The collection of 212 previously unseen letters reveal that the Queen played no part in the controversial 1975 sacking of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam

By Phil Boucher
July 16, 2020 11:23 AM
Queen Elizabeth with Sir John Kerr
Central Press/Getty

Queen Elizabeth has faced countless ups and downs during her record-breaking 68-year reign, but few have caused the royal great-grandmother as many headaches as the controversial 1975 sacking of Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

Instigated by the Queen’s official representative at the time, governor-general Sir John Kerr, the ousting of Whitlam is considered to be the most controversial event in Australian political history.

It's also helped fuel the Australian republican movement, which has long suspected the Queen of playing a secret role in the decision to remove Whitlam after he failed to pass his budget through the country's parliament in Canberra.

Thanks to a trove of 212 previously unseen letters released by the Australian National Archive on Tuesday, however, the Queen can now finally start to put these troubles behind her.

The correspondence between Kerr and the Queen’s then private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, shows that while the Queen was kept informed of developments, she did not play a direct role in the day-to-day political events — something she's barred from doing as Head of State under the Australian constitution.

Former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam

"The release of the letters by the National Archives Australia confirms that neither Her Majesty nor the Royal Household had any part to play in Kerr’s decision to dismiss Whitlam,” says a Buckingham Palace statement released in Australia shortly after the documents were made public on Tuesday.

“At Her Majesty’s Coronation on 2 June 1953, The Queen swore an oath to govern the Peoples of Australia 'according to their respective laws and customs,'" it continues.

"Throughout her reign, Her Majesty has consistently demonstrated this support for Australia, the primacy of the Australian constitution and the independence of the Australian people, which the release of these letters reflects."

The royal documents were released after a four-year court battle brought by Professor Jenny Hocking, from Monash University in Melbourne, who successfully argued that the secretive "palace letters" were of critical historical importance to the nation and should not be kept under wraps because of laws in a different country.

Buckingham Palace fought hard to keep the letters out of the public view, however, arguing that secrecy was essential to maintaining "the constitutional position of the monarch and the monarchy.”

"The Royal Household believes in the longstanding convention that all conversations between Prime Ministers, Governor Generals and The Queen are private," Buckingham Palace reaffirmed on Tuesday.

This debate was finally resolved by the High Court of Australia in May 2020, which ruled that the letters were actually the property of the National Archives Australia.

Queen Elizabeth
Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty

“It’s terrific news,” Professor Hocking told the Guardian at the time. “It’s such important news for history, for our nation, because these really are critical documents in our history.

“To have them closed to us, not even through our own laws or regulations, but because of an embargo by the Queen, that has just been a really terrible situation.”

She added to BBC News on Tuesday that releasing them to the public was "a terrific outcome for transparency and history."

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Despite this, the release of the Queen's secret letters has not provided the silver bullet many Australian republicans had hoped for — not least because of the actions of Kerr over the dismissal of Prime Minister Whitlam.

“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 that it was better for Her Majesty not to know in advance,” he wrote to the Palace on November 11, 1975, the day of Whitlam's sacking.

Charteris later replied: “If I may say so with the greatest respect, I believe that in NOT informing the Queen what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with perfect constitutional propriety but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position.

”The Queen sends you her best wishes in this difficult time."