Why is the Queen still interfering in our history and why is the National Archives allowing this?

Aug 13, 2021
Palace Letters, Queen Elizabeth

Thousands of pages of the Queen’s secret letters to governors-general from Lord Casey to Sir William Deane, from 1965-2001, will soon be open to the public in the most significant release of royal documents since Sir John Kerr’s explosive ‘Palace letters’. The Archives’ decision to release the Queen’s correspondence with these six governors-general follows directly from the High Court’s 6:1 decision in the Palace letters case, which found that such letters are not ‘personal’ as the Archives had incorrectly claimed, ending the Queen’s embargo over them. Having lost so emphatically at the High Court, why is the Archives still involving the Queen in redactions from these letters of immeasurable significance to our history?


The High Court’s decision was a landmark reassertion of Australian law over the wishes of the Queen, and explicitly so. The plurality judgment recognised that this decision went against the wishes of the Queen, put to the court in submissions from the National Archives, that the letters remain sealed from the public as ‘personal’ documents. Continuing to involve the Queen in decisions regarding their release, in particular the possible denial of public access to any part of them, would appear at best inconsistent with the High Court’s decision in that case. 


We know of the Queen’s continuing role in filtering the release of her vice-regal letters thanks to Questions on Notice from the diligent Labor member for Bruce, Julian Hill, to the director-general of the Archives, Mr David Fricker. Fricker revealed in answers last week that ‘key stakeholders’ were examining these letters to determine which should remain secret, ‘exempt from public access’, and lost to history. 


One of those stakeholders currently reviewing the letters is the office of the official secretary to the governor-general and, through that office, ‘the Royal Household’. From Fricker’s answer, none of the families of the former governors-general, nor Bill Hayden or Sir William Deane themselves, has been consulted about these ‘sensitivities’ and redactions. Yet the Queen, whose embargo over the letters was overturned by the High Court, has been consulted on that very question. 


We know from the Palace letters just how significant this royal correspondence is for our history. Those letters transformed the history of the dismissal, revealing the Queen’s extensive discussions with Kerr about the prospect of dismissing the Whitlam government and the use of the reserve powers since September 1975, all of it secret from the Prime Minister. The Queen assured Kerr that ‘you have the power’ just days before he dismissed Whitlam, against the contrary advice of the solicitor-general and the attorney-general and, as Malcolm Turnbull has written, the letters ‘can be read as encouraging’ Kerr to do so. 


While they may not be as dramatic or as historically transformative as Kerr’s Palace letters, the letters between the Queen and other governors-general will be no less significant in bringing the Queen’s role in Australian political matters into public view, as it should be. They will also provide a critical comparative perspective on the Queen’s correspondence with Kerr. Of particular interest will be whether constitutional and political questions were discussed with others as they were with Kerr, such as the existence and use of the reserve powers, the possible dismissal of the government, and whether a governor-general is bound to act on the advice of his elected ministers.


Although not yet released we know that these letters cover contemporary political developments in Australia and matters of interest to the royal family such as the 1999 republic referendum and royal visits. It will be fascinating to read the Queen’s exchanges with Lord Casey regarding the disappearance of Prime Minister Harold Holt and the appointment of an interim Prime Minister, and with Sir Zelman Cowen regarding Kerr’s short-lived and controversial appointment as Australia’s ambassador to UNESCO. 


More significant than the governor-general’s letters will be the Queen’s private secretary’s replies – Sir Michael Adeane before Charteris, Sir Philip Moore after. Did they, as Charteris did most improperly, engage with the governors-general in political discussions against the government, did they denigrate the policy decisions of the Prime Minister, contrary to the core stricture that a constitutional monarch remains politically neutral at all times? 


An indication that Adeane as private secretary did not go where Charteris so eagerly did, can be seen in letters released to me some years ago between Hasluck and Adeane. Hasluck, a one-time journalist, was a marvellous writer of often scurrilous sketches about politics and politicians. Hasluck’s unrestrained view of liberal Prime Minister Billy McMahon can be seen in a long letter to Adeane in which he most inappropriately suggests that McMahon was seen by some in his own party as using the award of a Knighthood to ‘buy their support’. Adeane in reply is the archetypal correct, neutral, disengaged private secretary that Charteris should have been. In two short sentences he thanks Hasluck for his letter, is glad the matter has been resolved, and signs off. Adeane’s studied disinterest reinforces the extent to which the Kerr-Charteris Palace letters were outside the bounds of the expected and accepted vice-regal relationship.


None of these six governors-general wrote anything  approaching Kerr’s hundreds of voluminous letters with the Queen, more than 1200 pages in three years. Sir Ninian Stephen’s correspondence is a total of just 250 pages in five years and Sir Zelman Cowen’s 600 pages. What we already know of these letters further reinforces the fact that Kerr’s correspondence with the Queen was in every way anomalous.


The impact of the High Court’s decision stretches beyond the prospective release of the Queen’s letters with other governors-general. The UK Republic group is considering a similar legal challenge to secure the release of royal archival documents. Republic’s CEO, Graham Smith, said this week; ‘The Palace letters case in Australia has set a powerful precedent for every country that has the Queen as head of state, that royal archives when relating to official duties are public property, not private. We’ll be investigating the possibilities of making a similar challenge to the archives held here in the UK, where decades of official documents are held in the ‘family’ archive in Windsor’. 


It is more than disappointing that after such a significant legal action which asserted the right of Australia to control its own historic archival documents, the Archives has reprised the humiliating spectacle of the Queen’s involvement in redactions from them. The Archives should take the opportunity presented to it by the High Court to act as the ‘pro-disclosure organisation’ it professes to be, and release these letters in full and unredacted, in the interests of our history.


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