Palace letters: ‘it was better for Her Majesty not to know’ about Whitlam dismissal

By Shannon Jenkins

July 14, 2020


Governor-General Sir John Kerr sacked Prime Minister Gough Whitlam without first informing the Queen because he believed it was better for her to not be involved in the situation, the palace letters have revealed.

The 211 letters — spanning 1200 pages and sent between 1974 and 1977 — were released by the National Archives of Australia on Tuesday following a four-year legal fight and decades of secrecy.

Kerr dismissed Whitlam on November 11 ,1975. That day, he wrote to the Queen’s private secretary Sir Martin Charteris stating:

“I should say I decided to take the step I took without informing the palace in advance because, under the Constitution, the responsibility is mine, and I was of the opinion it was better for Her Majesty not to know in advance, though it is of course my duty to tell her immediately.”

The correspondence contained the letter of dismissal issued to Whitlam, a legal opinion from high court chief justice Garfield Barwick, and a letter addressed to Kerr from the opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser.

In his response, Charteris said that “in not informing the Queen of what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with constitutional propriety, but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position”.

Nine days later, Kerr told Charteris that he had to dismiss Whitlam quickly because Whitlam may have been planning to do the same to him.

“History will doubtless provide an answer to this question, but I was in a position where, in my opinion, I simply could not risk the outcome for the sake of the monarchy,” he wrote.

“If, in the period of 24 hours in which [Whitlam] was considering his position he advised the Queen that I should be immediately dismissed, the position would then have been that either I would be, in fact, trying to dismiss him while he was trying to dismiss me – an impossible position for the Queen.”

The possibility of Kerr being sacked had been raised in a previous letter, sent on October 2 from Charteris to Kerr. It said:

“Prince Charles told me a good deal, and you’d spoken of the possibility of the prime minister advising the Queen to terminate your commission … the Queen – as a constitutional sovereign – would have no option but to follow the advice of her prime minister.”

The palace letters were sent between August 1974 to December 1977. They have been withheld from the public by the National Archives of Australia under an embargo by the Queen, which would have been in place until at least 2027.

The letters have now been released after a four-year fight by Monash University professor Jenny Hocking, which ended in May when the High Court of Australia ruled that the letters were commonwealth records and ordered their release.

In a recent interview, Hocking said the letters could spark debate over whether Australia should become a republic.

“Inevitably, it will reflect upon how we feel having, as our head of state, a queen who is resident elsewhere and is not an Australian citizen,” she said.

“If we see that the system that we are told is not broken actually was broken in 1975, then I think people will think about whether we can do it better – without that murky, quasi-imperial notion of royal secrecy.

“That’s what the high court has overturned: royal secrecy, which was presumed and then applied without any question really, even in our own archives. I think it’s a wonderful thing that that’s now in the past.”

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