Hudson Skinner, Year 11, was awarded a Young Historian Silver Medal in the Using Primary Resources category of the 2020 National History Challenge. Here is his prize winning submission.
The Labor government’s dismissal in 1975 had a backdrop of political manoeuvring during a significant period of economic fragility and unprecedented social reform. The Constitutional basis and Queen’s involvement in the Governor-General’s decision has been wildly contested over decades, fuelled by the letters contents between the two being undisclosed.
The release of the “Palace Letters” to the public on the 14th of July this year has reinvigorated discussion regarding the most contentious issue in Australian constitutional history, which has been highly debated for the past 45 years. On the 11th of November, 1975, the prime minister of Australia Mr Gough Whitlam was dismissed by the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr. The rest of the Labor government were also removed. Such an event had never occurred before or since this date. Sir John Kerr had been chosen by Mr Whitlam due to his outstanding work as a barrister in New South Wales, and this was ratified by Queen Elizabeth II. After the dismissal, the position of caretaker prime minister was given to the leader of the Liberal party, Mr Malcom Fraser. Was the dismissal justified and to what degree was the monarchy involved in this decision? And does the release of the Palace Letters change opinion on this issue?
The 1970s in Australia was a period of economic struggle. Stagflation had negatively impacted the economy, resulting in high unemployment and inflation, which was caused by the increased prices of goods and services. Concurrently, Gough Whitlam’s Labor government was elected on the 2nd December 1972 – the Labor Party’s first return to power in 23 years. With a powerful punchline and promises of “new opportunities for all Australians”, the slogan “It’s Time” captured Australia. In his 1972 election speech Gough Whitlam made three aims clear for his government: “to promote equality”; “to involve the people of Australia in the decision-making processes of our land”; and “to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people. These promises were rapidly embraced by most Australians with little awareness of the impact they would have. Whitlam pledged to “abolish fees at universities”, and aimed to “raise the basic pension rate to 25% of average weekly earnings”. Further social changes made by government were ending conscription, and abolishing the death penalty. Evaluating Gough Whitlam’s overall impact on Australia during this period it is clear to see that he was an instrument of social reform. Unfortunately for Whitlam, however, his plans for social change coincided with the OPEC oil crisis and worldwide economic recession in 1973. Consequently, the economy had suffered heavily due to the grand expenditure as a result of these changes made in such a short period of time, and Australia risked becoming financially powerless.
The dismissal of Gough Whitlam by his Governor-General Sir John altered the course of Australian politics and has negatively enveloped the perception of the monarchy up until the present day. However, is it right to hold such a disdainful position towards the monarchy? Many would argue “yes”, that there should not have been any Royal involvement prompting the constitutional crisis in 1975. Yet from the recent release of the “Palace Letters” by the National Archives of Australia a different story emerges. It was observation and nothing further as enunciated by the Queen’s Private Secretary, Sir Martin Charteris: “I fear any comments I am able to send in return are not of much value”. The correspondence between Sir Martin and Sir John displays that Kerr was seeking Royal validation for his action. However, as Sir Martin highlights, “I think it is good that the people 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 was predicated upon two key factors, the death of Labor Senator Bertie Milliner and the ‘Arab Loans Affair’, in which Mr Khemlani negotiated the loan of 4 Billion dollars to the Whitlam Government. This incident caused a loss of faith in the strength of the Labor party and as Sir John outlined it, “probably greatly weakened Mr Whitlam’s position”. Furthermore, it allowed Mr Malcom Fraser, the leader of the opposition party to capitalise on this failure of political astuteness. With the loss of three Labor senators, the Australian Liberal party possessed the majority in the Senate, giving them ultimate power to decide which bills were assented. On the 15th October, 1975, Mr Fraser instructed Liberal senators to block the supply of money for the bills that were being presented by the Labor government. This was the beginning of a one month political stalemate in which Whitlam was unwilling to yield to a double dissolution, and Fraser was persistent in the prevention of supply to the Labor government.
In a discussion with Sir John on the 29th September, Whitlam indicated that the Labor government may not be able to financially support the country. Whitlam knew that unless Malcom Fraser decided to grant him temporary supply “there would be a profound constitutional crisis when the money started to run out in early November…”. A political gridlock commenced from the 15th October, and the money that the Labor party had was beginning to run out. Sir John also understood that a loss of money within the Labor party would cause numerous problems within the government. This was noted two days after Malcom Fraser blocked supply in the Senate which was made clear in a press conference on the 15th October where he said, “…we will use the power vested in us by the constitution and delay the passage of the government’s money bills through the Senate, until the parliament goes to the people”. This stalemate was understood by the monarchy as Sir Martin Charteris alluded to, saying “I fear, however, that you are dealing with two resolute and obstinate men…”.
In this letter it is clear that no advice has been provided for Sir John Kerr. It is rather a confirmation of what Kerr had already written to Charteris in the letter from the 17th of October. From October the 15th until the 11th November, 1975, in Sir Martin Charteris’s correspondence with Sir John Kerr there were never any words of advice for Sir John. The Private Secretary merely echoed the Governor-General’s own observations. Since Sir John’s first letter (17th October, 1975) after Mr Fraser prevented supply, Sir Martin responds to this letter on the 23rd October, 1975. Charteris acknowledges the nature of this political situation and Sir John’s position. This letter by Sir Martin deflects the political responsibility from the Queen onto Kerr. The severity of the situation is emphasised when Charteris states:
…it must be a very long time since a political storm of comparable magnitude has burst over Yarralumla. Your friends in this house can take comfort that your long training in the Law equips you singularly well to cope with it.
The communication between Sir Martin and Sir John could in no way be interpreted as advisory, as this communication was for the purpose of informing the Queen, rather than to seek advice. However, Sir Martin sums up the role of his communication succinctly when he states, “I hope that the mere act of writing these letters, for the Queen’s information, is of help to you in formulating your ideas as the situation develops”. The purpose of this comment was to highlight the monarchy’s political neutrality and continue his role as a sounding board. As Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston wrote in the Australian on the 18-19th July 2020, “she [the Queen] was not an authorising agent, complicit in a conspiracy, nor had any tacit understanding with the governor-general.”
The limitations of the monarchy’s ability to advise or “intervene” are highlighted in a letter from Sir Martin on the 5th of November in response to a letter from Kerr that was sent on the 27th October. In Sir Martin’s letter on the 5th November he writes:
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.
It is quite obvious from what Sir Martin says that the Queen does not have any wish to remove Mr Whitlam, nor did she have the “constitutional power” to do so. There was only one way in which Mr Whitlam was able to be removed and that was by the Governor-General through the use of the reserve powers. The notion of Royal persuasion is not upheld by the comments made by Sir to Sir John. As summed up by Sir Martin in his letter on the 5th November, 1975, “ the crisis, as you say, has to be worked out in Australia.” This is again an example of the monarch giving the power back to Australia.
There is, however, the further question of Mr Whitlam’s dismissal being premeditated by Sir John Kerr. Yet as outlined in the recently released palace letters, Sir John Kerr was still coming to terms with the political situation and his capacity to utilise the reserve powers in early November. Sir John was still undecided on his decision as late as the 6th November in which he wrote “…both parties and their leaders remain adamant, an important decision one way or the other may have to be made by me this month.” Furthermore on the 20th October in a letter to Sir Martin , Sir John writes, “ I am and can remain above it all, and obvious neutrality is strength.” On these words Sir John Kerr, who had full confidence in Sir Martin, is highlighting that there was no subliminal or premeditated plot to evict the prime minister from his office. It is understood and outlined by Sir John, that as the Queen’s representative he had to maintain “pragmatic political neutrality”, as he wrote in his letter on the 20th October. In addition to that there may be questions over what motives Sir John would have had to evict the Prime Minister. It does not seem from the letters that there would be any foreseeable personal reasons for sir John to remove the prime minister from his office.
Jenny Hocking states that, “Kerr draws the Queen into his planning regarding
the crisis unfolding in the senate”. This is very true, but is
this not the unarguable role of the Governor-General? What should be remembered
from these events is the fact that there was nothing constitutionally or
politically underhand about the prime minister or the opposition leader. They
both had the desire for power and the mismanagement of money within the Labor
government provided an opportunity for Malcom Fraser to attain that power. In
doing this he was shrewd and Mr Whitlam was pinned into a corner from which he
could not escape. The Governor-General Sir John Kerr was a pivotal character in
the midst of this confrontation. In using the reserve powers he was able to
provide a pragmatic solution to the political stalemate. In essence, this was
to end the game and restart with the same players. Unfortunately, the
reputations of all three men involved were tarnished and the perspective of the
monarchy’s role in Australia was left with bitter connotations. Perhaps what
could be ascertained from this constitutional debacle is how our constitution
is left to interpretation. an event such as the one which occurred in Australia
has never occurred before under the Westminster system and perhaps we use the
dismissal as a precedent to prevent it from occurring again.
 Whitlam, G. 1972, (November 13, 1972) It’s time, Whitlam’s 1972 Election Policy Speech.
 Whitlam, G. 1972, (November 13, 1972) It’s time, Whitlam’s 1972 Election Policy Speech.
 Palace Letters. Charteris, 27th October 1975, P. 70
 Charteris, 5th November 1975, P. 54.
 Kerr, 21st July 1975, P. 59.
 Kerr, 30th September 1975, P. 10
 Fraser, 1975.
 Charteris, 23 October 1975, P. 73
 Charteris, 23 October 1975, P.73
 Charteris, 27th October 1975, P. 70
 Paul Kelly, Troy Bramston, 18-19 July 2020.
 Charteris, 5th November 1975, P.54.
 Charteris, 5th November 1975, P.54.
 Kerr, 6th November 1975, P.69.
 Kerr, 20th October 1975, P.119.
 Kerr, 20th October 1975, P.119
 Hocking, 14 July 2020.
Alberici, E, (2015, November 3), Interview Panel: The Australian’s editor at large Paul Kelly and senior writer Troy Bramston (online). Lateline. Sydney. Retrieved from: https://www.abc.net.au/lateline/interview-panel-the-australians-editor-at-large/6909926 (Accessed 25 August 2020)
Connor, M. (2016).The Iraqi Money Scandal, 40 Years On. Quadrant Online, Quadrant Magazine Limited. Retrieved from: https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2016/03/iraqi-money-scandal-forty-years/ (Accessed 23 August 2020)
Federal Register of Legislation. (1973), National Service Termination Act 1973. Australian Government. Retrieved from:https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2004A00028 (Accessed 20 August 2020)
Fraser M, 1975, (15 October 1975), Fraser announces that the coalition will block supply.(online). WhitlamDismissal.com. Retrieved from: https://whitlamdismissal.com/1975/10/15/fraser-announces-coalition-will-block-supply.html (Accessed 15 August 2020)
Hawker, G. (2010) Field, Albert Patrick (1910-1990), Senator for Queensland,1975 (Independent). (online), Parliament of Australia, The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Online edition. Retrieved from:
https://biography.senate.gov.au/field-albert-patrick/ (Accessed 5 August 2020)
Kerr, J and Chateris,M, National Archives of Australia. The Governor-General’s periodic confidential reports to The Queen ( Sir John Kerr – correspondence with the Queen – Palace Letters) Part 1, (online) 1974- 1975; NAA: AA1984/609; PART 1. Retrieved from: https://www.naa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-07/kerr-palace-letters-part-1_0_0.pdf (Accessed 14 July 2020)
This source provided the original thoughts and reports on actions of Sir John Kerr and Sir Martin Charteris. It is a key piece of information within my discussion as it represents the thought processes of Sir John Kerr and Sir Martin Charteris as well as their role within the dismissal of Mr Gough Whitlam. The latter part of these letters from the 12th of September 1975 until the 8th of October were instrumental in an understanding of Sir John Kerr’s conversations and decisions regarding the developing constitutional crisis.
Kerr, J and Charteris, M, National Archives of Australia. The Governor General’s periodic confidential reports to The Queen (Sir John Kerr – correspondence with the Queen – Palace letters) Part 2, (online) 1974-1975 NAA: AA1984/609, PART 2. Retrieved from: https://www.naa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-07/kerr-palace-letters-part-2_0.pdf.
(Accessed 07 August 2020)
These letters were highly important in the process of understanding the role of the monarchy and the decisions made by the Governor-General. They provide an insight into the political and constitutional position of the Monarchy and the Governor-General in Australian politics. I have utilised numerous quotes from this source to enforce my understanding of the situation as it evolved. For me these sources were imperative in presenting the historical roles and decisions made by the Governor-General and the Monarchy.
Kerr, J and Chateris, M, National Archives of Australia. The Governor General’s periodic confidential reports to The Queen (Sir John Kerr – correspondence with the Queen – Palace letters) Part 2, (online) 1974-1975 NAA: AA1984/609, PART 2. Retrieved from: https://www.naa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-07/palace-letters-summary-part-2.pdf – (Accessed 07 August 2020).
McLaren, N. (2015, November 11). Role of Khemlani loans affair in the sacking of Whitlam Government overstated says Rex Connor’s grandson (online). ABC News. Sydney. Retrieved from: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-11-11/chris-connor-reflects-on-grandfather-rex27s-role-in-dismissal/6931694 (Accessed 17 August 2020)
Parliament of Australia, (2020) Double Dissolution, Parliamentary Business. Retrieved from: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Double_dissolution (Accessed 30 July 2020)
Parliament of Australia, (2020) Senators and Members section (online), Retrieved from:
https://www.aph.gov.au/Senators_and_Members/Parliamentarian?MPID=ZD4 (Accessed 22 August 2020)
Kelly. P, Bramston. T, (18-19 July 2020). The Australian (Inquirer)
Hocking, J. 2020, (14 July 2020) The Sydney Morning Herald (online), Retrieved from: https://www.smh.com.au/national/the-palace-letters-are-every-bit-the-bombshell-they-promised-to-be-20200713-p55bpx.html (Accessed 15 August 2020)
Whitlam, G. 1972, (November 13, 1972) It’s time, Whitlam’s 1972 Election Policy Speech. (online). WhitlamDismissal.com. Retrieved from: https://whitlamdismissal.com/1972/11/13/whitlam-1972-election-policy-speech.html (Accessed 27 July 2020).
The speech provides an understanding of the promises made by Gough Whitlam to the people of Australia. It covers key areas of Mr Whitlam’s policies and the promises that he made to the Australian public. In this speech Mr Whitlam was clearly trying to win the approval of the public as he appealed to their desires and further advanced his political campaign. This speech also provided insight into the psyche of Australian culture and the values of the public at the time. Mr whitlam capitalised on this by promising prosperity to the hopeful nation.
WhyAus Politics & History. (2017). The Whitlam Dismissal (online), WhyAus#6. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yy0bKd7oOsw (Accessed 12 July 2020)
Wikipedia, Gough Whitlam (online). Wikimedia Foundation Publication. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gough Whitlam (Accessed 18 August 2020)
Wikipedia, Jim Cairns (online). Wikimedia Foundation Publication. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Cairns (Accessed 21 August 2020)