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Palace letters: Dismissal truths revealed in John Kerr autobiography omissions

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Sir John Kerr with Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (Screenshot via YouTube)

Omissions from Sir John Kerr's autobiography have raised a number of questions regarding the royal involvement in Whitlam's Dismissal, writes Professor Jenny Hocking.

LETTERS BETWEEN Sir John Kerr and Buckingham Palace show the Palace pressured Kerr to omit from his autobiography his secret exchanges with the Queen’s private secretary before his dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. This royally sanctioned erasure is one of several crucial omissions from Kerr’s autobiography, which raise key questions about the “Palace letters” between Kerr and the Queen leading up to the Dismissal.

Kerr placed great emphasis on the Palace letters as corroborating his autobiography — a work which simply cannot be relied upon. If the Palace letters corroborate, as Kerr claimed they would, his expurgated memoir, then the question must be asked: did Kerr also mislead the Queen in his letters to her before he dismissed the Whitlam Government?

In 1978, from the snowy solitude of Auvergne in the south of France, the former Governor-General Sir John Kerr was writing his autobiography, Matters for Judgment. Its release was keenly anticipated. It was barely a year since Kerr had taken a reluctant early retirement and he promised now to reveal ‘the facts’, ‘in the interests of truth’, about his 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Government.

Although pitched as “partly autobiographical”, the real interest in Matters for Judgment was always Kerr’s contentious term as Governor-General and, specifically, his unprecedented use of the “reserve powers” to dismiss the Government which retained the confidence of the House of Representatives without warning. Newly released files from the National Archives reveal the extraordinary value of that interest. Kerr was paid $85,000 by Fairfax newspapers for serialisation rights, negotiated in 1978 by “agent to the stars”, Harry M. Miller. At nearly three times Kerr’s previous annual salary of $30,000 as Governor-General, this was a staggering amount.

For Kerr, Matters for Judgment was an opportunity to mount a counter-claim to what he called the ‘bogus history, falsehood and invention’ about that time, ‘a defence, in bare justice to myself’ against sharp criticisms of the Dismissal, of his failure to warn Whitlam, and against the continuing claims of deception and collusion.

Kerr’s lengthy apologia was to be a platform for personal and political rehabilitation, a chance to reclaim a reputation tarnished by public displays of insobriety and erratic behaviour, most notably his memorable finale swaying precariously at the Melbourne Cup shortly before his early retirement. It was a tragic personal end to the public life of this once respected jurist and former Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court.

At Buckingham Palace, the prospect of Kerr’s autobiography promising to reveal “the facts” of those turbulent events was met with consternation — and with good reason. The Queen, her private secretary Sir Martin Charteris and Prince Charles had, for some time, been in secret communication with Kerr about the possibility of Whitlam’s dismissal. The critical factor in these vice-regal exchanges is that they took place without the knowledge of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, towards whom Kerr had determined on the politically unthinkable path of ‘remaining silent to him’, of ‘playing his cards close to his chest’ — in relation to his own Prime Minister.

While remaining silent to Whitlam, his constitutional advisor, Kerr was discussing the possible removal of him and his Government with the Queen and Prince Charles who, as the Palace itself insists, can play no role in Australian politics. These conversations, as I have discussed previously, constitute the most profound breach of constitutional propriety and political authority in our constitutional monarchy.

That the Queen, her private secretary and Prince Charles were aware, at the very least, that Kerr was considering dismissing the Government is now beyond doubt. As I revealed in 2012 in Gough Whitlam: His Time, Kerr’s archival papers include a handwritten note setting out key points on the Dismissal which refers to his discussions with Prince Charles and to Charteris’s advice to me on dismissal’.

Kerr’s contact with the Palace went further than these exchanges about his prospective dismissal of the Government, shocking though that is. He then discussed with both Prince Charles and Charteris how the Palace could protect his position as Governor-General should Whitlam recall him, while Kerr was ‘considering having to dismiss the Government’, as Prince Charles described it.

And it is at this point that the role of the Palace became an active one. The Queen, through Charteris, agreed to protect Kerr’s position through a policy of delay if the Prime Minister recalled him. According to Kerr, Charteris confirmed the Queen’s response to this ‘contingency’ in early October 1975, writing that if Whitlam recalled Kerr – which was the Prime Minister’s sole prerogative – then the Queen would ‘delay things’ and not simply act on that advice as constitutionally required.

As Kerr later confided to Sir Walter Crocker, the arch imperialist manqué Lieutenant-Governor of South Australia, about his consuming fear of recall by Whitlam:

Entre nous, for good reasons, I never had any doubt about what the Palace’s attitude was on this important point.’

It was this prior arrangement entre nous with the Palace to protect his position if he moved to dismiss Whitlam, which Kerr took as a royal green light for his actions. He could scarcely have interpreted it otherwise. The Queen’s assistant private secretary at the time, Sir William Heseltine, recently acknowledged that if Whitlam had sought Kerr’s recall, the Queen would not have acted on Whitlam’s advice and would have adopted a “policy of political delay”.

There is now no doubt that these exchanges between the Palace and the Governor-General about the Dismissal took place. Even worse, as revealed earlier, is that they were kept hidden from our history in concert with Buckingham Palace,ensuring they were expunged from Kerr’s autobiography. With publication looming and, with it, the prospect that Kerr might reveal their secret discussions, the Queen’s private secretary contacted Kerr asking for a copy of his draft manuscript.

What followed was nothing less than a crude exercise of omission; an artful whitewash of history. ‘I did my very best of course to omit any reference to the exchanges between Martin Charteris and myself’, Kerr reassured the Queen, as he dutifully sent a copy to Buckingham Palace. The resultant expurgated history pleased the Queen and, therefore, pleased Kerr, who found it ‘particularly gratifying… to know that the result is satisfactory’.

That exchange alone gives doubt to Kerr’s promise to reveal “the facts” of the Dismissal in Matters for Judgment and his professed concern for ‘the interests of truth’. Privately, he acknowledged that he did no such thing. In his papers, Kerr writes that in Matters for Judgment he would cover only what was already on the public record and ‘beyond that I shall not go’, keeping hidden the involvement of others. The recent revelation that Kerr and the Palace presided over the omission of his communications with Charteris prior to the Dismissal simply adds to this litany.

The omissions in Matters for Judgment are legion; the major ones are these:

  • Kerr’s discussions with Charteris and Prince Charles as he considered dismissing the Government, and about his fear for his own position;
  • their agreement that the Queen would protect Kerr’s position by delay should Whitlam recall him;
  • Kerr’s secret meetings with and guidance of the High Court justice Sir Anthony Mason;
  • Mason’s preparation of a draft letter dismissing the Whitlam Government for Kerr; and
  • Kerr’s conversation with Prince Charles in September 1975, in which Kerr confided that he was ‘considering having to dismiss the Government’.

None of these extraordinarily significant interactions is mentioned in Kerr’s autobiography, despite his claimed commitment to “truth”.

The proven unreliability of ‘Matters for Judgment’ in turn has major implications for the Palace letters held in the National Archives of Australia, Kerr’s correspondence with the Queen and Charteris, which he assiduously penned throughout 1975 and are said to be embargoed by the Queen. That correspondence is the subject of my legal action against the National Archives seeking its release, which was recently granted Special Leave to appeal in the High Court of Australia and will be heard on appeal most likely early next year.

Kerr always maintained that the release of the Palace letters would validate his account in Matters for Judgment — an account which has now been roundly discredited. The crucial omissions in that book raise important questions about the Palace letters — in particular, just what Kerr told the Queen in his contemporaneous reports of events leading up to the Dismissal.

Did Kerr, for instance, inform the Queen about the extensive role of Justice Mason, which remained secret for 37 years? Did he tell the Queen of his meetings with Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick, against Whitlam’s clear advice to the contrary? Did he reveal his secret telephone communications with the leader of the opposition, Malcolm Fraser, in the weeks before the Dismissal? Did Kerr tell the Queen of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s decision to call the half-Senate election? And, perhaps most importantly, did Kerr inform the Queen of the motion of no confidence in the House of Representatives in his appointed Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, which called on the Governor-General to restore the Whitlam Government?

In this sense, what is not in the Palace letters will be just as important as what is in them.

Professor 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'.

This article was published on John Menadue's blog 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

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