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On Tuesday, the National Archives of Australia obeyed the country’s top court and published the famous “Palace Letters” on the web. This is the name attached to Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s correspondence with Buckingham Palace in the run-up to his surprise dismissal of Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, which took place on November 11, 1975. The Australian historian Jenny Hocking waged a long legal battle to have the letters deemed state papers and made publicly available. Kerr (1914-1991) had originally given his copy of the file to the National Archives on the understanding that they were purely personal, for the purposes of Australian law, and that they would not be published until 2027.
The Archives have acted with admirable grace in complying with the court . The letters have been published as PDF files with short summaries of the material (much of which actually dates to the aftermath of the dismissal). At the time of the court judgment, the Archives invoked their right to engage in possible censorship of the material for “national security” purposes. Anyone familiar with archivist habits will have cringed at that moment, but the letters have been presented without cuts or black modesty bars.
This was surely made easier by the fact that they’re a huge nothingburger. Australian republicans were hoping to obtain evidence that senior palace staff had somehow guided, inspired or influenced Kerr’s judgment in firing the prime minister. The Queen is entitled to say whatever she likes to a Governor-General through her mouthpieces — usually, in this case, her Private Secretary, Sir Martin Charteris — but there was clearly some eagerness in Australia to seize upon any hint of conspiracy, or of the palace using Kerr as a remote cat’s-paw.
They're a huge nothingburger
Nothing remotely of the kind appears in the file. From the advent of the 1975 crisis to its conclusion, Kerr just keeps grinding out long, detailed letters to the Queen about the Australian political situation, and Charteris just keeps writing back the equivalent of “Her Majesty appreciates your views and sympathizes with you in your difficulty.” When Kerr finally delivers the blow to Whitlam, appointing Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker PM in order to break the political deadlock and push supply bills through the Senate, he writes to the Queen explaining his action and half-apologizing for not having been able to give advance notice . What’s the opposite of a smoking gun? An alibi, I suppose.
The letters are still, no doubt, a gold mine for historians of Australia. Kerr, in dismissing Whitlam, did make himself a figure in Australian political history in a way he would not have become otherwise. He knew this would be so, and even predicted, while babbling away at Charteris and the Queen, that he would face opprobrium for a long time.
If we are to believe Kerr’s side of the correspondence, he was not sure how the election following the dismissal would go, and he knew that if Whitlam won he would have to resign the viceregal office. (Labor was beaten soundly.) The letters offer many reminders of what was at stake in the political deadlock between the houses of the Australian Parliament. When Kerr finally pulled the trigger, Whitlam was canvassing Australian banks in attempt to govern without parliamentary supply, trying to secure paycheques for the civil service and the military by means of emergency loans. This is a procedure whose unconstitutionality even the bankers seem to have recoiled from.
The letters are still, no doubt, a gold mine for historians of Australia
The letters won’t end Australia’s eternal debate over the dismissal, but if anyone is genuinely undecided on the merits of Kerr’s action, the picture of his thinking provided in the letters may make them more sympathetic. He does come across this way, though perhaps just a bit of a ninny. There are repeated remarks, not all from Kerr’s side, to the effect that the tenure of a governor-general is usually a much smoother ride than it was for Kerr.
Kerr was clearly influenced by his own awareness that if the parliamentary deadlock continued, it would be a very bleak Christmas for countless Australians: public servants, pensioners, welfare recipients. A Kerr-hater might point out that this may have been first-class Christianity, but governors-generals are only supposed to exercise last-resort reserve powers to protect the constitution. ( Charteris explicitly pointed this out to Kerr at one point, which would be a funny thing to do if he were scheming against Whitlam.) Viceroys are not supposed to use their powers to accomplish purely political ends — even urgent ones such as preventing starvation. Or to short-circuit bargaining between political factions.
Whitlam’s determination to govern without supply left him vulnerable to being dismissed on constitutional grounds alone (the only valid ones), but whether Kerr should have let the contest between the houses of Parliament carry on was ultimately a matter involving significant personal judgment. It’s one reason we pick persons for that job, and let them judge.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020