After a lengthy legal battle, 1,200 pages of letters between Buckingham Palace and former Governor-General Sir John Kerr have been released to the public. While this correspondence, released by the National Archives of Australia, is a major historical find in itself, these letters detail the circumstances surrounding Gough Whitlam’s infamous dismissal back in 1975.
As the story goes, several scandals in the Whitlam Government and political tensions all boiled down into a Senate supply block, leading the Crown to dismiss the 21st Prime Minister from his position. However, these letters suggest that Queen Elizabeth II didn’t know as much about the situation as we once thought.
Jenny Hocking’s four-year legal battle to release the Palace Letters to the public has finally come to an end! We now know some crucial details surrounding the Whitlam dismissal, including the Queen’s lack of involvement.
As a representative of the Australian monarch, the Governor-General holds major power within the Australian Parliament. This includes swearing-in and accepting the resignation of Members of Parliament, the ability to dissolve the House of Representatives, and instituting the royal assent necessary to bring any law into action. As such, this means that a direct line of communication needs to be established between this figurehead and the monarchy.
Back on that dreaded day in 1975, Sir John Kerr wrote to Buckingham Palace after he had officially dismissed Whitlam from his role. “I decided to take the step I took without informing the palace in advance … I was of the opinion it was better for Her Majesty not to know in advance,” he wrote to the Queen’s private secretary.
While the Queen wasn’t aware that the Prime Minister’s removal had been enacted at the time, Kerr had openly discussed the legality of the situation months before.
John Warhurst: ‘These letters show the governor-general acting as the Queen’s representative and reporting to the palace, taking advice from the palace on a regular basis’. #auspol Palace letters show just how much the Queen knew about the Dismissal https://t.co/fVaFiFrwFq
— Prof Jenny Hocking (@palaceletters) July 14, 2020
Nearly a month later, her Majesty’s royal secretary replied with the following: “It is often argued that such [reserve] powers no longer exist. I do not believe this to be true. I think those powers do exist … but to use them is a heavy responsibility and it is only at the very end when there is demonstrably no other course that they should be used.”
“In NOT informing the Queen what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with perfect constitutional propriety but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position.”
Currently standing as one of Australia’s biggest political events, the circumstances surrounding “The Dismissal” have been hotly contested for years. Historian and political scientist Jenny Hocking set out on a mission to bring more clarity to the infamous ambush.
“These [letters] were tremendously important, historical documents and yet the Queen had an embargo over them,” Hocking told the BBC.
“Well, to any historian, that’s going to be something you’re determined to overturn if you can.”
You can read the letters here.