Palace intrigue

A thread for discussion of today’s release of correspondence between Sir John Kerr and Buckingham Palace before the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975.

At 11am today, the Australian public will finally be privy to a long-delayed footnote to the 1975 constitutional crisis when a reluctant National Archives releases material that will include correspondence between Sir John Kerr and Buckingham Palace from immediately before the dismissal of the Whitlam government on November 11. This follows a long campaign by Monash University historian Professor Jenny Hocking, whose efforts established the existence of the material and a stipulation by the Palace after Kerr’s death in 1991 that it should not be unveiled until 2027, and perhaps not even then. It had hitherto been the position of the National Archives that the material constituted personal communication, which Hocking succeeded in having the High Court overturn in a 6-1 ruling in May.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

191 comments on “Palace intrigue”

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  1. “ On yesterday’s revelations, they reinforce what has been my opinion on the matter for a while. There was no conspiracy to bring down Whitlam (I mean, apart from within the Coalition), no secret palace coup, no CIA involvement or anything else. It was simply Kerr trying to keep his cushy position as Governer General, and sacking Whitlam before Whitlam could sack him.”

    Clearly there was a transnational conspiracy – one that targeted Kerr’s paranoias- gently and not so gently nudging him to ‘the right decision’. The palace letters are yet another series of threads that confirm that conspiracy. Perhaps the best evidence of the scope of this conspiracy is the private message sent from the new American President Jimmy Carter via his Dep. Sec. of Sate Warren Christopher to Gough Whitlam – still Labor Leader – in 1977. Christopher made a special trip to Sydney to meet with Gough and told him, on behalf of US President Jimmy Carter, of his willingness to work with whatever government Australians elected, and that the US would never again interfere with Australia’s democratic processes. Pretty damning stuff.

    That said, the salutary lesson for Labor, indeed for any progressive political party in a western democracy – is that it has to be four times as good as the conservatives when in government to get even close to an even break. In Australia with the convergence of the LNP and each of the four main media organisations – such that one cannot say where the political parties end and the media organisations start – it’s. Now it’s probably worse than that. Worse than any stage in the history of our Federation I suspect.

  2. Well, all this imputing conspiratorial and partisan conduct by the Queen is completely at odds with everything we know about how she has conducted herself over 70 years.

    You may or may not be Repulican but I prefer to see evidence of anybody’s improper conduct.

  3. As all this stuff relates to where Oz stands in relation to Little England (as it is now) the supporters of the royalist side has not really changed over the years from “If it ain’t broke don’t change it”.
    What I find puzzling, apart from respect for the old Queen and her steadfast values as a person, everything else about the House of W is nothing more than a huge con job…….Of late, lots of docos showing just how hard the dynasty works at keeping itself where it is……………..I can see some reason for the Eton crew in power at the moment -The Establishment – keeping the status quo, but the suck ups here in Oz? Who can pick it? This was the same family which quickly changed its name and connections with Germany when it had to, and they (KG5) abandoned the Czar and his family (cousin) to slaughter. And the conservatives want to pay homage – still – to this lot? Oliver Cromwell got it right apart from now sorting out the management of succession……….
    And after all this, from what I have read today, the GG can still sack a PM – whether or not he/she advises the Queen or not. Similarly, the PM can sack the GG….So just what is the purpose of the monarch in Oz? It is interesting the do-nothing LNP only tend to appoint stale, worn out soldiers to the post of GG. The dinosaur of the conservatives still treads the earth……..

  4. E2 did the Sergeant Schulz three monkeys routine with sideways rosselsprung.
    The Australian Government, of which she is the head of state, was in a constitutional crisis and she knew nothing and did nothing.
    What a surprise!

  5. Whoa Earlwood, you’ve just drunk deeply from the conspiracy Kool aid.

    Kerr was after all APPOINTED by Whitlam.

    Hard to see Hasluck dismissing Whitlam.

  6. I don’t think there’s a smoking gun in these letters. If anything, I think most people are reading in to them their own biases, theories and conspiracies.

    Nor is there anything here that could rehabilitate Kerr’s reputation.

    Here’s Anne Twomey’s take:

    I personally think Kerr’s actions were wrong. But then, I also have my own biases. I also agree with Whitlam that the appointment of Kerr was a mistake ( But that’s the bias of hindsight.

    Obviously the question of the Senate’s ability to hold supply is something that needs to be addressed, preferably before we become a republic.

  7. Lars……………… why would Hasluck not have sacked Whitlam? maybe because he knew right from wrong.
    read about Kerr’s back ground…. he had a poor back ground started out as a trotyskist met laurie Short who shared similar views. Both disowned such views but their hatred of Communism remained as they moved right……Kerr did legal work for Mr Short in the iron workers union and other industrial group based unions. This means he was very close to the dlp/ncc complex and thus liked by the liberals who appointed him to his earlier judicial positions…… Kerr had switched sides but he sought the approval of those who were always been upper class…. but he was never sure…….

  8. Tricot says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2020 at 12:29 pm

    I am a supporter of the current system because no one has yet proposed a better system that improves the governance of the Nation and has an effective circuit breaker to deal with Constitutional Crises.

    While I respect the Queen I don’t really care one iota for the Royals and they have zero influence on the governance of our Nation.

  9. If anyone is proposing to reduce the power of the Senate by limiting its power to block legislation or even get rid of it then I’m all for it.


    I reckon might as well keep the royals, they have no need to steal from the people, their ancestors already did on the other side of the Enlightenment.

    We could probably save some dollars by removing GG and PM, and just rotate State Governors and Premiers through one year at a time.

    Similarly reduce Versailles on Lake Blwxyz Griffin to about five ministries, and let states do the rest (just lower income tax and up the GST).

    I’d also advocate requiring a mandatory and binding referendum for ADF adventures more than 1000 kilometers from Australia’s economic zone or territorial waters, a vote in parliament requiring a two thirds majority, beside a security cabinet vote, except for freedom of navigation or joint exercises.

    And of course, signal the change, remove the colonial Union Jack from the flag, after all since the Australia Act(s) 1986 it is meant to be independent.

  11. Bucephalus says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2020 at 2:25 pm
    Tricot says:
    Wednesday, July 15, 2020 at 12:29 pm

    ….. the Royals …. have zero influence on the governance of our Nation.

    Quite clearly, this is not correct. The monarch did interfere in Australian politics in 1975. Monarchic powers are embedded in the Constitution which provides that the monarch is an integral part of “The Parliament”. The G-G may only be the sovereign’s proxy, but the powers they exercise are not derived from any electoral process. They are the powers vested in the hereditary monarch. These powers are relied on every day.

  12. I reckon that if the Greens and Labor regularly used a Senate majority to force elections for the House of Representatives the LibHeavy, who usually command a majority in the House, would soon see the merit of reforming the Senate.

  13. Bucephalus….Your ability to somehow separate the process of royalty from those who are part of it is quaint to say the least. No surprises and it would have been inconsistent with what you espouse from your conservative standpoint on many matters….
    Steadfast old queen = Monarchy Good………………
    A whole host of ratbag sundry royals besmirching the royal family…………..= Monarchy (still) Good…..
    Royalist will have to come up with something better than the “If it aint’ broke don’t fix it argument” when the old queen dies. I suspect you spent too much time taken in by all the pomp a circumstance at RMC…..Too much time in Sovereigns Coy I would suppose……..?

  14. B……………………….Why then, paradoxically, does all legislation require Royal Assent?
    Logically one would have thought then as the Queen (the Crown) cannot make laws, amend them or stop them, why bother with Royal Assent?
    I suppose you will tell me something about the difference between reigning and ruling now? This is just mystic mumbo-jumbo…… the mystical stuff at the Coronation and the oils and anointing and all that other myth-making stuff……
    Point being of course, none of this stuff is required at all for us in Oz- at least none of anything now which does not go to the Privy Council (still understand there are remnants which can be referred) which most does not.
    Why any self-respecting country wants to cling to these archaic remnants of Empire and see some value in them is totally beyond me……

  15. I’m glad dear moderator has a dedicated thread on the “Palace Papers” and following on from a number of diverse views, Historyintime’s & Bucephalus’s contributions, for instance, are indicative of how naive some can be. In essence, the nascent plot against the Whitlam Government started with the corrupt Bjelke-Petersen’s appointment of the patsy Field to the Senate, in consequence of which, the Opposition gained a majority (incidentally he hanged himself for whatever reason). Thereafter, it was all downhill for the Whitlam Government, culminating in his dismissal. Kerr, too was naive, wanting to ingratiate himself with the Establishment, but he, too, was a pawn, failing to comprehend that he could never be a member of the exclusive club. Whitlam’s sacking was a travesty – aided by the canny Charteris, under the guise of the Queen.

  16. QEII is our constitutional head of state.

    Kerr was her representative.

    Kerr decided to dismiss the ALP government led by Whitlam.

    Could have Kerr done so without: a) informing QEII, and b) getting her official and unequivocal consent?

    The gravity of the situation is unlikely to have sparked a response from QEII to Kerr along the lines: you are free to do as you wish, you know, I am just a fake head of state, you are the boss in Australia and you dismiss whoever you like.

    The Palace can’t wash her hands!

  17. “If anyone is proposing to reduce the power of the Senate by limiting its power to block legislation or even get rid of it then I’m all for it.”….


    Thanks to the Senate the catastrophic Budget from Hell of 2014 that Abbott and Hockey concocted to transform Australia into a Neoliberal Nightmare was stopped!

    It’s far better to proceed slowly to Wisdom…. than fast to Madness.

    Long live the Senate!

  18. Alpo says:

    Wednesday, July 15, 2020 at 7:47 pm

    [Could have Kerr done so without: a) informing QEII, and b) getting her official and unequivocal consent?’]

    It almost goes without saying that she impliedly passed on her instructions to her private secretary – little doubt about that.

  19. Lets face it, this was an Australian only effort. Three overly developed egos in conflict – Kerr, Fraser, Whitlam.
    And now, Jenny Hocking and her legion of followers have been exposed. As a bunch of conspiracy theorist drongos no better or more accurate than your average anti vaxxer or blind believing Trump supporter.
    All further evidence (as if we didn’t have sufficient already) that the human capacity for folly knows no bounds.

  20. “It’s like reading a Golden Book for 1975 Constitutional Conspiracists.“

    Martin Charteris: “hey, Your Majesty, Australia is in a bit of chaos. It has a nasty socialist government that is going to run out of money soon.”

    Queen: “we are most concerned”

    Charteris: “yeah but your representative is going to dismiss the Government and call new elections”.

    Queen: “ really, that sounds a bit drastic, has it been done before”.

    Charteris: “yes in 1932, the NSW Government was dismissed”

    Queen: “how did that go”

    Charteris: “not especially well but at least financial order was restored”

    Queen: “mmm, how will my British socialist government respond to this?

    Charteris: “not especially well, but they are weak and it’s none of their business”

    Queen: “mmm, well Mr Kerr sounds like an intelligent man, I am sure he will make the right decision”

    Charteris: “yes, your Majesty, we have advised him that dismissal is within his powers but should be a last resort”

    Queen: “we must be very careful in the exercise of such drastic powers in the modern age”

    Charteris: yes, your Majesty.

  21. A rather unusual and emotional critique, Brett. I’m not sure how you draw a parallel between Professor Hocking and her research endeavours and the thoughts of those who are opposed to vaccination against infectious diseases. Perhaps you could expand on this proposition?

  22. One thing that puzzles me about all this is the time lag. I mean these are physical letters that were physically transported thousands of miles from Australia to the UK right? Well now that I think about it, there was such a thing as a fax machine back then.

    The reason I ask is that the letters contain specific pieces of advise from the Palace to the GG – did the GG really have to wait, what was it – days? weeks? for the communiques to return to him (assuming that by 1975 they had air mail), or were they really faxes sent and received in almost real time? Or were they actually just formalising what was already discussed in phone calls (and again assuming there was a working phone line between Australia and UK in 1975 – pardon my ignorance!)

  23. Brett…. a conspiraCy…. is saying 5g and covid 19 are related.
    there was a trashing of conventions whereby a government that maintained a lower house majority was sacked by a non elected person and forced to an election at a time that was the choosing of their opponents using powers not used before or since in 120 years. there were letters relevant to Australian political history which were kept secret for tons too long.
    the palace letters show Kerr was informed he had the power to use his Reserve powers…. not urged to do so. But the neither the Palace or Kerr informed Whitlam of their line of thought and their possible action.. so they conspired by omission……………… My next Question is who else knew? I suspect all the major spy agencies knew kgb, mi5, cia etc and therefore their relevant govts knew. Did Asio know? if yes did they tell the Aust government/

  24. “the palace letters show Kerr was informed he had the power to use his Reserve powers…. not urged to do so. But the neither the Palace or Kerr informed Whitlam of their line of thought and their possible action.. so they conspired by omission”

    That’s an interesting point, but in conventional terms, why would the Palace have had a positive duty to inform Whitlam? Surely the GG could seek private advice as the Queen’s representative.

    Strangely, Whitlam may have survived if there actually was a more rather than less active role for the Palace. That is, if they had said these are your technical powers, but we think it most unwise to use them.

  25. why were the letters kept secret beyond 30 years? the government did not run out of funds to continue their operations. Assume for a minute Kerr had a genuine problem to solve which is not clear….. then wasn’t his best course of action to be honest with Whitlam if not why not? afraid of being sacked as gg.
    What did Kerr discuss with Fraser? if he told him stuff that he would not discuss with Whitlam wasnt that improper? Barwick knew…. who did he tell? What else could the palace have done if they did not wish to be embroiled in the affairs of another country? could they have told they have told Kerr we will not discuss this or tell Kerr the matter of this will be advised immediately to Whitlam? Also could Kerr have requested the senate to vote on the budget not defer it

  26. As a foreigner who occasionally wanders by to see what you lot are up to, I would just like to suggest that all you Republicans are getting overexcited about the wrong thing.

    If you are going to compain about some unelected person having the power to muck about with the elected folk, the monarchy is the least of your worries. Even in this case, Whitlam picked the guy who sacked him, so he can hardly complain that his nemesis was foisted on him by the dark forces of hereditary inbreeding.

    No, the folk you want to worry about are the judges. Who exercise real power all the time and are not at all shy about substituting their own opinions for those of the elected folk.

    The Old Country has recently been through a mini constitutional crisis in re Brexit. But the scariest part was the “Supreme Court” plucking from their rear ends the notion that the Queen should refuse to follow the advice of her Prime Minister to dissolve Parliament, if his reasons appeared to be self serving. And not just “refuse” – if she follows the PM’s advice, the judges simply void her act !

    Now imagine how you’d all feel if Whitlam had won the race to the Palace, advised the Governor General to sack Kerr, she’d gone ahead and done it, and the judges then pop up and say :

    “Sorry Your Maj, we think Whitlam’s advice to you was a bit self serving, so we’re voiding your dismissal and Kerr’s back. OK Johnnie you can fire Whitlam now.”

  27. Sorry mental typo :

    “advised the Governor General to sack Kerr” should (obviously) be

    “advised the Queen to sack Kerr”

  28. The idea that Whitlam should have been advised that Kerr might sack him is shown to be ridiculous by the exchange between Kerr and Whitlam where Whitlam directly stated that they could be in the situation of Whitlam trying to sack Kerr before Kerr sacked Whitlam and vice versa.

  29. Mick Quinlivan says:
    Thursday, July 16, 2020 at 2:06 pm

    “there was a trashing of conventions whereby a government that maintained a lower house majority was sacked by a non elected person and forced to an election at a time that was the choosing of their opponents using powers not used before or since in 120 years.”

    The power had previously been used in 1932 in NSW.

    You fail to mention the reason for the exercise of the powers which were not related to maintaining the Confidence of the House of Representatives which is a very narrow interpretation of the Reserve powers – the Federal Government was about to run out of money to pay its bills and could not get the Supply Bills through the Senate. What did you expect the GG do? Let the Federal Government start defaulting on payments?

    Perhaps you would like to compare and contrast this situation to the ones in the US where, without a Constitutional Circuit Breaker, the Government keeps running out of money and people stop getting paid – which is utterly ridiculous.

    If the voters had thought that the GG had acted irresponsibly or incorrectly then the result at the subsequent election would not have been the massive defeat of the ALP.

    Most of the arguments being made against the Dismissal ignore the reality of the performance (including the inability to pass the Supply Bills) of the Whitlam Government and how it was viewed by voters. Doing so is an attempt to rewrite history.


    The Lang Dismissal was for likely violation of legislation (it had not been tested in court) and Lang was forewarned by the Governor.

    There were weeks left before the existing supply ran out and some Coalition Senators (who were the ones holding up supply) were about to cave. Also not any counter argument to the criticisms of not giving Whitlam warning.

    The situation in the USA is stupid but they do have a more deadlock prone system and it never actually destroys their government or society, so the argument for it to justify an arbitrary sacking of the government is weak and not argument for doing so without warning.

    Some of the voters who switched away from voting ALP were driven away because they had been sacked. Had Kerr said to Whitlam “I am calling an election today, to resolve this dispute, either you counter-sign or I appoint Fraser to counter-sign”, the swing would have been smaller.

    The Whitlam Government was not the only government to be unpopular or perform poorly but other Governments have been given the opportunity to serve their full term and recover somewhat in the polls.

    The only justification for the Dismissal happening the way it did, that is not self-serving right-wing propaganda, would have been if it was the only way to avoid a military coup.

  31. Tom the first and best says:
    Friday, July 17, 2020 at 10:38 pm

    If the government had run out of money and unable to pay wages then employees would not have been paid. I’m pretty certain that for the lower ranks in the ADF that would have meant families unable to put food on the table for their children. For Living In members fed from messes they wouldn’t have been able to be fed. How did is that acceptable? Whitlam had no solution and claims that Liberal Senators were going to cross the floor are spurious.

  32. If the budget was passed then Fraser would have lost…. his tenure as opposition leader would have been short lived…. the ploy blocking the budget could not have been repeated and Labor would have gone to an election ion 1977/78

  33. the overwhelming election of Fraser does not vindicate Kerr’s action. It just means the climate was bad for labor.

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