The Palace Letters - who knew what, when

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

How involved was the Queen in the political events in Australia of 1975? On July 14, the National Archives of Australia shed more light on the question when it finally released correspondence between the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, and the Queen. The release came after years of campaigning by Professor Jenny Hocking and a decision of the High Court that the documents were official and not personal records.

The constitutional crisis culminated on November 11, 1975 when Kerr dismissed Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and dissolved both houses of Parliament.

This was the second dramatic use of the monarch's "reserve" power in Australia. In 1932 NSW Governor, Sir Phillip Game, dismissed Jack Lang's government in NSW. In both cases the dismissed government was massively defeated by popular vote.

Immediately after the 1975 dismissal, Kerr wrote to Sir Martin Charteris, the Queen's private secretary that he had taken the action without first informing the Queen.

But Kerr had in fact kept the Palace informed in great detail over several months about his options and on the possible use of the reserve powers. On November 4, 1975, Charteris told Kerr that his powers to dissolve the Parliament were real but that "it is only at the very end when there is demonstrably no other course that they should be used". Kerr did not, however, use the powers as a last resort. The letters show that by November 1975, Kerr was caught in a vice between two strong men, Whitlam and the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser. Both put pressure on him.

Whitlam argued that Kerr had no alternative but to accept his advice in allowing for an election of half the Senate rather than for both Houses of Parliament. Kerr was also under pressure, even blackmail, from Fraser who warned him that if he did not use his reserve powers and sack Whitlam those reserve powers would be lost for all time and Fraser would have to make that publicly known.

To prevent himself being dismissed by his Prime Minister, Kerr thus used surprise to "do a Phillip Game" on Whitlam but without giving the warning that Game had given to Lang. The Palace was obviously relieved that Kerr had kept the Queen out of the crisis and solved it in Australia.

In the long term, however, the way that Kerr used the powers caused lasting damage to the monarchy in Australia. Kerr could have acted differently and in a way that did not precipitate an unwanted (by Labor) early election. His correspondence with the Palace fortified him in taking his controversial decision to dismiss Whitlam.

  • David Lee is Associate Professor in History, University of NSW, Canberra
This story The Palace Letters - who knew what, when first appeared on The Canberra Times.