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'Distortion': How the Palace airbrushed Sir John Kerr's memoirs

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Gough Whitlam flanked by a picture of his nemesis, Sir John Kerr (image by Peter van der Veer via Flickr).

Evidence is mounting that Sir John Kerr and the Palace had a close relationship amid Gough Whitlam's dismissal, writes Professor Jenny Hocking.

THERE HAVE BEEN dramatic revelations from the National Archives of Australia with the release of letters between the Governor-General Sir John Kerr and Buckingham Palace following Kerr’s dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

These letters provide remarkable and disturbing new material on the dismissal of the Whitlam government and the role of the Buckingham Palace. They not only confirm that Kerr was in secret contact with the Queen’s private secretary Sir Martin Charteris in the months before the dismissal, they also reveal that the Palace and Kerr then agreed to keep these "exchanges" with Charteris hidden from public view, and from our history, by omitting any mention of them in Kerr’s later memoirs. 

These previously unpublished letters, which are not the letters at the heart of my legal action against the Archives, show that the Queen’s Private Secretary liaised with Kerr on a draft copy of his memoirs to ensure there was no reference to his communications with Charteris prior to his dismissal of Whitlam.

These exchanges between Kerr and Charteris were kept secret from Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and constituted a profound breach of the core relationship between the Monarch, the Prime Minister and the Governor-General in a constitutional monarchy. The need for secrecy was obvious and imperative. It is now clear that the Palace presided over a carefully crafted distortion of our history as presented in Kerr’s memoirs to hide the role of the Queen’s private secretary as Kerr moved towards dismissing Whitlam.

These newly released letters add significantly to the drip-feed of information from the Archives about the dismissal and the relationship between Kerr and the Palace, in particular with Charteris. In December 1975, Kerr dined with Charteris in London.

It was the month after Kerr’s unprecedented dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and his Government from office. Charteris had provided Kerr with "advice on dismissal" and as I have long argued the two had been in private contact in the months leading up to the dismissal, discussing Kerr’s concern for his own tenure as Governor-General as he considered dismissing the Whitlam Government. The letters show their familiarity – "Martin" and "my dear John" – and over dinner they reflected on this extraordinary period of rupture in Australian politics. 

The following day, Charteris wrote to Kerr before inviting him to dine at St James' Palace:

'It was fascinating to hear more of the inside story, from your own lips.'

These reciprocal invitations, meetings and messages of support give the lie to claims that the Queen knew nothing about Kerr’s actions in dismissing Whitlam, much less that she was in anyway "unhappy" about it.

These claims are simply unsupportable.

Kerr’s communications with and invitations to Buckingham Palace and St James’ Palace after the dismissal, and the Queen’s gift of her personal honour Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order to Kerr, bestowed in person during her 1977 Royal visit, should long since have put an end to that historical non-sequitur.

Most shocking in this latest revelation of on-going Royal intrigue is the clear example it provides of the mechanism through which the secrecy which drove the dismissal – the collusion of Kerr with others and his deception of the Prime Minister – continued in the construction of its history. Kerr’s exchanges with Charteris were carefully screened from Kerr’s version of the history of the dismissal in his memoirs Matters for Judgment, by arrangement with the Palace.

The involvement of the Palace in the construction of a partisan, flawed, history about one of the most contentious episodes in our history is simply extraordinary.

In 1978, now no longer Governor-General, Kerr was finalising Matters for Judgment in self-imposed exile in England. It was eagerly, and in some quarters nervously, awaited. Although he proclaimed that his book would report ‘the facts of the happenings of 1975 … in the interests of truth’, it did no such thing.

These letters show that Kerr’s version of the "truth" would not include any reference to his "exchanges" with Charteris before the dismissal. The Palace requested and received a draft of Kerr’s final manuscript which was soon, ‘in safe keeping now at Buckingham Palace’.

Although the Palace’s comments on the manuscript have been redacted from this file and remain secret, they were clearly well pleased by Kerr’s Charteris-free history. 

Kerr wrote to the Palace:

‘I did my very best of course to omit any reference to the exchanges between Martin Charteris and myself ... ‘it is particularly gratifying to me to know that the result is satisfactory.' 

Matters for Judgment contains no mention of his private exchanges with Charteris nor of Charteris’ advice to him on the dismissal, which have since been revealed from Kerr’s personal papers.

These latest revelations in the fractured history of the dismissal add greatly to our knowledge of the secrecy and intrigue surrounding Kerr’s interactions with the Palace at the time of the dismissal and in the history which followed. They reveal the involvement of the Palace in a tawdry distortion of our history to ensure that secret exchanges between the Queen’s private secretary and the Governor-General remained hidden from us.

It is a shameful episode in our shared history the details of which are still emerging.

Jenny Hocking is Emeritus Professor at Monash University and Distinguished Whitlam Fellow at the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University and award-winning biographer of Gough Whitlam. Her latest book is The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know about November 1975 – The Palace Connection.

The Special Leave Application against the Full Federal Court’s decision in the ‘Palace letters’ case will be heard in the High Court in Sydney on 16 August 2019.

This article was originally published by 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

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