JENNY HOCKING. ‘If I were to terminate his commission’: Sir John Kerr’s secret ‘Palace letters on Whitlam’s dismissal

The final act in the landmark ‘Palace letters’ case seeking access to the Queen’s secret correspondence with the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, relating to Kerr’s dismissal of the Whitlam government will play out in the High Court later this month.

There are more than two hundred of these letters, a simply staggering number, and should they be released the ‘Palace letters’ will be the most important record of the inner workings of the vice-regal relationship during a time of political crisis that we have ever seen.

Four years after I began the case in the Federal Court the full bench of the High Court will hand down its decision in Hocking v Archives, ruling on the key question of whether the Palace letters are ‘personal’ as the National Archives of Australia claims, or whether they are ‘Commonwealth records’ available for public access, as I have long argued.

I first tried to access the Palace letters more than a decade ago, while researching Kerr’s papers in the National Archives for my biography of Gough Whitlam. These are extraordinarily important letters in the history of the dismissal, and so it was immensely disappointing that after years of trying to access them from both the National Archives and Government House, I was faced with an impenetrable brick wall because of a single word, ‘personal’. Access was denied to me on the sole ground that the letters are ‘personal’ and not ‘Commonwealth records’, and therefore do not come under the open access provisions of the Archives Act. It simply defies all political logic that letters between the Monarch and the Governor-General, relating to one of the most consequential episodes in our political history, could be considered ‘personal’.

Before this case began, it was difficult to imagine that such historic documents in our National Archives could be kept secret, much less that they could be kept from us because of an embargo by the Queen. As Kerr’s ‘personal’ records, I was told, the letters carry their own conditions of access – ostensibly these were set by Kerr but in fact the conditions had been set ‘on the instruction of the Queen’, after Kerr’s death. Here we enter, like Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter’s tea party – ‘curiouser and curiouser!’ – for how could Kerr have changed the terms of access over his own apparently ‘personal’ letters, after his death? On what authority the Queen, and the National Archives by obeisant consent, changed Kerr’s original access conditions, giving the Queen an effective lasting veto, is at best unclear and at worst beyond power.

According to the Queen’s current instructions, the letters are embargoed until at least 2027 and even after that date they can only be released with the approval of her private secretary. This means that the Queen controls our access to key archival documents held in Australia’s national archives, and controls whether we can ever see this Royal aspect of the history of the dismissal of the Whitlam government. Such abject colonial dependency is simply intolerable for any genuinely independent nation, denying us critical historical knowledge and national control over our archival resources.

I began this case in the Federal Court in 2016 to continue my efforts to secure access to the Palace letters, and also to challenge the extraordinary secrecy about Kerr’s dismissal of the Whitlam government and its history, which I had been working through for years. Even then, I could never have imagined just how significant the Palace letters would prove to be and what a remarkable trove of historical material they would open for us. Evidence presented to the Court, together with continuing research into Kerr’s archives, has provided an enormous amount of further detail about the letters – about Kerr’s planning, his sources of advice, just what he was telling the Queen and what the Queen was telling him in response – as he moved to dismiss Whitlam.

So, in anticipation of the High Court’s decision let’s take a look at the Palace letters, what we now know about them and what their release might tell us. The most remarkable thing about the letters is just how many there are – there are literally hundreds of them. There are 211 letters in total, 116 from Kerr and 95 from the Queen, largely written through the official and private secretaries respectively. This is a simply staggering number compared to the general expectation at that time that Governors-General report quarterly to the Monarch. The sheer number of letters alone makes the Kerr-Palace letters without doubt the most important of any Governor-General’s royal correspondence held by the National Archives.

They include all of the letters between Kerr and the Queen during Kerr’s term as Governor-General, 1974-1977, with the great bulk of them written in the months before and after the dismissal. The volume of letters grew markedly from August 1975 as Kerr increased his quite obsessive ‘reporting’ on the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, to the Palace. Kerr was writing frequently, as he acknowledged in his autobiography, and at times he wrote several letters in a single day. As protocol demanded, each of those letters had to be individually responded to by the Queen’s private secretary, vastly adding to their overall number. However, the private secretary occasionally responded to several letters in a single reply, resulting in the slightly higher number of letters from Kerr than from the Queen in reply.

The ‘Palace letters’ consist of the carbon copies of Kerr’s letters to the Queen and the originals of the Queen’s letters to Kerr in reply, together with copies of the numerous attachments to Kerr’s letters – press clippings, articles, telegrams, and other correspondence ‘corroborating the information communicated by the Governor-General’ – and some of Kerr’s letters take the form of reports to the Queen ‘about the events of the day in Australia’. Kerr described his letters as ‘very close to a regularly kept journal’, which he prepared as ‘a matter of duty’ as Governor-General. These are scarcely descriptions of a Governor-General’s ‘personal’ letters to the Queen.

While Kerr’s letters are addressed to the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, they were ‘written for the information of the Queen’, and Charteris assured Kerr that she read every one of them. There can be no doubt that the Queen was personally aware of these communications with Kerr, particularly since the replies from the private secretary ‘convey the thoughts of The Queen to the Governor-General’. This nexus is entirely in keeping with the formal role of the private secretary as the official channel of communication with the Monarch – Charteris writes for, and as, the Queen. His words are her words. While replies to a vice-roy from the Queen through her private secretary might generally be little more than rote acknowledgements, this was not always the case for the Palace letters. In a note among Kerr’s papers, he reveals that the Queen’s letters had ‘the additional advantage’ of ‘the illuminating observations … sent to me by Sir Martin Charteris’, pointing to the critical role played by Charteris in Kerr’s deliberations. The historical importance of Charteris’ ‘illuminating observations’ need hardly be stated.

The most significant detail about the Palace letters to have emerged from the case is that they ‘address topics relating to the official duties and responsibilities of the Governor-General’. It is agreed by all parties that the letters, deemed ‘personal’ by the National Archives, Government House and Buckingham Palace, traverse the very essence of the vice-regal relationship, the ‘responsibilities and official duties’ of the Governor-General. It is this revelation of the functional content of the letters which underscores both their immense historical significance and the folly of their claimed ‘personal’ nature.

Scattered references to the Palace letters throughout Kerr’s papers shed further light, revealing that he raised options and strategies with the Queen, including the possibility of Whitlam’s dismissal. He notes that a letter in August 1975 raised ‘the possibility of another double dissolution’, and extracts from some of the letters show that he explicitly referred to the prospect of Whitlam’s dismissal – raising serious questions about the veracity of what Kerr was telling the Queen as I have discussed in a previous piece in Pearls & Irritations. In September 1975, ‘if I were at the height of the crisis contrary to his advice to decide to terminate his commission’; and on 6 November 1975, ‘he said that the only way in which an election for the house could occur would be if I dismissed him’.

What is clear from these and other annotations in his papers, is that in these letters Kerr was raising with the Queen, through Charteris, matters relating to the possible dismissal of the government – matters which he was steadfastly refusing to discuss with his own Prime Minister. For those who continue to claim with a fervour and invective in inverse proportion to the evidence, that the Palace knew nothing of Kerr’s planning and not even of the possibility of dismissal, that view is now ten years behind the research and utterly untenable.

It is a rare point of agreement between Kerr and Whitlam that Kerr refused to discuss his options let alone his intentions with the Prime Minister, that he had as early as September 1975 decided to ‘remain ‘silent to him’, in Kerr’s shocking description of his aberrant understanding of the vice-regal relationship in a Constitutional monarchy. Even Sir Anthony Mason, Kerr’s long-standing secret advisor on the dismissal, now acknowledges that Kerr had failed to speak to Whitlam on the very matters which as Governor-General he was bound to, that Kerr ‘had a duty to warn the prime minister of his intended action’.

Kerr’s silence to Whitlam while fervidly communicating with the Palace, only adds to the unparalleled significance of the Palace letters to our understanding of that calamitous time. In revealing to the Queen what he refused even to discuss with the Prime Minister, Kerr had ensured the Palace prior knowledge of the prospect of the most extreme action a Governor-General has ever taken, the dismissal of an elected government which retained its majority in and the confidence of the House of Representatives. Surely we can now acknowledge the lingering colonial tensions at the heart of the dismissal and their impact on our history since, and release the Palace letters so that the full story of the dismissal of the Whitlam government can at last be told.

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 was heard by the High Court of Australia in February 2020 and the decision is expected later this month. You can support the important campaign to Release the Palace letters by donating here.

From John Menadue.   The above is the latest article we carried in Pearls and Irritations on April 16 this year on Jenny Hocking’s long campaign. It was one of over thirty articles we carried from Jenny Hocking over four years. 

Today, May 29 2020, the High Court ruled that the Palace Letters should be released. It decided that Australians should be able to read their own history. Congratulations to Jenny. It is a proud day for Australians.

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Jenny Hocking is emeritus professor at Monash University, 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. You can follow Jenny on Twitter @palaceletters.

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18 Responses to JENNY HOCKING. ‘If I were to terminate his commission’: Sir John Kerr’s secret ‘Palace letters on Whitlam’s dismissal

  1. Avatar Fosco Ruzzene says:

    Hello Jenny,

    Well done!!

    As I sink more deeply into the crisis of old age and fear of death I am more interested in religion and God’s abandonment. But way back then I did vote for Whitlam. I even took out citizenship in time to do so.
    It seems the Palace and the Vatican have at least one thing in common: do anything to protect secrets. But maybe the problem is us. Maybe “it’s time” to disconnect from these European institutions. And also return the Deputy Sheriff badge to the President – whatever gender or colour. What’s wrong with a deal with New Zealand?
    Maybe we should disconnect even further: men turn to religion and women politics.

  2. Avatar Charles Lowe says:

    As a bush lawyer, I understand that there is a legal principle that “if a law brings the law into disrepute, it cannot be held to be a law.”.

    The High Court came very close to disavowing that axiom in the Pell case.

    I, too, wonder if its finding in this case will cross that boundary.

  3. Avatar Rosemary Lynch says:

    Not enough attention has been paid to the untruths that Game’s dismissal of Premier Lang presumed, which was considered in 1975 to be a legal precedent to dismiss our Prime Minister, are predicated upon. I recall as a child seeing Lang protest his innocence, and claim that the English bankers had been paid.

    Imagine my surprise, when in Southampton in early March 1971, that the National Westminster Bank released a statement to the BBC News, that it had found, when it took over the Southampton Bank, that there was a deposit in the name of the NSW Government for six million pounds, which had no tag to it, indicating its purpose. So the law that gave Gov. Game scope, was not based in fact. The precedent for Kerr 32 years later was invalid. Consider the poor in NSW who lost their bank accounts. Shameful stuff. Put a kink in the law that has NOT been removed. Why?

    • Avatar Jocelyn Pixley says:

      Now that is very interesting: Game (wrongfully) set the precedent for Whitlam’s dismissal. Yet after all the debt collecting by Otto Niemeyer at Australians’ cost and misery, in 1934, Britain defaulted on the USA!

      The great news today is the High Court has ordered the Queen’s letters be released.

      Congratulations to Professor Hocking

  4. Avatar Raymond Brindal says:

    Ms Hocking deserves the nation’s whole hearted thanks for her determination and tenacity in getting the Palace Letters scandal this far.
    As she pointed out above, it defies belief the letters between GG and QE2 were personal.
    The reason they’re being kept secret is because of their explosive content and the possible damage they will do to Australia’s forelock tugging establishment, even now.
    But don’t expect the High Court to come down in Australia’s favour, as opposed to the establishment.
    The HC showed in quashing George Pell’s conviction even after his counsel had pleaded the rapes were only of a “plain vanilla” nature that the court isn’t there to serve Australia.

  5. Avatar Bill Holley says:

    Judgements of the High Court seem to be dependant on whichever way the prevalent political wind is blowing. I think Jenny Hocking is doing a disservice to her cause by taking the “Palace Letters” case to the present incumbents in the High Court as it probably will not be successful and will lock in that decision until the revolution – which never will happen in this country. Not that such a decision will change what thinking people know really happened both in 1975 and, together with the jury, in the more recent high profile controversial case. (See Brennan, G minority judgement in M v The Queen [1994] HCA 63; (1994) 181 CLR 487; (1994) 126 ALR 325; (1994) 69 ALJR 83.)

    • Avatar Peter Small says:

      Whilst Bill Holley may well be correct, is it not worthwhile exposing the High Court to the scrutiny of the Australian people ? Is the High Court to be yet another of our institutions subservient and fearful of foreign powers? Are we as a Nation forced to conclude that our political parties, our Parliaments, our judiciary, and our press are all subscribers to Australia being a vassal state?

  6. John Menadue John Menadue says:

    In The Australian on April 14 2018 Paul Kelly and Tony Bramson state
    ‘Hocking confidently asserts, first, that the palace failed to inform Whitlam that Kerr was considering the option of dismissal; second, that Kerr had established in advance because of the Charteris letter the response of the palace to Whitlam’s prospective dismissal; and third, that the palace had informed Kerr that in the event of Whitlam seeking Kerr’s recall as governor-general, the Queen would seek to delay “for as long as possible”. Hocking concludes that the palace, therefore, had “raised no objection to the prospect of the dismissal of the Whitlam government”. She says this “establishes a secret arrangement between the palace and the governor-general” to delay acting on any advice from Whitlam to remove Kerr. She says the palace “had agreed to give Kerr the maximum time in which to act to finalise that dismissal” of Whitlam. She brands this as “advice” from Charteris to Kerr. She says “it is impossible to overstate the significance of this exchange”. Hocking goes further and says Kerr’s correspondence with Charteris and the Queen shows the palace was “kept informed of his consideration of the dismissal of the Whitlam government months before there was even any ‘political crisis’ to report”. She asserts the claim of “monarchical ignorance” was “untrue” and a “historical fiction insistently circulated from the moment of Whitlam’s dismissal and maintained for nearly 40 years”. These claims are unsubstantiated.

    Unfortunately for Kelly and Bramson their assertion was wrong two years ago and even more so today.Jenny Hocking’s claims are plainly substantiated. I am not surprised at Kelly’s and Bramston’s error.
    John Menadue

  7. Avatar James O'Neill says:

    Certain inescapable conclusions can be drawn from Professor Hocking’s tireless research. The first is that Australia is not an independent state when its nominal head owes allegiance to a foreign sovereign. The continued existence of the office of Governor General is an affront to an independent democracy. The second major inference to be drawn is that the documents Professor Hocking seeks must be hugely damaging to the notion of an independent government or why else would they take extraordinary steps to keep them concealed?
    I wish her well. When that part of the story is revealed one hopes that she will turn her attention to the role played by the US and the coup master sent to Canberra with the express intention of removing a Prime Minister that intended to close Pine Gap. That facility is still open, still spying on others outside Australian control, and joined by multiple other like facilities.
    1975 will be viewed as a critical year in which Australian subservience o foreign powers was firmly cemented in place.

  8. Avatar Wayne McMillan says:

    Jenny I admire your tenacity and integrity in following up the dialogue between John Kerr and the Queen during the 1975Whitlam Government Dismissal.I wish you every success. The people of Australia deserve to know the truth. Thank you Jenny.

  9. Avatar Peter Small says:

    In June 1975 I attended the Annual Conference of the Victorian Farmers Union. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was due to open the conference. He was late arriving due to him that morning in Canberra, sacking the treasurer Dr Jim Cairns. In the panic Whitlam and his private Secretary arrived on the dais of the Assembly Hall in Collins St without Whitlam’s speech. The stunned PM together with the assembled farmers and press waited patiently while the PM’s Secretary ran around adjoining streets trying to locate the parked Commonwealth car with the carefully prepared speech lying on the back seat.
    Our major allies must have been hugely relieved with Cairns going from the centre of Government, because of among other things he was intent on closing Pine Gap.
    Our allies were not content however until Whitlam too had gone.
    In later years Whitlam and his successor Malcolm Fraser became good friends. As I read Malcolm Fraser’s book “Dangerous Allies” I pondered if he and Whitlam ever privately discussed how the both of them may have been duped. One day the dedicated research by Jenny Hocking may help us understand this tumultuous time in Australian history, and might well explain why even today our politicians are timid in criticizing our allies!

  10. Avatar Ken Dyer says:

    I have The Dismissal Dossier on my desk as I write. The consequences of thatevent reverberates across governments to this day.

    I look forward to seeing the next instalment in this disgraceful tale.

  11. Avatar Bob Ellis says:

    British Law (and consequently that imposed on Australia) is derived from and serves and protects the British class system. This was recently demonstrated by the scandalous decision in the Pell appeal. It will be no surprise to learn subsequently that the High Court will toady up to the elite who conspired to sack an elected government and that it will refuse access to Kerr’s ‘personal correspondence.’

  12. Avatar Rex Williams says:

    Everyone who desires to one day see this country shed its subservience to a British monarchy with all that has meant and still means and start a new life as an independent country, would also wish to see the High Court hand down a favourable decision relating to this most important matter. These “Palace Letters’ need to be aired.

    However, when one observes our additional subservience to yet another country as well, the bullying and totally corrupt and corrupting USA, in place since WWII and reflected every day in out lack of an independent foreign policy, one has to be prepared to see yet another High Court decision defer to the traditions of old.

    Safer that way.

    It is the environment in which Australia has existed since 1788. Subservient.
    It is just the way we are, content to be treated like a errant child, standing in the corner, doing what we are told.

    232 years has proven that fact.

    Progress requires governments to discard old ideas, for the laws of the land to move with the times as we change our values and objectives over time. One cannot then be optimistic that the thinking in the High Court, one and all, influenced as they obviously are to maintain the status quo as displayed in the disgraceful Pell verdict last week, will deliver a favourable verdict, even based on the tireless efforts of Jenny Hocking to open a window and allow some fresh air into our thinking and for Australia to move just one step forward towards being a free-thinking nation, respected for our independence. Yes, even our maturity.

    Currently, internationally, we are dismissed as something of a known quantity, with every required decision to be made made by others, known in advance. How humiliating.

    The ‘Palace Letters’ should be public, but it will not happen.

  13. Avatar Philip Bond says:

    That the correspondence is embargoed (possibly forever) is reason enough to change from the monarchy to the (inevitable) Republic.

  14. Avatar Stephen Saunders says:

    211 purely “personal” letters? The satires write themselves.

    I fear the High Court will shield our doddering Head-of-State-in-Waiting. I don’t suppose there’s a Chelsea Manning in our Colonial Archives?

    • Avatar Jim KABLE says:

      I had the exact same thought – of the possibility of an honest whistleblower in the Archives – while reading this continuing saga pursued relentlessly by Jenny Hocking – and many thanks to her for doing so. Our nation needs to understand the truth behind the seemingly benign figurehead/rubber-stamping role of GG for HM.

    • Avatar Mark Freeman says:

      Yes indeed. I can imagine a few obsessed citizens writing many personal letters to the Queen. I can’t imagine her writing many or any personal letters back.

      Thanks Jenny Hocking. Never give up.

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