Sunday, 12 November 2017

The palace was an active player in Whitlam’s 1975 dismissal

Professor Jenny Hocking’s book is in its third edition but there are other documents that she wants to look at that are not open to view, and there is a pro bono Federal Court of Australia case being mounted by Tom Brennan and Corrs Chambers Westgarth in Sydney to test the Archives Act so that the so-called “palace letters” can be released. A Chuffed campaign has been launched to raise funds for the case.

The case hinges on documents that were communications between the governor-general, John Kerr, at the time of the Whitlam Dismissal of November 1975, and the palace, represented by the Queen, her private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, and Prince Charles. Based on her researches so far, Hocking has strong suspicions that there was palace advice given to Kerr to remove Whitlam.

Gough Whitlam was intending to meet with Kerr at 11am yesterday, 42 years ago. But we know already that Kerr had been in secret discussions with then-Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser. The level of collusion between the two men was far greater than suspected at the time. Kerr had in fact been in discussion with Fraser on the morning of the 11th despite Fraser’s later denials.

Sir Anthony Mason, a High Court judge and later Chef Justice, played a significant role in Kerr’s thinking, in a way that Hocking describes thus: “He fortified him.” Mason drafted a letter of dismissal for Kerr but later said he did not encourage Kerr. Hocking talked with Mason for her researches and challenged him to come clean for the record, but he said, “I owe history nothing.” Hocking thinks he owes history a great deal.

Mason was the one guiding Kerr for months, but Fraser’s role was also not an honourable one. The House of Representatives had passed a no-confidence motion against Fraser by 10 votes and Kerr ignored it. It is true that Whitlam had a Senate that refused to pass supply bills, but Hocking points out that if the Senate refused supply Whitlam could have called a half-Senate election, and indeed could have done so since July 1975. The Senate would have included new senators from the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory – giving them senators was a Whitlam innovation. Whitlam was about to call a half-Senate election – which the Liberals were terrified of because it would have scuttled their plans – but Kerr dismissed him without notice.

Kerr had had a conversation with Prince Charles in Papua New Guinea at the time of PNG’s Independence Day (16 September 1975). Kerr’s concern was that he might have to dismiss the government. He was also worried about his own position. Charles was shocked that Whitlam might dismiss Kerr. There is no question the palace knew Kerr was considering a dismissal. As was standard for governors-general at the time Kerr was in regular communication with the palace “sometimes as often as three times in a day”.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which was the British government department looking after Australian matters, was fully aware of the partisan implications if a half-Senate election was held (because Whitlam would have won control of the Senate).

But there was conflicting advice due to the “bifurcated queen”. On the one hand the Queen had to make decisions based on her role as the Queen of Australia, but she was also the Queen of the UK, and Australia’s states are sovereign entities under legislation that was passed in the UK House of Commons. The latter relationship was “quasi-colonial”, says Hocking. The Queen was in a conflicted position because the Liberal-controlled states would have had to issue writs for vacant Senate positions at the same time as the federal Labor government was calling the half-Senate election. The FCO said Kerr must not act in a way that would embarrass the Queen.

The British were monitoring the situation and making approaches to individuals involved. There was an active desire in the palace to not allow the half-Senate election to go ahead. But the Queen’s private secretary Sir Martin Charteris also often spoke as the Queen. Polls showed Whitlam was supported by the Australian populace due to the supply crisis. Whitlam said, “The system didn’t fail me the people in it did”.

FCO correspondence at the time talks about the “possible intervention of the UK government” in Australian domestic politics. There is also correspondence that talks about “our intervention in the Half-Senate election”.

The “palace papers” are embargoed until 2027 but even then, the Queen’s private secretary can withhold them.

Hocking thinks that there was an ideological rift between the palace and the Whitlam government. The Liberals had been in power – up to 1972 – uninterruptedly for 26 years under Menzies and Whitlam had introduced new norms, including getting rid of the royal honours.

Hocking, who works at Monash University, also wrote a biography of Australian author and political activist Frank Hardy. When she was writing her Whitlam biography, Whitlam never asked to see it, even when she found his grandfather had spent four years in Pentridge Prison from the age of 18. Kerr’s papers became open for public scrutiny in 2005 under the 30-year rule.

Leanne Smith opened yesterday’s proceedings. She is the director of the Whitlam Institute.

Above: The Whitlam Institute is located in the Female Orphan School at Western Sydney University's Parramatta campus. The gorgeous jacaranda tree outside it was in full bloom.

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