Category Archives: Prime Minister
The “palace letters” show the Australian Constitution’s susceptibility to self-interested behaviour by individual vice-regal representatives. They also reveal the vulnerability of Australian governments to secret destabilisation by proxy by the Crown.
They reveal a governor-general, fearing his own dismissal, succumbing to moral hazard, and the British monarch’s private secretary encouraging him in the idea that a double dissolution was legitimate in the event a government could not get its budget bills passed.
The letters confirm the worst fears of those who viewed Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s sacking of the Whitlam government as a constitutional coup. They reveal Kerr shortened by at most a mere three months the resolution of the crisis created by the conservative Malcolm Fraser-led opposition’s refusal to pass the government’s budget bills, compared to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s own timetable shared with Kerr.
The correspondence shows Kerr was privy to Whitlam’s plan to hold a double-dissolution election in February 1976 if all other avenues, including a half-Senate election, failed to secure passage of the budget beforehand. Whitlam candidly told Kerr he would be replaced as governor-general if he obstructed that plan. This introduced the element of moral hazard that saw Kerr take a reckless and self-interested route in ending the crisis rather than the steadier one privately put to him by Whitlam – one that Kerr could have, had he chosen, quite properly facilitated.
Crucially, the palace provided a specific nudge to Kerr in the direction of dismissing the government as a solution. It did so by highlighting one expert’s view that Kerr could secure an election while saving his own position as governor-general.
A September 24 1975 letter from the queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, to Kerr pointed him to Canadian constitutional law expert Eugene Forsey’s opinion that:
[…] if supply is refused this always makes it constitutionally proper to grant a dissolution.
In such correspondence, the queen’s private secretary is understood as speaking for the queen herself. As such, this could be interpreted as the monarch providing not just comfort but actual encouragement to the governor-general in his sacking of the government.
By adding his point about Forsey as a handwritten postscript to the letter, Charteris created a degree of ambiguity on this score, giving rise to a potential argument that it was Charteris’s personal view and not that of the queen.
But this should be read in the context of the overall correspondence in the year leading up to The Dismissal. In these letters, Kerr repeatedly canvasses the opposition’s potential blocking of supply, the likely resulting constitutional crisis and his difficulties in that context. There is, notably, no counterveiling call from the palace to let the legitimately elected prime minister see his plan through, even though Kerr had conveyed Whitlam’s plan to the palace.
In a crucial letter to Charteris on September 30, Kerr outlined Whitlam’s privately proposed electoral path to a resolution.
In the event the opposition continued to block the budget bills, Whitlam wanted to hold a half-Senate election. After that the government would again put the budget bills to the Senate. Should the opposition continue to block them, Whitlam planned a double-dissolution election. Kerr relayed to Charteris Whitlam’s view that it “could not take place until February 1976”.
Why didn’t Kerr co-operate with Whitlam to implement this relatively speedy path to resolution of the crisis? The answer likely lies in Whitlam’s candour in telling Kerr he would ask the queen to replace Kerr should he not accede to the plan.
Since the letters through Charteris also confirm the queen’s intention, unreservedly, to accept Whitlam’s advice to sack Kerr should she be asked to do so, Kerr knew this threat to be real and increasingly immediate.
The question is, since the queen made clear through Charteris she would uphold Australia’s constitutional convention that the monarch follow the prime minister’s advice, why would her representative, Kerr, not simply do the same with regard to Whitlam’s plans for the crisis’s resolution?
This is the note missing from the palace side of the correspondence – an absence against which Charteris’s handwritten postscript pointing Kerr to the Forsey opinion that “dissolution” was a legitimate option when governments fail to get their money bills passed is stark.
Forsey was later a strong public supporter of Kerr’s sacking of the Whitlam government. No wonder the palace fought to stop these letters being released.
For more than four decades, the question has been asked: did the queen know the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, was about to dismiss the Whitlam government, and did she encourage or support that action?
The release of the “palace letters” between Kerr and the palace can now lay that question to rest. The answer was given, unequivocally, by the queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, in a letter to Kerr on November 17 1975. He said:
If I may say so with the greatest respect, I believe that in NOT informing The Queen what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with perfect constitutional propriety but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position.
Certainly, Kerr had kept the palace up to date with the various developments in Australia. While governors-general usually communicate with the queen only three or four times a year during ordinary times, it is common during a crisis for updates on the political situation to be made every few days – particularly if there is a risk of the queen becoming involved or the exercise of a reserve power.
Drawing the palace into the crisis
In 1975, there were multiple issues that might have drawn the palace into the crisis.
First, there was the question of whether Kerr should exercise a reserve power to refuse royal assent to an appropriation bill that had been passed by the House of Representatives but not the Senate. Fortunately, Whitlam dropped this idea, so that controversy disappeared.
Then there was the question of whether state premiers would advise state governors to refuse to issue the writs for a half-Senate election, and whether Whitlam would then advise the queen to instruct the governors to issue the writs. This didn’t happen either, because Whitlam did not get to hold his half-Senate election. But the prospect was enough to worry the palace.
Next there was the issue of what to do with the Queensland governor, Sir Colin Hannah. Hannah, in a speech, had referred to the “fumbling ineptitude” of the Whitlam government. Hannah held a “dormant commission” to act as administrator of the Commonwealth when the governor-general was away.
Whitlam, contrary to the advice of both the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Attorney-General’s Department, advised the queen to remove Hannah’s commission to be administrator.
Separately, the Queensland opposition petitioned for Hannah to be removed as governor, but that required the advice of British ministers, as Queensland was still in those days a “dependency” of the British Crown.
So the palace had to juggle advice on Hannah from two different sources.
A race to the palace
Another pressing question was what should be done if Whitlam advised Kerr’s dismissal. Kerr’s letters more than once referred to Whitlam talking of a “race to the Palace” to see whether he could dismiss Kerr before Kerr dismissed him.
Kerr saw these “jokes” as having an underlying menace. Kerr knew he didn’t have to race to the palace – he could dismiss the prime minister immediately. But he also knew, after Whitlam advised Hannah’s removal merely for using the words “fumbling ineptitude”, that Whitlam wouldn’t hesitate to act.
The letters also show Kerr had been told that while the “Queen would take most unkindly” to being told to dismiss her governor-general, she would eventually do so because, as a constitutional sovereign, she had no option but to follow the advice of her prime minister. This would inevitably have brought her into the fray in an essentially Australian constitutional crisis.
Kerr explained in a letter after the dismissal that if he had given Whitlam 24 hours to advise a dissolution or face the prospect of dismissal, there was a considerable risk Whitlam would advise the queen to dismiss Kerr. He wrote:
[…] the position would then have been that either I would in fact be trying to dismiss him whilst he was trying to dismiss me, an impossible position for The Queen, or someone totally inexperienced in the developments of the crisis up to that point, be it a new Governor-General or an Administrator who would have to be a State Governor, would be confronted by the same implacable Prime Minister.
Advice from the palace
The letters reveal much of Kerr’s thinking, but little from the palace. Charteris rightly accepted the reserve powers existed, but they were to be used “in the last resort and then only for constitutional and not for political reasons”.
Charteris stressed the exercise of such powers was a
heavy responsibility and it is only at the very end when there is demonstrably no other course that they should be used.
This did not give Kerr any “green light” or encouragement to act. No-one suggested to him that the end had come and there was no other course to be followed. That was for Kerr to judge, and rightly so, because the powers could only be exercised by him – not the queen.
Whether the end had come and there was no other course is essentially what continues to be debated today. Should Kerr have waited? Should he have warned Whitlam? Was another course of action available?
All of these questions may justly be debated. But, no, the queen did not direct Kerr to dismiss Whitlam. He was not encouraged to do so. He was only encouraged to obey the Australian Constitution, which is something we all should do.
‘The time has come to say something of the forgotten class’: how Menzies transformed Australian political debate
The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key figures in Australian political history, examining how they changed the country and political debate. You can read the rest of the series here.
As Australia’s longest serving prime minister, the career of Robert Menzies remains a model of political success in this country.
Despite this, much of Menzies’s legacy has failed to live long past his time in office, let alone into the 21st century. He was, for instance, firmly in favour of White Australia, obsessed with Australia’s British roots and idolised the monarchy. He also believed the Communist Party ought to be outlawed, and oversaw a highly protected, regulated economy. In many ways, Menzies was the last bastion of an old Australia we would hardly recognise today.
However, there are two notable exceptions – ways in which Menzies did manage to transform Australian political debate in a lasting way: firstly, through his construction of a middle-class political constituency he called “the forgotten people”; secondly, as the founder of the Liberal Party and Coalition.
Rising through the ranks
Born in Jeparit, Victoria, in 1894, Menzies rapidly made his way into the elite of Melbourne society. After working as a barrister and later a youthful minister in two Victorian state governments, he was elected to the federal parliament with the United Australia Party in 1934.
Attorney-General Menzies then became prime minister after Joseph Lyons died in office in 1939, just as the second world war broke out.
His factional enemies in the UAP were not impressed by his wartime leadership and, after his closest allies were killed in a plane crash, Menzies was forced out of the leadership in 1941.
Within a year, Labor was in government, and the UAP was collapsing.
This was not the end of Menzies, though. In 1944, he led efforts to reunite various right-of-centre groups to form a new anti-Labor party — the Liberal Party of Australia. He then headed the party’s campaigns against the Labor government’s alleged “socialist” excesses, such as bank nationalisation and petrol rationing.
In 1949, he led the Liberals to a sweeping election victory. Though he had some electoral near misses, and part of his longevity was owed to a fortuitous split in the Labor party, Menzies remained Liberal leader and prime minister until his retirement in 1966.
‘The forgotten people’
In 1942, as he sought to resurrect his political career, Menzies gave one of Australia’s most famous political speeches, which envisaged a constituency he called “the forgotten people”:
But if we are to talk of classes, then the time has come to say something of the forgotten class – the middle class – those people who are constantly in danger of being ground between the upper and the nether millstones of the false class war; the middle class who, properly regarded, represent the backbone of this country.
These were middle-class, god-fearing citizens, neither rich enough to fend for themselves, nor poor enough to seek trade union representation, and thus lacking power. They would become Menzies’ core constituency, with the party tailoring its policies to helping them meet their modest aspirations for themselves and their families.
Where the UAP had been seen as tied to the upper class and big business, Menzies would seek to attach his party to this ignored middle class, a group more Australians could imagine themselves to be part of, even if they had never thought of themselves in those terms before.
This construct has remained at the centre of Liberal Party rhetoric, reincarnated as John Howard’s “battlers” and Scott Morrison’s “quiet Australians”.
Even Labor has, at times, sought to defer to this supposed “backbone of the nation”. In his first speech to the Press Club as Labor Leader, Anthony Albanese suggested the ALP had lost the 2019 federal election because, to many voters, it failed to be the party of aspiration; essentially, that they neglected Menzies’s forgotten people.
Of course, this is not to say there really is a quiet, unassuming, aspirational majority lurking out in the suburbs. Rather, Menzies’s forgotten people are a rhetorical construct that has grown a life of its own. Politicians believe in this constituency and defer to it, even if it is not, actually, a meaningful voting bloc.
A Liberal-National Coalition
Menzies was also the driving force in creating and holding together the Liberal Party — and indeed the long-term Liberal-National Coalition, an alliance that has historically shifted the focus of political debate.
Keeping liberals, conservatives and rural interests in one bloc has meant the battle for leadership in Australia became a contest between the Coalition and Labor. This was no easy feat. Indeed, until 1944, there had been numerous minor parties campaigning on the right of the political spectrum. Some were reluctant to join Menzies’s new party, given that it would be a “liberal”, rather than “conservative” party.
Free-traders and economic moderates frequently fell out over welfare and tarrifs; hard-line conservatives and social liberals had serious disagreements over censorship, multiculturalism and other social issues. However, Menzies managed to unite them under what Howard would later call the Liberal Party’s “broad church” by focusing on Labor’s “socialism” and the international threat of communism. This appeal similarly kept the Nationals as Coalition partners. Menzies said:
In 1949 we were swept into power at what was then an almost record level of majority. Now all that happened because we had something to believe in, not just something to oppose, something to believe in.
Consequently, the issues, problems and demands that divided the Coalition have not been fully discussed in the public arena, but rather suppressed within party room debates and compromises. This has, to an extent, enabled non-Labor alliances to dominate politics. More recently, the two-party system has begun to break down, with more and more voters availing themselves of minor parties and independents in order to place previously ignored issues on the political agenda.
Menzies’s legacy, then, is not so much his particular beliefs or policies, nor in the model of leadership he provides as Australia’s longest serving prime minister. Rather, his lasting contributions were the rhetorical and organisational structures he built. While the former have faded into obscurity, the notion of “the forgotten people” and the Liberal-National Coalition remain as important now as they were when Menzies retired from office in 1966.
Had he retired from public life at his low ebb in 1942, Australian politics might look very different today.
The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key figures in Australian political history, examining how they changed the country and political debate. You can read the rest of the series here.
Paul Keating was one of Australia’s most charismatic and controversial prime ministers.
Born in Bankstown, New South Wales, into an Irish-Catholic, working-class and Labor-voting family, he left school before he turned 15. Keating joined the Labor Party as a teenager, quickly honing the political skills that would serve him so well in later life. He entered parliament as MP for Blaxland in 1969 at just 25 years old, and briefly served as minister for Northern Australia in the ill-fated Whitlam government.
He subsequently served as a very high-profile treasurer in the Hawke government from 1983-1991, before defeating Bob Hawke in a leadership ballot in December 1991. In doing so Keating became Australia’s 24th prime minister, serving until John Howard defeated him in the 1996 election.
To Keating’s supporters, he is a visionary figure whose “big picture” ideas helped transform the Australian economy, while still pursuing socially inclusive policies. To his conservative critics, Keating left a legacy of government debt and rejected “mainstream” Australians in favour of politically correct “special interests”.
He was a skilled parliamentary performer, renowned for his excoriating put-downs and wit.
Keating played a major role in transforming Australian political debate. He highlighted the role of markets in restructuring the economy, engagement with Asia, Australian national identity and the economic benefits of social inclusion.
Keating is remembered most for his eloquent advocacy of so-called “economic rationalism” both as treasurer and later as prime minister.
Under Hawke and Keating, Labor advocated free markets, globalisation, deregulation and privatisation, albeit in a less extreme form than the Liberals advocated. For example, while Labor introduced major public sector cuts, it attempted to use means tests to target the cuts and protect those most in need. Nonetheless, Hawke and Keating embraced the market far more than previous Labor leaders had.
Along with New Zealand Labour, Australian Labor became one of the international pioneers of a rapprochement between social democracy and a watered-down form of free-market neoliberalism. Years later, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had visited Australia during the Hawke and Keating years, was to acknowledge the influence of Australian Labor on his own “Third Way” approach to politics.
Keating justified his economic rationalism on the grounds that the Australian economy needed to transform to be internationally competitive in a changing world. To avoid becoming one of the world’s “economic museums” or “banana republics”, in Keating’s view, there was no alternative but to embrace his economic rationalist agenda.
Trade unions and the ‘social wage’
At the same time, Keating argued that his economic policies would avoid social injustices. This contrasted with the outcomes of the extreme economic rationalism of the Thatcher and Reagan governments.
Unlike in the UK or US, where anti-union policies were pursued, the Labor government was prepared to work with the trade union movement to introduce its economic policies. Under the Accord agreements, trade unions agreed to wage restraint, and eventually real wage cuts, in return for government services and benefits.
Hawke and Keating referred to this as the “social wage”. They claimed the resulting increased business profits would encourage economic growth and rising standards of living.
Social inclusion and economic growth
Keating saw his economic policies and progressive social policies as compatible. Increased social inclusion would contribute to economic growth.
Drawing on Hawke-era affirmative action legislation, Keating argued improved gender equality would mean women could contribute their skills to the economy.
Keating was also a passionate advocate for reconciliation with Indigenous Australians, including acknowledging the injustices of Australia’s colonial past and facilitating Native Title. He envisaged an Australia where Indigenous people would benefit from sustainable economic development, cultural tourism and could sell their artworks to the world.
National identity, Asia and the republic
In Keating’s ideal vision, Australia would engage more with Asia and benefit from the geo-economic changes occurring in the Asia-Pacific region.
Then Opposition Leader John Howard accused Keating of rejecting Australia’s British heritage. In fact, Keating acknowledged many positive British influences on Australian society. However, he argued that Australia had developed its own democratic innovations such as the secret ballot long before Britain accepted these. He also suggested Australian values had become more inclusive as a result of diverse waves of immigration.
Consequently, it was time for Australia to throw off its colonial heritage, including the British monarchy, and become a republic. Keating believed that doing so would enable Australia to be more easily accepted as an independent nation in the Asian region. He established a Republic Advisory Committee as part of preparations for a referendum on becoming a republic.
Australia’s greater relationship with Asia has had major benefits for the economy, although Keating underestimated the downsides of increased competition. Recently, he complained about what he sees as excessive security fears in relation to China and their impact on Asian engagement. The republic remains unfinished business.
Keating’s vision has also left some unintended consequences for Labor today. Despite his patchy record in achieving them, Keating argued that both tax cuts and budget surpluses were important, even at the expense of public sector cuts.
Consequently, it became harder for Labor leaders to make a case for deficit-funded stimulus packages when needed (as Kevin Rudd tried to do during the Global Financial Crisis). Similarly, it became harder for Labor leaders to argue for increased taxes to fund a bigger role for government, as Bill Shorten attempted during the 2019 election.
In addition, as I argue in a recent book, Keating-era policy contributed in the longer term to poorer wages and conditions for workers. Labor is predictably loath to acknowledge this. Keating also underestimated the detrimental impacts of economic rationalism on other vulnerable groups in the community.
The 2019 election result suggests many Australians no longer believe Labor governments will improve their standards of living.
Rather than the prosperous brave new world he envisaged, parts of the Keating legacy may have made things harder for subsequent Labor leaders. Nonetheless, Keating remains a revered figure in the Labor Party and one of its most memorable leaders.
As Australia begins to plot a recovery strategy from the first recession in the country in decades, the Morrison government needs to examine what has worked well in the past.
Crises require strong leadership, national cohesion and a framework for carrying out recovery efforts on a grand scale.
As such, there is a case to be made for a new Commonwealth agency to lead the recovery effort, built on the model of the Department of Post-War Reconstruction that helped Australia emerge from the turmoil of the second world war.
The Department of Post-War Reconstruction
In December 1942, Prime Minister John Curtin established the Department of Post-War Reconstruction. Even though the war was still raging, its task was to begin planning and coordinating Australia’s transition to a peacetime economy.
The department brought together a talented group of officials, many of them from the new discipline of economics, to advise the government. Its establishment reflected the efforts to which the Commonwealth government went after the war to professionalise the Australian public service.
The department did not have a large staff. It was devised as a policy department that would coordinate the work of other agencies. The treasurer, Ben Chifley, was appointed the first minister for post-war reconstruction. H. C. “Nugget” Coombs, one of Australia’s “seven dwarfs”, named for their diminutive stature, was his first departmental secretary.
One of the major successes of the department was its contribution to the full-employment policy, a goal set by post-war governments to achieve a higher standard of living and regular employment for all Australians after the war.
To that end, the department helped establish a new employment agency, the Commonwealth Employment Service, to match workers with jobs. It also helped overhaul the social welfare system and create the pharmaceutical benefits scheme.
Full employment became a bipartisan policy goal throughout the economic “golden age” from the end of the war to the 1970s. The policy was so popular that even the smallest deviation from it, such as during the “credit squeeze” of 1960-61, almost cost the Menzies government re-election.
The Department of Post-War Reconstruction didn’t succeed in pushing through sweeping new federal powers for reconstruction in a 1944 referendum. Nonetheless, it found ingenious ways to foster Commonwealth-state cooperation, for instance, through section 96 grants (which provided federal funding to the states on terms and conditions set by the Commonwealth), and the federal funding of housing, hospitals and later universities in the states.
New Commonwealth-state bodies were also devised to support the coal and aluminium industries. The Commonwealth and NSW state Joint Coal Board, for example, completely revamped the almost moribund NSW black coal industry. A revived and mechanised NSW coal industry became internationally competitive and a significant export earner for Australia by the 1970s.
On the international front, Chifley and Coombs supported Australia’s participation in the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, which reinvented the global financial system based on fixed exchange rates with the US dollar as a reserve currency. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were also established at the time.
Chifley and Coombs supported the new international arrangements because they understood the revival of the global economy was essential for Australia’s own prosperity. As they hoped, the Bretton Woods system, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the Marshall Plan for western Europe all laid the global foundations for Australia’s domestic recovery.
How a post-pandemic agency might work
The federal government has already trialled a new policy-making agency during the COVID-19 pandemic with its “wartime” National Cabinet, which featured federal and state governments and their agencies working as one.
There are many ways a new economic recovery agency could build on the cohesion demonstrated by the National Cabinet and advise the Commonwealth government on rebuilding the economy.
Specifically, it could help replicate Curtin’s achievement in 1942 by advising on comprehensive reform of the Commonwealth-state taxation system. This process is already under way with several states calling for the substitution of land taxes for stamp duties.
A post-COVID-19 agency could also be involved in the revamping of the welfare system (post-JobKeeper/JobSeeker) to cope with the higher levels of unemployment and under-employment.
The agency could advise or coordinate a strategy for new infrastructure to create jobs, such as the building of hospitals, public housing and a transition to cleaner energy. Another possibility would be a return to independent petroleum refining, similar to Billy Hughes’s Commonwealth Oil Refineries that operated from 1919-52.
And a new agency could advise on reviving other major industries, such as tourism, the airlines, the higher education sector and even the banking system. During the Global Financial Crisis, the Rudd government had to underwrite loans to the banks and guarantee bank deposits. A major intervention may again be required.
Creating a Department of Post-War Reconstruction was considered by some to be the “boldest experiment” the country took after the war. And as a result, Australia’s post-war recovery was a remarkable success. This is what we need now – another bold experiment, in the spirit of bipartisanship.
Professor Jenny Hocking recently won her longstanding campaign for the National Archives of Australia to release the so-called “Palace letters” about the dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975. This is her account of that campaign.
In August 1975, speaking at a private dinner at Sydney’s Wentworth Hotel, Governor-General Sir John Kerr proudly described himself as “the Queen’s only personal representative in Australia with direct access to her”.
Kerr was a staunch monarchist, and what he saw as his “direct” access to the Queen was of great moment to him:
I am in constant communication with her on a wide variety of matters, on most of which I am communicating directly to her.
We now know just how constant that communication was. Kerr wrote frequently, at times several letters in a single day. There are 116 of his letters to the Queen, almost all of them sent through her private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, containing extensive attachments including press reports, other peoples’ letters to Kerr, telegrams and articles. There are also 95 letters from the Queen to Kerr, all through Charteris.
These 211 letters in the National Archives of Australia, written during the entirety of Kerr’s tenure as governor-general and with increasing frequency after August 1975, constitute “the Palace letters”. They are without doubt the most significant historical records relating to the dismissal of the Whitlam government in November 1975. Yet, until last week’s landmark High Court decision, they had been closed to us by the archives, labelled as “personal” records and placed under the embargo of the Queen.
Aware of their immense historical significance, and with the support of a legal team working pro bono, in 2016 I launched a Federal Court action against the National Archives in an effort to secure access to the Palace letters.
It was not only the obvious importance of letters between the Queen and the governor-general, her representative in Australia, relating to Kerr’s unprecedented dismissal of the elected government that drove this case. It was also the importance of asserting the right of public access to, and control over, our most important archival records.
It took four years and a legal process through the Federal Court, the full Federal Court, and finally the full bench of the High Court of Australia – at which the federal attorney-general Christian Porter joined with the archives against my action. But in an emphatic 6:1 decision, the High Court ruled against the archives. It found the letters were not “personal” but rather Commonwealth records, and as such must now be available for public access under the provisions of the Archives Act.
Why it matters
This is an immensely important decision, overturning decades of archival practice that has routinely locked away royal records from public view as “personal”. It also provides a rare challenge to reflexive claims of “royal secrecy”, here and elsewhere.
Its implications will be felt broadly in other Commonwealth nations and potentially in the United Kingdom, where the Royal Archives are firmly closed from public access except with the permission of the monarch. Of equal importance is that the High Court’s ruling has brought the Palace letters firmly under Australian law, ending the humiliating quasi-imperial imposition of the Queen’s embargo over our archival records, and over our knowledge of our own history.
What made this case so important was the significance of original documents to the evolving history of the dismissal. A series of revelations in recent years, much of it from Kerr’s papers, has transformed that history and deeply challenged our previous understandings of the dismissal.
As a deeply contested and polarised episode, access to original records – as opposed to subsequent interpretations – was unusually significant. There could be no more significant records than the letters between the governor-general and the Queen regarding what the Federal Court described as “one of the most controversial and tumultuous events in the modern history of the nation”.
What the Palace letters might tell us
I first came across the Palace letters more than a decade ago, when I began exploring Kerr’s papers as part of the research for my biography of Gough Whitlam. When I sought access to them I was told they were “personal” papers -– “non-Commonwealth, no appeal”. This meant I could neither access them nor appeal that denial of access to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The only way of challenging the label “personal” was a Federal Court action, an onerous and prohibitive prospect.
A series of revelations from Kerr’s papers highlighted their importance and the travesty of their continued closure. These include: a personal journal Kerr wrote in 1980 in which he cites several of the letters and recounts his critical discussion with Prince Charles in September 1975 expressing concern for his own recall as governor-general if he were to dismiss Whitlam; extracts from some of the letters; and his frequent references to the letters in other letters to friends and colleagues. Perhaps the most crucial item of all was a handwritten note, “Points on Dismissal”, in which he refers to “Charteris’ advice to me on dismissal”.
There could scarcely be a stronger indication that the Palace was intensely involved with Kerr’s consideration of the possible dismissal of the elected government. This, along with other materials, suggest that at the very least, Kerr had drawn the Palace into his planning before the dismissal.
Kerr cites a letter to the Queen in August 1975 in which he raised the “possibility of another double dissolution”. Just why he would be raising this two months before supply had been blocked in the Senate, and when the prime minister had held a rare double dissolution just the previous year and was intending to call the half-Senate election which was then due, may be answered when we see the letters.
Kerr writes that his conversations with Whitlam “were reported in detail to the Queen as they happened” for several months before the dismissal itself. This is a simply extraordinary situation: the governor-general is reporting to the Queen his private conversations, plans, matters of governance, and meetings with the Australian prime minister, and this is kept secret from the prime minister himself.
This is the crucial context of secrecy and deception in which the Palace letters must be considered: that Whitlam knew nothing of these discussions because Kerr had decided on a constitutionally preposterous policy of “silence” towards the prime minister, who retained the confidence of the House of Representatives at all times.
It is this extensive communication through hundreds of letters to and from the Queen, when taken in the context of Kerr’s self-described “silence” towards his own prime minister, that shows Kerr’s aberrant perception of his vice-regal role as acting as “the Queen’s personal representative” while failing to consult his own prime minister.
As historian John Warhurst has noted, from what we already know of the Palace letters:
…the British crown was interfering in the 1975 dispute in ways that should offend anyone who wants Australia to be a fully independent nation … the Palace did not stand above the fray … Kerr consulted the Palace and took advice from the Queen’s secretary acting on behalf of the Queen.
Knowing our story, in full
The National Archives’s denial of access to the Palace letters has prevented us knowing the extent of that consultation and advice for too long. The High Court’s resounding rejection of the basis for that secrecy is an historic opportunity for the director-general of the archives, David Fricker, to make good his claim the archives is a “pro-disclosure organisation”, recognise the profound breach with the past the decision represents, and embrace the spirit of public access that underpins it by releasing all 211 of the Palace letters.
It’s time for an open reckoning with our past, a fully informed debate about the events of 1975, and an answer to the lingering questions over the role of the Queen.
No matter how unpalatable this story may be to some, it’s our story and we have a right to know it.
The Conversation is running a series of pieces on key figures in Australian political history, examining how they changed the country and political debate.
When Julia Gillard was sworn into office as Australia’s first female prime minister on a chilly Canberra morning in 2010, it seemed like the ultimate glass ceiling had been smashed.
The two Es: education and equality
Born in Wales in 1961, Gillard’s family moved to Australia in 1966. She grew up in Adelaide as the daughter of a nurse and aged care worker.
Gillard was educated at local public schools before studying at the University of Adelaide and then the University of Melbourne.
She told the Harvard Business Review last year her involvement in the student movement, protesting education cutbacks, was a formative experience:
That’s what spurred an activism and engagement in public policy in me, and I went on to lead the student movement nationally … people had said, ‘You really should consider politics’. It was a slow dawning over time that it would be a fantastic way of putting my values into action — and realising that someone like me could do it.
Graduating with an arts/law degree, Gillard joined law firm Slater & Gordon in 1987 and was a partner by 1990.
While she has said she felt “quite at home in many ways” as a young woman in the “larrakin” culture of the law firm, she also worked on affirmative action campaigns in the 1990s. She was a founding member of Labor women’s support network, EMILY’s List Australia.
She continues to maintain this focus on gender and education in her post-politics advocacy.
Going to Canberra, creating history
Gillard was elected to federal parliament in 1998 and was a frontbencher by 2001.
In 2007, with Labor’s election victory, she became deputy prime minister and minister for education, workplace relations and social inclusion.
However, despite the popularity of prime minister Kevin Rudd, the Labor party became increasingly frustrated with his leadership style ahead of the 2010 federal election.
These tensions saw Gillard challenge Rudd for the top job in June 2010, in one of the most dramatic episodes in recent Australian political history.
Gillard’s unexpected promotion would have lasting consequences for her, the Labor Party and Australian political culture.
It initiated a “coup culture” in Australian politics, where a series of challenges saw the removal of four out of the five most recent prime ministers.
A sexist backlash
The unprecedented removal of a popular first-term prime minister during an election year also prompted an overwhelming backlash from the opposition, the media and the public.
Gillard faced accusations of disloyalty that marred the historic significance of her victory and status as the “first woman”. It also unleashed what seemed like a ceaseless tirade of sexism and misogyny that she endured for the next three years of her term.
The more prominent examples include broadcaster Alan Jones saying Gillard should be put in a “chaff bag” and taken “out to sea”. A menu at a Liberal National Party fundraiser described a dish as “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box”.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott stood in front of – and tacitly endorsed – sexist placards.
A productive parliament
After the 2010 federal election, Gillard had to work with a minority government.
But in a sign of her formidable negotiating skills, Gillard’s term as prime minister was extremely productive.
Despite the surrounding political turmoil, 570 bills were passed by the Senate, with key achievements including the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the child abuse royal commission, a carbon price, education funding and paid parental leave.
Labor’s legacy: six years of … what exactly?
It wasn’t all warm and fuzzy
Yet not all Gillard’s policies are so fondly remembered.
On the same day Gillard delivered her famous “misogyny speech”, her government passed welfare reforms that moved single parents off the parenting payment and onto Newstart (now called JobSeeker Payment). This reduced people’s payments by $60 to $100 a week, disproportionately affecting women.
‘I will not be lectured by this man’
Twelve iconic words have come to define Gillard’s legacy:
I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man.
This statement launched a blistering 15-minute speech, in which Gillard called out the sexism and hypocrisy of Abbott during Question Time in October 2012.
Though it was initially critiqued by the Canberra Press Gallery, which accused Gillard of “playing the gender card”, the speech went viral.
It has become the definitive moment of her prime ministership and is often the only thing people overseas know about Australian politics.
Earlier this year, it was voted the “most unforgettable” moment in Australian TV history by a Guardian Australia poll. Last month, a senior advisor to former-US President Barack Obama revealed they often watched the speech whenever they were frustrated with then-prime minister Abbott.
The misogyny speech has even entered into the pop cultural canon, inspiring young women today to create memes and TikToks paying homage to those famous words.
Changing the way we talk about sexism and politics
Gillard’s misogyny speech and her time as our first woman prime minister changed the way that politics and sexism were talked about in Australia and highlighted the toxic nature of parliament.
Rather than “playing the gender card”, Gillard drew attention to it, calling out the sexism and misogyny that many women in politics had to silently endure.
Speaking with Gillard last year in preparation for my doctoral research, she noted how the conversation around gender and sexism is “everywhere now”, and that people are far more aware of and likely to challenge gendered double-standards.
In recent years, we have seen multiple women politicians breaking their silence, from Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young suing fellow senator David Leyonhjelm for defamation, to former Liberal MP Julia Banks calling out “gender bias” and “bullying”.
Post-politics: ‘what would Julia do?’
Gillard lost the Labor leadership in 2013, when Rudd got his revenge and his old job back.
But she has left a lasting legacy as a role model for girls and young women. This stems not just from her political career, but for the way she has gracefully moved on.
Since leaving politics, Gillard continues to work in the areas she cares about, with high-profile appointments in education, mental health and women’s leadership. Earlier this month, she was also appointed as the next chair of medical research giant, the Wellcome Trust.
Like all politicians, she’ll continue to have her critics, but her post-political life and demeanour has largely been admired. Gillard’s former foe, Abbott, even attended the 2018 unveiling of her official portrait.
The political tragedy of Julia Gillard
And her career continues to resonate with people, particularly women.
This was recently seen when she received a handwritten note from a stranger on a flight, which thanked her for being “such a strong, intelligent and unapologetic role model for myself and so many of my peers”.
The note added that the author and her female colleagues used the phrase “WWJD” or “what would Julia do”.
As the woman explained: “It’s our rallying cry to be the absolute best at our jobs”.
High Court ruling on ‘Palace letters’ case paves way to learn more about The Dismissal – and our Constitution
The High Court has ruled that Sir John Kerr’s correspondence with the queen comprises “Commonwealth records”. This means access to them is now in Australian hands and can no longer be vetoed by the private secretary to the queen.
This correspondence, which includes Kerr’s briefings to the queen on the political crisis prior to the dismissal of the Whitlam government on November 11 1975, and his explanation to her afterwards of why he exercised this power, have so far been kept from public view.
The High Court’s decision opens the possibility that we will finally see the last pieces of factual evidence about The Dismissal – revealing the concerns and reasoning of the governor-general, as events occurred, without the gloss of hindsight.
It could even allow this festering wound in our political history to be healed, once all the information has been revealed. But it depends now on what the National Archives does next.
How were these letters treated until now?
Until now, the National Archives has claimed all correspondence it holds between governors-general and the queen, even when written in their official capacities, is “personal” and not a “Commonwealth record”.
This means there was no legal obligation on the National Archives to provide public access to these letters. Instead, the National Archives had stated it could only release these documents in accordance with the conditions placed on them by the person who lodged them with the National Archives.
But it let those conditions be changed on the instructions of the queen in 1991 so that her private secretary and the secretary of the governor-general held a veto over the release of any such correspondence.
In the case brought by academic Jenny Hocking against the National Archives, the High Court held by a majority of six to one that the letters between Sir John Kerr and the queen were created, received and held as institutional documents by the “official establishment of the Governor-General” before being transferred to the National Archives by the official secretary to the governor-general in his official capacity. This level of official control over them was enough to make them “Commonwealth records”, even if the governor-general still held ownership rights over them (which the majority said it did not need to decide).
In their joint judgment, Chief Justice Kiefel and Justices Bell, Gageler and Keane said they could not see how the correspondence could be described, however “loosely”, as “private or personal records of the Governor-General”.
They said it could not be supposed that Kerr could have taken the correspondence from the governor-general’s official establishment and destroyed or sold it.
Justice Gordon thought even if Kerr did have property rights in the original documents, he gave up any claim to them when they were deposited with the National Archives. Justice Edelman agreed the correspondence between the governor-general and the queen was “created or received officially and kept institutionally”.
Only Justice Nettle concluded these letters were personal communications between Kerr and the Queen, and were not Commonwealth records.
Does this mean we get to see the letters now?
The court did not order that the letters be publicly released. Instead, it ordered the director-general of the National Archives reconsider Jenny Hocking’s request for access to the correspondence held by the archives, treating them as Commonwealth records.
Section 31 of the Archives Act 1983 requires the National Archives to give public access to any Commonwealth record that it holds that is within the open access period and is not an “exempt record”.
The correspondence between Kerr and the queen has been in the “open access period” since 2006/2007. The only question that remains is whether the director-general will now claim that the correspondence is comprised of “exempt records”.
Section 33 of the Act lists a number of exemptions. These include documents that could reasonably be expected to cause damage to international relations, or where disclosure of matters in the record would constitute a breach of confidence.
The damage that might be caused by the release of documents necessarily diminishes over time. So even if these exemptions are claimed, consideration would have to be given to whether they remain applicable, given the age of the documents.
The director-general of the National Archives responded to the High Court’s decision by stating the
“National Archives is a pro-disclosure organisation” that operates on the basis of making records publicly available “unless there is a specific and compelling need to withhold it”.
It will be interesting to see what “compelling” needs it might identify.
Are there any wider implications of the decision?
The High Court’s decision will also affect the release of correspondence by other governors-general. The release of Lord Casey’s correspondence with the Queen was recently blocked by Buckingham Palace, which stated it would refuse access to any correspondence with the queen until at least five years after her death, and then only if the private secretary to the new monarch agrees. That veto has now been destroyed by the High Court.
So not only is Kerr’s correspondence with the queen liable to be opened, but also the correspondence by all other governors-general with the queen, when it is in the “open access period” and subject to any exemption.
That may mean we get a better idea of how the roles of the governor-general and the queen operate under our Constitution, which would be a good thing.