Buckingham Palace declared victory Tuesday in a 45-year battle over whether the queen ordered a radical Australian prime minister to be fired.
Secret letters from 1975, which have been made public for the first time, showed that the monarch was not tipped off directly before the controversial sacking.
Republicans were swift to argue, however, that the documents prove she was “aware of what was happening in Australia.” They say she knew her representative was considering dismissing the prime minister—an incredibly provocative move—even if she did not intervene directly.
The 1975 dismissal of Gough Whitlam by the queen’s representative in the country, the governor general Sir John Kerr, came to be known as ‘The Dissolution,’ and represented Australia’s biggest constitutional crisis.
For decades, all correspondence relating to the events has been kept under lock and key in Australia’s national archive at the behest of the palace, which argued “that all conversations between prime ministers, governor generals, and the queen are private.”
However, the paperwork was released Tuesday after years of legal challenges.
Republicans and some historians have long claimed, with slender evidence, that the queen “must” have been involved in deliberations to oust the radical Labor leader Whitlam, who was fired by Kerr. The governor general is the queen’s representative in Australia, and has a role akin to a president in many modern republics, imagined to be largely ceremonial.
It was therefore shocking and unprecedented when Kerr invoked his regal powers to fire Whitlam, the democratically elected prime minister. The Whitlam administration remains the only federal government in Australian history to be dismissed by a viceregal representative. Although Kerr’s actions were an anachronistic affront to democracy, it should be noted that the Labour government was immensely unpopular and mired in scandal at the time. Newspapers and media were calling for an election, but Whitlam was giving every impression he would cling to office until his term expired, several years later.
It has long been speculated by anti-monarchists that the queen and Prince Philip conspired with Kerr to oust Whitlam; however, the new letters released today show that to not be the case.
However, Republicans have pounced on a clear sense in the letters that Kerr did loop in senior courtiers at the palace, most notably the queen’s right-hand man, Sir Martin Charteris, on his thinking and received no-so-tacit support and encouragement from him.
For example, in one note, written on Nov. 5, six days before the dissolution, Charteris writes, “If you do, as you will, what the constitution dictates, you cannot possible [sic] do the monarchy any avoidable harm. The chances are you will do it good.”
Kerr is believed to have acted to depose Whitlam after learning that he was considering advising the queen to dismiss him, because he was refusing to give royal assent to appropriation bills that had only been passed by one house.
In another comment in the letters—interpreted as tacit support for his plans—Charteris tells Kerr that as a constitutional sovereign the queen would have no option but to follow the advice of her prime minister and do so.
After dismissing the government, Kerr wrote to Charteris that he had done so “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.”
Charteris replied to Kerr that he had “acted not only with perfect constitutional propriety but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position.”
Charteris’ letter also paints an extraordinary scene of Whitlam calling Buckingham Palace to beg for his job back.
Charteris wrote of the call: “Mr Whitlam prefaced his remarks by saying that he was speaking as a ‘private citizen’... he should be re-commissioned as Prime Minister so that he could choose his own time to call an election.”
The constitutional crisis sparked by Kerr’s actions eased when Labour lost the subsequent general election.
Graham Smith, spokesperson for the pressure group Republic, said that the letters showed that the queen was aware of what was happening in Australia and knew the governor general was considering dismissing the prime minister.
He said that the letters also showed the palace giving advice to the governor general, including the suggestion that dismissing an elected prime minister was a viable option.
Smith said, “Whitlam still had the confidence of the house, he had recently been re-elected, yet the Governor General thought he could overrule the people and the constitution and dismiss the PM.
“Kerr wrote to the queen on many occasions and made it clear what he was thinking of doing. The queen fully engaged with that discussion and made no attempt to warn or advise Whitlam.”
Jenny Hocking, a historian and author, who has campaigned for the release of the letters, agreed that the queen did not emerge “unscathed” because she had been drawn into the governor general’s planning, including the possible use of his powers to sack the prime minister. Charteris wrote that the letters had been “laid out” for the queen in late 1975, shortly before Whitlam was sacked.
“In doing so the Queen breached the central tenet of a constitutional monarchy, that the monarch is politically neutral and must play no role in political matters. The damage this has done to the Queen, to Kerr, and the monarchy is incalculable,” Hocking told U.K. newspaper The Times.
The palace chose to characterize the letters as vindication of the monarch’s impartiality, saying, “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.’ 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.
“While the Royal Household believes in the longstanding convention that all conversations between prime ministers, governor generals, and the queen are private, 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.”