Queen's secret letters related to firing of Australian leader to be revealed, court rules

The ousting of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the queen's representative in 1975 was seen by some as massive overreach of the monarch’s powers.
Image: Queen Elizabeth ll and Prince Phillip the Duke of Edinburgh relaxing with their corgis and newspapers at Balmoral
Queen Elizabeth ll and Prince Phillip the Duke of Edinburgh relaxing with their corgis and newspapers at Balmoral in 1975.Anwar Hussein / Getty Images file

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By Linda Givetash

Letters revealing Queen Elizabeth II's potential involvement in the controversial dismissal of an Australian prime minister in the 1970s will finally be made public, the country's highest court ruled on Friday.

A political crisis was sparked when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was fired by the queen's representative, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, in 1975. The incident was seen by some as massive overreach of the monarch’s powers and resulted in protests with some people calling for Australia to sever its ties with the Commonwealth ⁠— an association of former British colonies.

The High Court's 6-1 majority decision in Melbourne on the fate of more than 200 letters between the queen and Kerr overturned a lower court verdict that the correspondence was personal and might never be made public, Australia's Channel 7 News reported.

The decision was applauded by Jenny Hocking, a historian at Monash University and biographer of Whitlam who brought the question of the letters to the courts.

"It's a wonderful decision for transparency, for accountability of government, but most importantly it's a really, really important decision for knowing the full story of the dismissal of the Whitlam Government,” Hocking told Channel 7 News.

“It's a story that has been absolutely clouded in secrecy, in distortion and in so much unknown. And with this decision, one of those last remaining areas of secrecy and great unknown will be released to the Australian public," she added.

Buckingham Palace officials declined to issue a statement on the issue, telling NBC News: "This is not the sort of thing we would comment on.”

Gough, who led the left-leaning Labor Party, was the only ever Australian government official to be dismissed on the authority of Britain’s monarchy, fueling calls to form an Australian republic as well as a conspiracy about the involvement of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

He was replaced by opposition leader Malcolm Fraser, whose government went on to win an election weeks later.

Hocking said she planned to access the collection, known as the Palace Letters, at National Archives of Australia in Canberra next week when the coronavirus lockdown is lifted.

The archives have been held since 1978 and should have been made public 31 years after they were created. But an agreement was struck between Buckingham Palace and Government House, the governor-general's official residence, months before Kerr resigned in 1978, allowing the letters to remain secret until 2027.

Former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam holds up the original copy of the dismissal letter he received from then-Governor-General Sir John Kerr in Sydney.Mark Baker / AP file

The convention across British Commonwealth nations is that communications between the queen and her representatives are personal, private and not accessible by the executive government.

But Hocking launched her fights for the letters in 2016 to put an end to years of research by journalists and historians trying to determine exactly how and why Whitlam’s government was dismissed.

The National Archives said in a statement following the decision that it is “a pro-disclosure organization” and has begun the process to examine the letters for release.

“We operate on the basis that a Commonwealth record should be made publicly available, unless there is a specific and compelling need to withhold it,” David Fricker, director-general of the archives said in the statement.

Annie Hill contributed.