Writing to the Queen

By July 22, 2020Other

For some years now Professor Jenny Hocking, a political scientist who is absorbed with the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975, has been trying to get the Archives to  release the letters from and to the Queen at that time, which have been kept from public scrutiny. The Government argued that they were privy to the Queen. Professor Hocking’s FOI requests finally succeeded, and now we can read them all. One side of the dispute, which continues, says that they show how the Queen was deeply involved in the dismissal. The other says that the letters absolve the Palace from any involvement. I haven’t read them all, and I rather sit on the fence in this one, with a leaning toward the Governor-General. What really fascinates me is the sheer number of letters, more than two hundred. Sir John Kerr must have spent a lot of time thinking about their content. 

Point number one is that I know of no other corpus of letters like this. I don’t know how often Bill Hayden, when Governor-General, wrote to Her Majesty, or Sir Zelman Cowen. No one has asked for them, which is a pity, because then we would have something to compare with the Kerr letters and the replies, nearly all of them from the Queen’s Private Secretary, Sir Martin Charteris. There is no doubt that Charteris gave advice, mostly after the event. Kerr’s letters are sensible. They outline what was happening in a clash that had an almost daily intensification, and set out his thinking about what he might and should do. He did not ask for advice, but of course setting out your thinking and intentions, if any, almost invites advice.

 A summary of the 1975 clash might go like this. The Government was running out of money, because the Senate was blocking its money bills. The Governor-General was asking himself what he should do if the Government actually had no money, and was unable to pay its public servants, including the military. Mr Whitlam proposed a half-Senate election, but that would not solve the problem, because whoever the new Senators might be, they would not take up their places until July 1st, 1976, and he would not countenance seeking a general election. The last sensible dates on which a general election could be help were in the middle of December 1975, and working back with all the rules about elections, the Governor-General would have to make a decision early in November. That meant he would have to make up his own mind late in October, which he did. He did not alert the Queen to his intention, and did not tell her what he had done, in dismissing Mr Whitlam and appointing Mr Fraser, until after he had done it.

What interests me particularly is there is no reference in the letters to the comparable dismissal of Premier J. T. Lang in 1932 by the Governor Sir Phillip Game, on the ground that the Government was acting illegally by withdrawing money from its bank accounts, in defiance of a Federal law, and indeed in conflict with its own laws. Game was using the same reserve powers that Kerr relied on. I was in London at the time of the dismissal, and asked to talk on the BBC about it. To the question, ‘What do you think will happen?’ I replied that if the issue continued as it seemed likely to, then the Governor-General would dismiss the Prime Minister. There was a sort of shock on the part of the questioner. ‘Really?’  Yes, I replied, you can’t govern without money. Surely you would know that. It’s a longstanding tradition in common law, and a part-cause of the Civil War. Since 1688 no British Government has been able to govern without assured supply. I think my questioner thought that the Senate would cave in. But it didn’t, and a few days later, the Governor-General did indeed dismiss the Prime Minister and appoint a new one. There followed an election in which Labor was swept out in a landslide. I was famous, at least within the BBC, for a day or two, and did another couple of talks. There is a sort of comparable example in Canada in 1926. All these cases illuminate the problems of knowing what the reserve powers of the Governor-General or Governor actually are.

As I read these missives they seem to be the sort of letter that you might write to your boss 17,000 km away. I guess that David Smith, his private secretary, would have advised him about the right tone and content for such letters. My judgement is that the letters from Charteris are friendly and supportive. He writes that he always discusses the Kerr letters with the Queen, who always sends her best wishes. There is a tone almost of paternalism in them, but it’s not over the top when you remember when this was, when you consider who is writing, and who is receiving the letters. To repeat an earlier remark, I don’t know whose letters are comparable, because we simply don’t have any others from a Governor-General to the Queen.

I don’t know, also, what to make of the complaint that the Queen was involving herself in Australian politics. She is, after all, the Queen of Australia, and surely needs to know what is going on in her domain, and to make suggestions if she thinks they are warranted. The Charteris letters make clear that she did not want to be seen as interfering. No doubt her Private Secretary carried her suggestions. I saw no letter that was signed by her. Maybe there are others elsewhere in the set.

You learn something new every day. My discovery was that the letters always went in the ‘diplomatic bag’. What is that, you ask. Well, it’s a container of some sort, a box, a briefcase, a bag, one that is carried by a ‘diplomatic courier’, a person, male or female, who can go through immigration and customs with the help of a diplomatic passport. The contents of the bag may not be X-rayed or investigated in any way, though the number of items in the bag has to be stated. So there you are. All these letters are carried more securely than with Express Post, let alone ordinary airmail. I looked the whole thing up, and learned that two ‘King’s Messengers’ (as the Brits called theirs at the time) were killed on duty, one in an air crash, and the other in a sinking.

So my conclusion is that the letters show us interesting information about the correspondence between the Governor-General and the Queen (actually, the Queen’s Private Secretary), but they don’t in my view show anything disgraceful on either side. Maybe Sir John Kerr wrote too much. How would you know?

The Republican side of things, and Professor Hocking presumably is part of it, wants to see the letters as proof that a republic is needed. I think we already have one, aside from the title of our nation-state, and we wouldn’t even need to change that, since ‘Commonwealth’ says it all, and Governor-General is a broad title too. I am not a monarchist, but I think that our present situation is almost ideal. We have an absentee monarch, who is really not interested in us, and our Constitution delegates all her powers to the G-G. What more could you want?

Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • Another fascinating blog, Don! And, coming to you from their eight-bedroom, 12-bathroom rented Tuscan-style villa in Los Angeles, Meghan and Harry have been dissing the Commonwealth to ‘Right those wrongs’. And *of course,* Meghan has the bright shiny creds to do that, essentially criticizing the Queen. Your view?

  • Boambee John says:

    “I think that our present situation is almost ideal. We have an absentee monarch, who is really not interested in us, and our Constitution delegates all her powers to the G-G. What more could you want?”

    Certain individuals want the perceived status of the title of President. Other (power hungry) individuals want to be able to manipulate the holder of that title.

    EGW thought that he could control and manipulate John Kerr. He was wrong, and the electorate confirmed Kerr’s decision, decisively.

  • John Hannoush says:

    A side note about epistolary habits of vice-regals. Anne Twomey in an AFR article of 16 July 2020 made this observation: “Sir Isaac Isaacs, the first Australian-born governor-general, used to send epic epistles to the King telling him about visits to every small town around Australia in mind-numbing detail. He also lectured him on the intricacies of constitutional law. I have my suspicions that King George V did not read these reports with “close interest”, although he probably did read the one where Isaacs, a former Chief Justice of the High Court, explained why Sir Philip Game’s dismissal of Jack Lang was constitutionally correct.”

  • Karabar says:

    How anyone could entertain the idea of an elected head of State is beyond me.
    In today’s political climate, and with the apathy of the Great Unwawshed, such an individual would obviously be chosen on the basis of “popularity”.
    Can you even imagine a situation in which the Head of State were a blockhead like Krudd, a moron like Gillard, or the treacherous Turnbull?

  • Aynsley Kellow says:

    I think it is always necessary to retain a sense of what motivated Fraser to block supply and Kerr to dismiss Whitlam and force an election.

    The Loans Affair was a case of gross misgovernment. A loan of $4 billion (equivalent to about $50 billion today) from a dodgy Pakistani ‘banker’, Tirath Khemlani, who claimed to have access to the petrodollars sloshing about in the accounts of the Middle East. This was done outside the ambit of the Treasury, and also outside the deliberations of the Loans Council, using the deceit that is was for ‘temporary purposes’. It was not: Rex Connor intended to build energy infrastructure with it. The Loans Council was an inconvenience, because the states (and therefore some Liberal premiers) were represented on it.

    With Peter Carroll, I have a paper on a hitherto unknown aspect of all this coming out in a few months in the Australian Journal of Politics and History, detailing how Connor and his permanent head, Lenox Hewitt, ensured that Australia did not join the International Energy Agency at its formation in 1974, arguing that doing so might offend Arab interests and thus jeopardise the chances of raising ‘non-equity finance’ in the Middle East.

    Thus annoyed our US allies hugely, as they had gone out of their way to ensure we had a seat at the table in relevant discussions. Connor and Hewitt even gave instructions to the Australian Ambassador to the OECD without going through Foreign Affairs, which was the proper process, and even tried to have Australia vote against the establishment of the IEA by the OECD. Under the OECD’s decision rule of ‘mutual agreement’, that would have vetoed to Decision establishing the IEA.

    There were other elements of dysfunction with the Whitlam government, of course. I quite liked Moss Cass delivering a jeremiad on the lines of the Club of Rome’s ‘Limits to Growth’, suggesting that the Global South would not be able to develop. Not only did he deliver it within the privacy of the first Meeting of the Environment Committee of the OECD at Ministerial Level, but he provided a copy for the Canberra Times to print, which it duly did. Considerable effort was required to assuage developing country capitals!

    Other can probably find other examples of dysfunctionality. I was in New Zealand still in 1975, so I did not live through this – I know it only from archival research.

  • JMO says:

    Our Governor-General is effectively our Head of State and he/she has been an Australian since Richard Casey (16th GG, 7 May 65 to 30 April 69). Yes, the 9th GG, Sir Isaac Isaacs (21 Jan 31 to 23 Jan 36) was Australian but we then had Brits with only 1 Oz GG – the 12th GG, Sir William McKell (11 March 1947 – 8 May 53).

    The GG is appointed by the Queen on the advise of the Australian Government. Although Parliament does not officially ratify the advise, there are prior discussions and a suitable person is agreed with the Opposition prior to the advise given to Her Majesty.

    The Crown’s reserve powers are available to the GG, not delegated (as in the normal understanding of the word) because the GG’s office is part of the Crown, as a Vice Regal. In effect the Crown is bigger than the Queen (even though she is the (ceremonial) head.

    The only way the GG can be sacked is if the PM advises the Queen to do so, and she must accept the advice of her Australian PM.

    This is a near perfect arrangement and has worked well, very well.

    So no Queen secretly plotting our Gough’s demise, no CIA, no secret orders. Kerr acted as is own man, just like any competant Head of State would or should.

    I voted for a Republic in 1999, I will not do this again. And for goodness sake let us adopt the US model.

  • Boxer says:

    JMO, I assume you left out a “not” in your concluding sentence?

    I would prefer a republic under certain conditions, but a directly elected president appears to be the worst available approach. Directly elected, the president would be, mostly, a politician nominated by Labor or the Coalition. However the presidential role was defined in law, the presidents would each effectively be a one-person third chamber of Parliament, because they would have a popular mandate. They could not be sacked for incompetence, and would effectively be short term monarchs. The more of this see overseas, the less I like it.

    It has been shameful to watch our revolving door prime ministerships in the recent past, but in each case, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott (Credlin) to a lesser extent, and Turnbull, all had to go. If they try, and fail, sack them and seek a replacement quickly.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Does anyone seriously believe that a newly elected (and first) President of Australia would be satisfied with Yarralumla? There would be another billion dollar building competition to erect a Presidential Palace worthy of our new world status. Sure sign of a tinpot republic.

  • JMO says:

    Correction: Let us NOT adopt the US model!
    And, there WOULD be prior discussions before announcement of next GG.
    Apologies.

  • MD says:

    I too voted for the republic, but would not do so now. With a GG and, ultimately, a Queen, the highest representative of the State is ‘above politics’ and is a dignified symbol of the Commonwealth of Australia. Even when retired politicians (Isaacs, Casey, Hasluck, Hayden) have been appointed, they have known how to behave. Once you open the role to a political contest, there is a loss of dignity: the role is lowered when one’s preferred candidate has to seek votes. And the the symbolic role of representing the whole nation, apart from politics, is lost.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Thanks Don, and well done with your involvement at the BBC at the time.

    I, too, think that our present situation is almost ideal but when [if] we get King Charlie I suspect the Republic will bloom again.

  • Thank you Don. The emotion at the time was very memorable and it seems some want to “maintain the rage”.
    I’m amazed those letters are so cool written considering what was at stake back then.

  • beththeserf says:

    Thx Don, valuable posting and you were here. Seems to me a constitutional crisis was dealt with constitutionally. If the Public majority had been pro-Whitlam’s Loan’s Deal then he would have been re-elected.

  • Ian says:

    Don, I think your last sentence sums it up almost perfectly. I hesitate to presume, but I would say “almost” only because you could have added “and saves us the god-awful shemozzle of a Presidential election, which in the USA last time around was a goat rodeo between a vulgarian and a crook”.

    President Palmer anyone?

Leave a Reply to Ian Cancel Reply