After years of legal wrangling, the National Archives of Australia have finally released Sir John Kerr’s correspondence with Buckingham Palace, both before and after the dismissal of Gough Whitlam. But while some commentators hoped to find a smoking gun that would implicate the Queen in Australia’s biggest constitutional crisis, the truth has proved far more prosaic. Indeed, the documents show that Sir John was telling the truth when he said that he made his fateful decision without telling Her Majesty ahead of time.
Throughout his tenure, Sir John worked hard to keep the Palace informed of events in Australia, and his handling of the volatile political situation ahead of Whitlam’s dismissal was no different. But instead of conspiring with the Palace, one gets the feeling that Sir John was using the Her Majesty’s Private Secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, as a sort of agony aunt. Sir Martin, for his part, generally responded with polite encouragement. He clearly recognized that Sir John was in a difficult position, but he also knew that the issue could only be resolved in Australia. As Sir Martin wrote on November 5, 1975:
I think it is good that people should know that The Queen is being informed but, of course, this does not mean that she has any wish to intervene, even if she had the constitutional power to do so. The crisis, as you say, has to be worked out in Australia.
Sir Martin did, on occasion, provide more detailed feedback. For example, he made it clear that, if Whitlam asked the Queen to recall Sir John, she would ultimately have to accept his advice (though he did imply that she might insist on receiving a formal submission before acting). Sir Martin also inquired if Sir John could get the Australian High Court to weigh in on the question of whether or not the Governor General could assent to supply bills that hadn’t passed the Senate. But there is no indication that he was trying to steer Sir John down a certain path. On the contrary, Sir Martin specifically encouraged him to keep his options open. As he wrote on October 2, 1975:
In all these difficult matters, I am sure you are right to keep your options open and not to decide now what you will do in any given circumstances.
While the Palace Letters might not contain any Dismissal-related bombshells, they do provide a valuable behind-the-scenes look at the workings of the Monarchy. Some of the most interesting letters concern the Queen’s acceptance of the Crown of Papua New Guinea in 1975. Sir Martin made it clear that Her Majesty would only accept the Crown on the advice of her Australian ministers. At first glance, it might look a bit odd for her to accept the throne of a newly independent nation on the advice of the former colonial power. However, as a constitutional sovereign, she could only act on the advice of ministers, and since Papua New Guinea was not yet legally independent, her Australian ministers were the only source of formal advice.
The fact that the bulk of the Palace Letters will only be of interest to Westminster nerds such as myself raises the question of why they were initially subject to special access conditions. Before the successful legal challenge, the letters would only have been publicly available starting in 2027, and even then access would require the consent of the Queen’s Private Secretary and the Governor General’s Official Secretary. While communications between the Sovereign, her ministers, and her Governors General are traditionally kept private for extended periods of time, it’s not hard to see why many Australians were unhappy with the fact that records relating to the biggest constitutional crisis in their history were effectively being kept out of the public eye by the Her Majesty’s personal fiat (if they had been treated like other government records, they would have been available starting in 2006).
The Palace Letters should be a wakeup call for the Palace. In an age where open government is held up as the ideal, the traditional, deferential handling of royal communications looks increasingly anachronistic. It also harms the Monarchy by allowing scurrilous rumors to gain traction. A few years back, there was all sorts of feverish speculation about the Prince of Wales ‘meddling’ in government business. But when a selection of his letters to the government were finally released in 2015, they painted a far more anodyne picture. Fortunately, the Crown has proven itself to be both resilient and adaptable, even if it sometimes takes a gentle nudge in the right direction for it to change its ways.