News, Culture & Society

The Queen DIDN’T order the Governor-General to dismiss Gough Whitlam

Secret letters between Queen Elizabeth and Australia’s Governor-General in the weeks before left-wing Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was sacked are set to be released to the public tomorrow – following a lengthy high court battle.

Some speculate that the letters could reveal the Queen influenced governor-general John Kerr’s decision to sack Whitlam in 1975.

Should this prove true it would show modern Australia is not totally autonomous from British rule, experts say.

Jennifer Hocking – who had been fighting the million-dollar legal battle for four years – told The Guardian: ‘As an autonomous post-colonial nation, we assume that the Queen exercises no residual monarchical power over our system of governance, much less over records held by our National Archives. 

‘This case and these letters, however, show that this assumption is misplaced.’

Historian John Warhurst said: ‘The British crown was interfering in the 1975 dispute in ways that should offend anyone who wants Australia to be a fully independent nation.’

He added: ‘The Palace did not stand above the fray.’

The Queen – as Australia’s head of state – is represented by the Governor-General, who can make decisions on her behalf.

She chooses who will fill the role on the advice of the prime minister. 

This is the Queen’s only constitutional job.

Under Australia’s constitution, it is the  Governor-General alone who can summon, dissolve and prorogue Parliament.

Before Kerr sacked Whitlam and dissolved Parliament for a double dissolution election in 1975, upwards of 200 letters were sent between the Queen, her then-private secretary, Martin Charteris and Kerr himself.

Their potential content is hinted in already-public documents, including a note with the words ‘Charteris’ advice to me on dismissal’. 

Hocking told The Conversation: ‘This is a simply extraordinary situation: the governor-general is reporting to the Queen his private conversations, plans, matters of governance, and meetings with the Australian prime minister, and this is kept secret from the prime minister himself.

‘This is the crucial context of secrecy and deception in which the Palace letters must be considered: that Whitlam knew nothing of these discussions because Kerr had decided on a constitutionally preposterous policy of ‘silence’ towards the prime minister, who retained the confidence of the House of Representatives at all times.’

The National Archives of Australia have held the correspondence since 1978.

As they have been deemed ‘personal’ Australian’s were previously denied access to them until 50 years after Kerr ceased to be governor-general – and only then with the royal representative’s approval. 

Hocking said it was absurd that communications between such key officials in the Australian system of government could be regarded as personal and confidential.

‘That they could be seen as personal is quite frankly an insult to all our intelligence collectively – they’re not talking about the racing and the corgis.’

She added: ‘It was not only the fact that they were described quite bizarrely as personal, but also that they were under an embargo set at the whim of the queen.’

The British royal family is renowned for being protective of its privacy and keeping conversations confidential.

The family went to considerable lengths to conceal letters written by Prince Charles – in a comparable case in Britain that was fought through the courts for five years – but lost in 2015.


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