Palace letters show the need for a democratic republic

July 16, 2020
Front page of The News (Adelaide), November 11, 1975.

“The Palace letters have proved to be every bit the bombshell they promised to be, and neither the Queen nor Sir John Kerr emerge unscathed,” Professor Jenny Hocking said on July 15.

Hocking fought a legal battle for 10 years to make public the voluminous correspondence between former Governor-General Kerr and the Queen, leading up to his dismissal of the Gough Whitlam government on November 11, 1975.

Despite determined opposition from the Palace and Australian officials, Hocking finally won a High Court order to publish the letters and they were released by the National Archives on July 14.

In her opinion piece for Fairfax, the Monash University historian said the vast number of letters sent by the Governor-General to the Queen “provides the most extraordinary vice-regal commentary on the decisions and actions of a prime minister and elected government imaginable. They provide a remarkable window onto Kerr’s views of [then-Labor Prime minister] Gough Whitlam, his planning, his options, his fears, and his eventual decision to dismiss the government.”

Claims by some that the Queen had no advance knowledge of, or substantial role in, Kerr’s sacking of Whitlam have now been shown to be wrong. The published letters show detailed discussions took place between the Palace and the Governor-General about possible courses of action.

“Letter by letter, particularly from late August 1975, months before supply had even been blocked in the Senate, Kerr draws the Queen into his planning regarding the crisis unfolding in the Senate, including the possible use of the reserve powers. Kerr details options and strategies, which are then discussed with the Queen through her private secretary Sir Martin Charteris,” Hocking said.

The letters show the Queen, through her private secretary, talking with Kerr about political matters and “even advising him on the powers of the Senate and, critically, the existence and potential use of the contentious and contested reserve powers to dismiss the government”.

Days after the dismissal, Charteris told the speaker of the House of Representatives Gordon Scholes that the Queen had not taken part in the decision. The Palace letters show that this was a lie.

The letters show that the Queen’s responses “particularly in relation to Kerr’s concern for his own position and the possible use of the reserve powers” played a role in his eventual decision to dismiss the government, Hocking said.

The Queen had therefore breached the central tenet of a constitutional monarchy — being politically neutral. “The damage this has done to the Queen, to Kerr, and the monarchy is incalculable,” Hocking said.

As John Pilger emphasised, the 1975 Canberra Coup was engineered not only by British and Australian ruling elites, but by the United States administration and the CIA, which was increasingly alarmed at “security concerns” they believed were developing under the Whitlam Labor government. “On November 11, 1975, Kerr infamously sacked the reformist government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and delivered Australia into the hands of the United States”, Pilger wrote in June.

“Today, Australia is a vassal state bar none: its politics, intelligence agencies, military and much of its media are integrated into Washington’s ‘sphere of dominance’ and war plans. In Donald Trump’s current provocations of China, the US bases in Australia are described as the ‘tip of the spear’.”

The Palace letters highlight the long overdue need to establish a genuinely democratic republic. The Australian Republican Movement’s (ARM) Peter Fitzsimons said its polling shows 62% of Australians support a republic — a post-war high — and that the country needs to move on it. In 1999, the ARM backed Paul Keating’s “minimalist” republic, which was rejected by the November 6 national referendum that year.

Then, Prime Minister John Howard, a monarchist, did everything he could to minimise what changes were put to a vote. The ARM refused to support the push for a popularly-elected president saying, instead, that the president should be elected by parliament. The model eventually voted on was to replace the governor-general by a president, nominated by parliamentary committee, approved by the prime minister and then ratified by two-thirds of parliament. It was not even supported by a majority of the largely hand-picked Constitutional Convention delegates.

The Palace letters add impetus to a republican movement for a system of government that is genuinely democratic. Such a system cannot be decided by a single vote in a single referendum, however. We need deeper reforms, including real treaties with First Nations peoples, and a move away from the two-party hegemony of parliamentary politics rigged by a permanent wealth gerrymander.

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