect that his first (honest) responsibility was to advise the PM or the Executive Council of the concerns he had about the government continuing in office.

    Of course, Kerr ignored that advice — to his eternal discredit.

    That would have been the honourable course to take: through the Executive Council the G-G is kept advised of the government’s actions or if he/she is not, is in a position to require further briefing before approving various measures. The sharing of confidences should have been mutual. It obviously wasn’t and the lack of reciprocity reflects on Kerr’s courage and integrity.

    It is not an unknown practice in the proceedings of the Executive Council, where legislation can have approval withheld or sent back to the Parliament for reconsideration or amendment. A request from the G-G for further information and advice is always taken seriously.

    Put simply, Kerr never had the guts to face Whitlam in this manner, until his coup was signed, sealed and delivered.

    Pleas for self-preservation he put forward as excuses simply don’t wash — if he had had the guts to advise and then stand on principle if the government didn’t respond, the termination of his appointment was far from certain as it’s now suggested. In fact, it appears that the termination option was already ruled out — to Kerr’s knowledge.

    It’s not as though the course he followed was bound to be smooth political and constitutional sailing.

    So the question, to my mind is this: given that Kerr had advice from Mason to advise Whitlam of this thinking, did he neglect to advise the monarch:
    a.) that the advice had been sought and obtained from (Mason / Barwick/ both)?
    b.) that Mason had made his recommendation to advise the government?
    c.) of the reasons why he had rejected this recommendation?

    And of course, then the question is, if the monarch was so advised, what was the response about the failure to advise and reasons for that failure?

    All the more reason for opening the correspondence. Godspeed.

  5. ANDREW FARRAN says:

    The recent UK Supreme Court decision on the Prorogation issue goes to the basis of the Westminster system, its very structure which was under threat by an aggressive Executive. The latter would silence the Parliament, an action that is not within its powers to do without the support of the Parliament itself. In this respect the Executive is one only of the three separate arms of government. For this reason, among others, the matter there was both ‘constitutional’ and justiciable – see my blog at: https://johnmenadue.com/andrew-farran-uk-supreme-court-thwarts-boris-sneaky-exit-from-the-eu/

    Some have speculated whether there are implications in the UK decision for Kerr’s action in 1975. Indeed there are, which is why Barwick’s involvement was so inappropriate. If both Kerr and Barwick believed there was an issue they should not have discussed it on the sidelines but seen it deliberated in Court. While the UK does not have a written Constitution, which required the Court to fall back on conventional practice, concepts and principles, an adjudication in those circumstances was essential. Australia of course has a written but imperfect Constitution which leaves open the question as to whether the ‘confidence of Parliament’ requires the support of both Houses. Barwick’s view on this was highly questionable as subsequent practice has demonstrated. But if this was not the real reason for Kerr”s action, there would be grounds for arguing that Kerr acted for an improper purpose while the government of the day had a clear majority in the popular House, and that acts in relation to and by the upper house could also be seen as improper.

    But of course Barwick would have had to exclude himself from any hearing of the matter in the High Court. All the more important now that we should know what went on between Kerr and the Palace and that we should have a Constitution fit for purpose.

  6. Stephen Saunders says:

    It is beyond any reasonable doubt that both Charles and Elizabeth treated Australia with contempt. 44 years on, our retro Prime Minister backs this distant and treacherous family as our head of state. Positive globalism, I guess.

  7. Alan Brooks says:

    There are two things I don’t understand about Professor Hocking’s narrative. First: according to my understanding of the time lines, Kerr appears to have been mentioning to Prince Charles and the Palace that he was contemplating dismissing Whitlam. But these remarks appear to predate the supply crisis. Does this mean that Kerr was just looking for an excuse, any excuse, for a dismissal?
    Second: assuming they had been told of Kerr’s intentions, but without an apparent trigger prior to the supply crisis, what could the Queen, the Palace, Prince Charles, or any one else in the know do about it? Would it have been plausible (say) for the Queen’s Private Secretary to have tipped Whitlam off about Kerr’s intentions without appearing to be getting involved in Australia’s political affairs? How could this have been done? Perhaps Kerr was setting a trap for the Queen in order to protect his own backside. The dialogue about the autobiography would seem suggest that this was possible.

    • R. N. England says:

      Did the Queen talk with Callaghan about it? Was Callaghan too scared of his own security services to advise her to do anything about Kerr?

  8. Jim KABLE says:

    Anybody caring for honesty and probity – to our nation’s highest levels (in the law – in duty to our nation) – and beyond (to Buckingham Palace) – is keenly awaiting the resolution to your search, Jenny HOCKING and wishing you godspeed!

  9. Ed Cory says:

    I am looking forward to reading these letters following the success of the High Court case. Transparency about what went on behind the scenes is important – trust in our democratic and constitutional structures is at stake.

    It seems clear that these failed us, or perhaps the people associated with them failed us. It seems likely the material you are seeking to access will confirm this, in which event steps need to be taken to ensure that no repetition is possible.

    Bring on the sunlight!

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