Politics

One Of Australia’s Biggest Political Shocks Has Finally Been Explained

"Well may we say God Save the Queen because nothing will save the National Archives of Australia website which is now running at the speed of a crippled slug."

queen elizabeth duke edinburgh 1963

Today, we’re pretty jaded when it comes to prime ministers being turfed out before their term is up.

Back in 1975 they weren’t quite so cynical — which is partly what made the dismissal of prime minister Gough Whitlam so dramatic. Whitlam’s sacking by Governor General Sir John Kerr was arguably the biggest shock to ever take place in Australian politics, and has given birth to some of Australia’s most persistent conspiracy theories.

You’ve probably heard a lot about it today with the release of the palace letters — 1200 pages of documents relating to the event, including 211 letters between Kerr and Buckingham Palace.

Here are … not some excerpts that have been circulating today:

What Are The Palace Letters?

Historian Professor Jenny Hocking has spent more than three years slogging it out in court, fighting to get the letters between the governor-general and Buckingham Palace released to the public.

The federal government and the National Archives where the Palace Letters are kept had argued they should be kept secret because they were personal property.

After Sir John’s death in 1991 the Palace even stipulated that royal approval would be needed before they were released, and they should be kept secret until at least 2027. And The governor-general’s official secretary, Mark Fraser, even said in his court submission that the letters’ secrecy was essential “to preserve the constitutional position of the Monarch and the Monarchy”.

But last month the High Court ruled they were Commonwealth records and should be released, against the wishes of the Queen.

Turns out, the Queen was kept pretty much out of the loop about the whole dismissal. That’s raised some question from some — the Australian Republic Movement, for one — about her role as our head of state.

The letters revealed that Kerr decided to sack the prime minister without first informing Buckingham Palace, although the Queen did know he had been considering the option.

“I should say that 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,” Sir John wrote on the day of the dismissal, 11 November 1975.

More than a week later Kerr wrote again to say he had to act quickly to make sure Whitlam didn’t have a chance to call an election, because Kerr feared he may be sacked himself.

“If in the period of 24 hours in which he was considering his position he advised the Queen that I should be immediately dismissed, the position would then have been that either I would be, in fact, trying to dismiss him while he was trying to dismiss me — an impossible position for the Queen,” he wrote.

“I simply could not risk the outcome for the sake of the monarchy.”

The Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris (who you may know from Netflix’s The Crown), responded to voice the Palace’s support for the move.

“If I may say so with the greatest respect, I believe in NOT informing The Queen of what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with constitutional propriety, but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position,” he wrote.

This afternoon the Australian Republic Movement — who have been campaigning for Australian to sever ties with the monarchy since 1991 — released a statement, calling it evidence of an “undemocratic power structure”.

“If (the Queen’s) role is to oversee, she needs to see what it going on, surely? Otherwise, what is the point?” they said in a statement.

Back Up – What Happened To Gough Whitlam?

Okay, a quick recap: 45 years ago Australia’s governor-general Sir John Kerr caused a huge stir when he sacked the democratically elected Whitlam government.

The governor-general is the representative of the monarch — Queen Elizabeth II. So he has the power to do this. However, it was a huge deal at the time because it really tested most people’s understanding of our Constitution.

Kerr decided to sack Whitlam after a bumpy few months — in October 1975 the Senate decided not to pass supply until the Whitlam government agreed to call an election.

That meant the country risked running out of money to provide government services and pay salaries or pensions.

The deadline to call an election would have been November 13 (to avoid economic chaos over the Christmas holidays), but the Whitlam government tried to ride it out.

On November 11 the Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser told Whitlam they’d pass supply if he agreed to an election for both houses in May or June 1976.

Gough wasn’t having any of that, and instead went to the governor-general to seek a half-Senate election in December. His refusal to request a general election led Kerr to dismiss the Whitlam government.

Fraser was then appointed as prime minister on the condition that he secure the passage of supply and then dissolve both houses of parliament and hold an election.

He did, the Whitlam government was defeated, and the Fraser government was elected into office.

What Were The Conspiracy Theories?

There were a number of conspiracy theories relating to the dismissal — the spiciest of which being that Kerr had conspired with the CIA and British security to tear down the Whitlam government because Whitlam was viewed as a security risk.

Kerr himself addressed this before he died, calling it a “splather of nonsense“.

For a long time, people have speculated that the Queen was more aware of Whitlam’s impending dismissal than anyone has ever let on. That theory can be put to rest now, but her lack of knowledge about what was happening raises even more questions, such as, if the Queen doesn’t even know when the prime minister is going to be sacked, why is she our queen at all?


Feature Image: Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1963. Wikimedia Commons.