Inside Story

The governor-general’s ambush

Books | What the Palace didn’t do during the 1975 constitutional crisis was as important as what it did

Mike Steketee 2 November 2020 3048 words

“My governor-general”: prime minister Gough Whitlam watches as Sir John Kerr is sworn in as governor-general in the Senate chamber of Parliament House on 11 July 1974. Sydney Morning Herald


The Palace Letters
By Jenny Hocking | Scribe | $32.99 | 288 pages
The Truth of the Palace Letters
By Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston | Melbourne University Press | $29.99 | 272 pages

The dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975 has been examined in minute detail again and again. But, as with most history, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing new to say.

The correspondence between Australia’s governor-general, Sir John Kerr, and the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, known as the Palace letters, adds a whole new dimension to Australia’s greatest constitutional crisis. It reveals that Buckingham Palace was far more than a passive recipient of Kerr’s voluminous letters, and it confirms that Kerr was planning for a possible dismissal months before he sprang his ambush on Gough Whitlam.

The letters also show the extent to which Kerr drew the Palace into his plan as part of his quest for support and affirmation. And they makes clear that Charteris kept the Queen fully informed and passed Kerr’s correspondence on to her. All the while, the elected prime minister of Australia was not just kept in the dark by Kerr but also actively deceived.

The letters establish something else, too: that aspects of the history continue to be contested. They were released in July thanks to the persistence of Whitlam’s biographer, historian Jenny Hocking, despite the formidable forces arrayed against her — the Queen, the National Archives and the Morrison government — and despite rebuffs from the Federal Court and then the Full Federal Court. The final victory in the High Court had a broader significance, asserting what should have been beyond dispute — that, as Hocking puts it, we own our own history.

Less than four months after the release of the letters, and in time for the forty-fifth anniversary of the dismissal on 11 November, two duelling versions of history have been published, one by Hocking and the other by the Australian’s Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston. Despite their similar titles, they vary markedly in their interpretation of the Palace’s role in the events of 1975. Where Hocking sees unconscionable interference by the Queen to overthrow a democratically elected government, Kelly and Bramston argue that the Palace adhered strictly to its longstanding policy of non-interference in the affairs of nations in its realm.

The two books even offer us duelling prefaces by former prime ministers, ironically with Paul Keating in the Kelly–Bramston corner and Malcolm Turnbull in Hocking’s. For Keating, “the idea that the Queen may have wished or actively conspired in arrangements with Sir John Kerr to effect a party political outcome in Australia amounts to no more than tilting at shadows.” For Turnbull, the letters’ surprising revelation is that Charteris responded in detail to Kerr instead of making “little more than a brief, polite acknowledgement.” Charteris should have prevailed on Kerr to be upfront with Whitlam, Turnbull argues, and should have discouraged him from dismissing Whitlam; instead, “some of his correspondence can be read as encouraging him to do so.”

This is Paul Kelly’s fourth book on the dismissal, the last two of them in collaboration with Bramston. He was at Parliament House as a reporter on the day of the dismissal, has interviewed most of the main players and is an undoubted authority on the subject. That also means he is invested in his version of history: that Kerr was wrong to hide his intentions from Whitlam and wrong to sack him, but that the decision was all his own.

Only after the dismissal, he and Bramston write, did Kerr inform the Queen of the “elaborate, secret and extraordinary plan he had implemented, none of whose components he had previously disclosed to the Palace.” Among these components were that he had already decided to dismiss Whitlam on 11 November, that he had denied Whitlam’s request for a half-Senate election, that he had consulted chief justice Sir Garfield Barwick and, later, that he had dissolved parliament for an election on the advice of the new prime minister he had appointed, Malcolm Fraser. This is literally true, though he had certainly canvassed options with the Palace beforehand, particularly the possibility of forcing an election by dismissing Whitlam and commissioning Fraser.

Hocking, too, has a prior position to defend. She was convinced before the release of the letters that the Palace was implicated in the dismissal. It had become clear to her while working on her two-volume biography of Whitlam, she says, that “much of what was known as the history of the dismissal was simply wrong” — not a comment Kelly would have appreciated. She raised expectations beforehand about the “explosive” content of the letters.

As it turns out, the two books agree on a great deal, including the fundamental proposition that Kerr was wrong to act as he did. While views about Kerr’s actions divided largely on predictable political lines in 1975, unequivocal support for Kerr’s actions has since dwindled to a much smaller group of conservatives and monarchists. In their book and in subsequent articles, Kelly and Bramston quote a brace of former governors-general as disagreeing with Kerr, including his predecessor Sir Paul Hasluck (previously a Liberal minister), Quentin Bryce (2008–14) and Peter Cosgrove (2014–19).

Among Kerr’s present-day critics they also number Kim Beazley, former federal Labor leader and current governor of Western Australia, who said Kerr’s correspondence was unnecessary and sought to compromise the Queen. “He’s there as the Queen’s representative and one thing we are obligated to do, aside from the relationship that we have with the administration of the Australian people, is to prevent her name from being sullied or drawn into controversy,” says Beazley. “I cannot see in that correspondence a second’s regard for her situation.”

But Kelly and Bramston also cite Bryce, Cosgrove and Beazley, together with Bill Hayden, governor-general during the Hawke and Keating governments, as believing the Queen to have a strict policy of non-interference in Australian affairs. “In this sense, they confirmed a generation later the messages that Charteris and the Queen were giving Kerr in 1975,” write Kelly and Bramston. “The principle of Palace non-interference is decades old.”

This is a bit of a stretch. It is no surprise that the Queen’s former and current representatives are not inclined to criticise her. In any case, only Hayden explicitly asserts that this policy of non-interference operated in 1975.

Policy is one thing and practice another. In his preface to Hocking’s book, Turnbull describes Kerr’s endless letters as “sycophantic grovelling” and “stomach-churning.” Charteris not only indulged Kerr, he also encouraged him in his thinking and sided with him after the dismissal. It is true that he didn’t specifically urge Kerr to act on 11 November, and he did suggest that the dismissal power should be used only as a last resort. And Charteris confirms, as Kerr said, that the Queen was not told of what he had done until after the event.

But it is what else Charteris didn’t do that is revealing. At no stage did the Palace’s official policy of strict non-interference prompt him to respond to Kerr’s flood of correspondence by saying something along the lines of, “This is all very interesting, dear chap, but it’s got nothing to do with us — it’s all up to you.”

Instead he wrote back with suggestions and advice of his own, including the observation that the reserve powers, including of dismissal, did indeed exist. Strict non-interference surely would have dictated no such comment, since Whitlam argued that the reserve powers were a dead letter and that the governor-general was obliged always to follow the advice of the prime minister. His view was backed by the formal opinion of attorney-general Kep Enderby and solicitor-general Sir Maurice Byers that the reserve powers were relics of a sovereign age and there was no basis for using them in the situation Kerr faced in 1975.

Since then, the general view has been that the reserve powers do indeed exist, if for no other reason than Kerr’s use of them. But the point here is that in 1975 Charteris injected himself into a partisan debate in Australia and sided with conservative opinion. The statement from Buckingham Palace after the release of the letters that “neither Her Majesty nor the Royal Household had any part to play in Kerr’s decision” is at best disingenuous.

Most significantly, Charteris never suggested to Kerr that he should reverse his inexcusable decision to deceive Whitlam. Kelly and Bramston quote Kerr’s predecessor, Sir Paul Hasluck, saying in an oral history interview for the National Library that, had he been governor-general, “at a much earlier stage there would have been discussions between Whitlam and myself and some indications to Whitlam that certain matters needed reconsideration.” Hasluck believed that, had he still been in the role, “probably the history of Australian politics would be quite different.”

In other words, Hasluck would have given Whitlam the option of going to an election as prime minister rather than being sacked. Whitlam may then have taken up Fraser’s offer for the Coalition-controlled Senate to pass supply — that is, the government’s spending bills — if Whitlam agreed to an election by the middle of 1976.

Either way, Whitlam would surely have lost an election: his government had been beset by too many scandals and presided over too much economic hardship to have a realistic chance of winning. What would have been avoided was the governor-general’s disgracing his office, the criticism Kerr brought on the monarchy and the undermining of the legitimacy of the Fraser government, which was tainted and constrained by the manner in which it came to office.

Kerr’s excuse for the ambush was his concern that Whitlam would ask the Queen to sack him if he were frank with him. He wanted to protect the Queen, he said, from having to deal with such a difficult situation. What Whitlam would actually have done is unclear. For Hocking, the fact that he made no attempt to contact the Palace when Kerr sacked him speaks for itself. Instead, in a moment of distracted formality, the two men shook hands.

But it is not quite so straightforward. What would Whitlam have done if Kerr had said he would dismiss him if he didn’t call a general election? Kerr believed that Whitlam was on a course from which he was not prepared to deviate, designed to break the Senate’s power to hold governments hostage. But he never gave Whitlam a chance to test that view. It seems improbable that Whitlam would have chosen dismissal over contesting an election as prime minister, particularly if he had taken up Fraser’s offer.

Kelly and Bramston produce conflicting evidence, including from Whitlam himself, who wrote in his 1979 book The Truth of the Matter, “At no time during the crisis had the possibility of replacing Sir John Kerr been a significant element in my thinking.” But on 31 December 1975, two weeks after his devastating defeat at the election, Whitlam had told British prime minister Harold Wilson that “[Kerr] deceived me — realising, I’m sure, that I would have been in touch with the Queen if my suspicions had been aroused.”

While Kelly and Bramston argue that the remark to Wilson must carry weight, they don’t see it as definitive: “In such a crisis Whitlam was likely to rethink at any given moment.” Some of those closest to him at the time differ on what Whitlam would have done had Kerr told him of his concerns. One consideration was that sacking the umpire — as many would have seen it — would not have gone down well with voters.

Astonishingly, as Kelly and Bramston highlight, Kerr believed that Whitlam’s threat to sack him would be ineffective and that Whitlam knew this. In a letter to Charteris on 20 November 1975 — that is, nine days after the dismissal — he wrote:

As you know from earlier letters, on occasions, sometimes jocularly, sometimes less so, but on all occasions with what I considered to be underlying seriousness, he [Whitlam] said that the crisis could end in a race to the Palace to see who could get there first. Of course, though I did not say this to him, only he had to go to the Palace. I could act, if necessary, directly myself under the Constitution. I am sure that he would have known this and the talk about a race to the Palace really constituted another threat.

In other words, Kerr knew he could cross the finish line before the race even started. It was a conclusion that was reinforced by Charteris, who clarified Prince Charles’s remark to Kerr that the Queen might not have to act if Whitlam advised her to dismiss Kerr. As usual, Kerr was having detailed discussions with the royals and others while hiding his planning from Whitlam. Charteris wrote:

If such an approach was made you may be sure that the Queen would take most unkindly to it. There would be considerable comings and goings, but I think it is right that I should make the point that at the end of the road the Queen, as a Constitutional Sovereign, would have no option but to follow the advice of her Prime Minister.

Hocking quotes Paul Rodan’s interpretation of this letter in Inside Story: “The references to ‘comings and goings’ and ‘at the end of the road’ speak volumes: any such recommendation from Whitlam would only be implemented after some delay.”

And yet, despite this assurance that he would win the race, Kerr continued to keep Whitlam in the dark. He wanted to keep his job. His expressed desire to protect the Queen could be seen as admirable. But it was nonsensical: his actions as the Queen’s representative damaged the monarchy anyway.

In any case, none of it was an excuse for Kerr’s deception of an elected prime minister. In his preface, Keating captures the lengths to which Kerr went to pretend that he was on Whitlam’s side. When Keating himself accompanied Whitlam to Government House five days before the dismissal, the room was filled “with great mirth and noisy guffawing… I took this mirth between the governor-general and the prime minister to mean that they were seeing eye to eye on the big issue in front of them.”

Kelly and Bramston discovered a gem that was not included in the Palace letters: a letter from Prince Charles to Kerr in March 1976 in which he is effusive in his praise of the governor-general and tells him not to lose heart over the demonstrations against him and “all sorts of misinformed criticism and prejudice”: “What you did last year was right and the courageous thing to do — and most Australians seemed to endorse your decision when it came to the point.”

There could hardly be a clearer example of royal partisanship, and Kelly and Bramston acknowledge the fact by describing it as an unwise letter that had the potential to damage Charles’s future as King of Australia. But it really went no further than Charteris had in his endorsement of Kerr’s actions after 11 November.

Hocking writes that “never was a man less suited to the position of governor-general than Sir John Kerr.” What she means is that he took the job too literally. Kelly and Bramston quote Kerr as saying that “the whole question of the reserve powers became a reality for me from my early student days.” Kerr’s patron at law school was H.V. “Doc” Evatt, who was to become federal Labor leader and who had written about the use of the reserve powers in his 1936 book The King and His Dominion Governors. As Kelly and Bramston write, Whitlam had unwittingly appointed as governor-general “one of the nation’s most passionate zealots for the reserve powers.”

Even if he had been aware of this when he chose Kerr, Whitlam might have written it off as irrelevant to contemporary history. But there were other signs that Kerr would not take kindly to being treated as an automaton, obliged to accept the advice of the prime minister. Kerr had long left his Labor sympathies behind, and had a strong sense of self-importance when it came to matters great and small. For his swearing in, for instance, Whitlam suggested he wear a lounge suit, but Kerr instead turned out in a full morning suit of top hat and tails — a practice he extended to less formal occasions, such as presenting the Melbourne Cup. It was just one sign that he identified himself much more with the establishment than with his working-class origins as a boilermaker’s son.

If Whitlam’s strengths were his drive to modernise Australia after twenty-three years of conservative rule and — to use the words of his speechwriter, Graham Freudenberg — the “certain grandeur” that he brought to his office, his weakness was in assessing his fellow human beings. He misjudged Kerr from the start, and his patronising attitude towards him in office did not help. Whitlam occasionally referred to Kerr as “my governor-general,” Keating writes, whereas “Kerr, consumed with vanity, would have hated the notion that he was someone else’s person or instrument.”

Whitlam saw no need to indulge Kerr’s sense of his own importance or his pomposity. He regarded the governor-general’s position as ceremonial and nothing more. For Hasluck, this lack of trust and confidence between Whitlam and Kerr was the underlying problem that eventually yielded the dismissal.

Hocking spends a large part of her book writing about her campaign for the release of the Palace letters. Heroic as this battle was, it will strike many as of secondary importance to the content of the letters and her interpretation of them. But it does capture the absurdity of the situation: the Palace’s defence that secrecy was necessary “to preserve the constitutional position of the Monarch and the Monarchy” was, as Hocking writes, “like being stuck in a Victorian-era time warp, the language and the deference reflecting another time and a different, essentially colonial political system.”

And the same can be said of the letters’ portrayal of the vice-regal representative chewing the fat with the Queen and her advisers, 17,000 kilometres away in London, about how to dispose of the Australian government. Has there ever been a more vivid image to illustrate the need for Australia to become a republic? •