‘Palace Letters reignite my memories of politics and Australia’s Constitutional crisis’

Jul 17, 2020
For years there was speculation about how much Queen Elizabeth II knew about Australian PM Gough Whitlam's dismissal by Sir John Kerr and the release of the Palace Letters reveal it. Source: Getty Images

My mother-in-law hurried into the room where I was attending to my nine-day old-daughter helped by her toddler sister. “Sir John Kerr’s just sacked the Prime Minister! He can’t do that!”

But he could and he did. It was a significant moment in Australian history and for many, the rage is still maintained, gathering by the response to the release of the ‘Palace Letters’ recently.

Growing up in the 1950s, there was never any question about the prime minister. It was Robert Menzies. On his retirement, the Liberal leadership changed, unusually once through drowning. After 23 years the people felt the time was right for another change and on December 2, 1972, a Labor Government was elected. We watched the results come in with a friend whose first baby daughter had been born that morning.

The new government set to ruling enthusiastically at first with a duumvirate of Gough Whitlam and Lance Bernard making changes that did not require legislation, such as abolishing conscription, withdrawing the remaining troops from Vietnam, recognising mainland China, and removing the sales tax on contraceptive pills. In the first period of government, what is now Medicare was legislated, the final parts of the White Australia policy withdrawn, free tertiary education and Legal Aid were introduced, the death penalty for Federal crimes was abolished.
The electors heads were spinning.

In 1974 there was a double dissolution as Whitlam hoped to gain greater control of the Senate, which was continually blocking legislation. My memories of this time was that the machinations and the manoeuvrings by both parties were very hard to follow. Neither side was free of attempts to manipulate convention and constitution.

There were several government scandals involving the personal behaviour of ministers, the shady ‘loans affair’, the purchase of ‘Blue Poles’, which I personally admire but I know is still a divisive purchase. As the economy dipped, media and electors became more critical.

The government did not have a majority in the Senate, and the Senate continually blocked legislation. Whitlam and his party had twice been elected as the government, but the situation he found himself in was an unusual constitutional one.

The Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, appointed by Whitlam, corresponded with the Queen, through her private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, about the situation.

It is this correspondence — letters, telegrams and newspaper clippings — which has just been released. Kerr had ‘reserve powers’ to dismiss a prime minister. He was advised to use them constitutionally, not politically.

The ‘Palace Letters’ will take a great deal of time to evaluate and it is obvious that each reader brings a lot of their own background.

To me, it seems that Kerr was acting to save his own position. He valued the trappings of that position. He did not inform the Queen beforehand of his decision.

Sir Martin praises him for this, and to me, that smacks of the height of arrogance that this woman should not be troubled. At times Sir Martin writes on his own behalf. What is the point then of having a monarch?

That so much of the correspondence was to and from an English aristocrat at a time when Australia had been an independent nation for more than 70 years, is abhorrent.

There is much to be learned from the ‘Palace Letters’ and it is perhaps time to make some of the ‘conventions’ of parliamentary procedure part of the constitution so that a democratically elected leader cannot be dismissed ever again.

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