In our latest author Q&A, Jacquelyn Baker interviews Emeritus Professor Jenny Hocking about The Palace Letters, which describes her long and extraordinary campaign to gain access to the correspondence between the Australian Governor General Sir John Kerr and Queen Elizabeth II in the prelude to the dismissal of the Whitlam government on 11 November 1975. As Professor Hocking explains, the decision of the High Court that the correspondence should be released has significant consequences for access to government records.
Congratulations on your historically significant achievement. The release of the correspondence between Sir John Kerr and Queen Elizabeth II sheds light on Australia’s biggest constitutional crisis and shows us that many of the facts that we thought we knew about Kerr’s decision to dismiss the Whitlam government were fiction. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull penned the foreword of The Palace Letters and wrote that ‘history owes a great deal’ to you. How do you feel now that the majority of the Palace letters have been released?
I’m absolutely delighted that these historic letters between Kerr and the Queen, which are a tremendous addition to the history of the dismissal, have now been released in full – forty-five years after they were written. All history should be public history. My concern in taking this legal action against the National Archives of Australia seeking the release of the Palace letters was always a concern for history, that Australians should know their own history. The history of the dismissal of the Whitlam government was incomplete while these letters remained closed to us. It was particularly galling that the Palace letters, which are held in our own Archives in Canberra, were kept secret from us because of the embargo of the Queen which was preventing us from knowing that part of our history. Clearly these letters between the Governor-General and the Queen at the time of Kerr’s unprecedented dismissal of an elected government are some of the most significant historical documents in our Archives – and yet we could not see them because of the Queen’s embargo and a claimed ‘convention of royal secrecy’. The emphatic decision of the High Court, which found 6:1 in my favour that the letters are Commonwealth records and not ‘personal’ as the Archives and Buckingham Palace had claimed, is a landmark decision – the first successful legal challenge to royal secrecy among the many Commonwealth nations which have reflexively maintained the strictest secrecy over royal correspondence for decades. It is a wonderful victory for our history and for transparency.
I have read that although you were making detailed notes of the case, you didn’t expect to write a book about it. What then motivated you to write The Palace Letters?
This book is really a paean to the archives as fundamental to history, particularly a contested history such as the history of the dismissal. By the time the legal action reached the High Court I realised there was a unique story to tell about this archival journey through Kerr’s papers – a decade long exploration with a series of revelations which had transformed the history of the dismissal – even before the four-year legal challenge began. The legal action itself came out of a unique confluence of individuals and interests – my historical research together with an exceptional legal team all prepared to work on a pro bono basis. These archival documents I had uncovered in Kerr’s papers and in the UK Archives became part of the evidence put before the Federal Court and ultimately the High Court. This was a rare opportunity that was unlikely to come about again and the legal questions were of immense public interest and a ground-breaking challenge to royal secrecy. We faced an institutional behemoth of the National Archives, Government House, Buckingham Palace and, at the High Court, the federal Attorney-General – and we succeeded. If ever a case could be made into a court-room drama and a political thriller it was this one!
The Palace Letters is an intriguing and fascinating book; I found it impossible to put down and devoured it with keen interest. I enjoyed the way that you weaved your experiences both in and out of the court room with historical narrative. Did you draw on any other additional sources to help you write your book?
I’m so pleased to hear that, thank you. I worked hard at achieving that mix, to break up the legal case with vignettes of episodes and characters – George Brandis has a cameo appearance as a member of Sir John Kerr’s ‘gang’ in the 1980s for instance – together with a parallel unfolding history as archival material is uncovered. It means the drama in the book takes place in three related yet different elements which adds to the sense of it as a thriller. It was important to bring those strands together to show a new history of the dismissal being revealed at key points through that archival and legal journey to the denouement of the letters themselves. I found Julian Barnes The Man in the Red Coat fascinating as a book which successfully intersperses moments and reflections along a much looser narrative thread. And I re-read Malcolm Turnbull’s The Spycatcher Trial which is a good example of a legal case written as a first-person narrative, he’s an excellent writer and wrote the terrific Foreword to my book. I’ve always loved the detective genre—Agatha Christie has marvellous character, plot and narrative style, and this book lent itself to a style that would be pacey and reflective of the drama of the dismissal, mixed with new archival revelations along the way. And I’m very pleased with how that has worked.
I was quite surprised to read of Prince Charles’ involvement. Was there anything in the archival sources—either the sources that helped you uncover the Palace letters or in the Palace letters themselves—that was unexpected or that you were surprised by?
I was certainly shocked by the letters themselves – by Kerr’s deference, his insufferable simpering and excruciating need for royal approbation. Malcolm Turnbull writes in his foreword that ‘Kerr’s obsequious grovelling is stomach-churning’ – and it is. It is also quite shockingly political, profoundly disparaging of the government and at times, particularly leading up to the dismissal, Kerr actively disputes government decisions and even the formal advice to him. The most unexpected aspect of the letters, however, is that the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, engages with Kerr in these political matters, including the possible use of the reserve powers which Kerr used to dismiss the government, and all of it secret from the Prime Minister. For a constitutional monarch who must remain politically neutral at all times this is the most egregious breach of the constitutional relationship. The first letter I looked for when they were released was one which I had seen detailed elsewhere in Kerr’s papers, from early October 1975. The letter from Charteris confirms that Kerr told Prince Charles in mid-September 1975 that he was considering having to dismiss the government if Supply was blocked, and that Charles discussed this with the Queen and with Charteris. This is a critical letter and a critical revelation. The Queen knew from September 1975 that Kerr was considering dismissing the government and that he had failed to adhere to his fundamental duty to speak to the Prime Minister, to warn him of that possibility, or to seek his advice.
In your book, you highlighted the different attitudes held by Former Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and Turnbull toward the British monarchy—Abbott as a conservative and monarchist and Turnbull as a republican—and you discussed Turnbull’s involvement in the effort to release the Palace letters.
Did Prime Minister Scott Morrison ever express any interest in the release of the Palace letters?
The Morrison government, through the Attorney-General Christian Porter, joined the National Archives in contesting my case at the High Court, arguing with the Archives that the letters must not be released and that royal secrecy must be maintained in the interests of protecting the ‘dignity’ of the monarchy, despite the acknowledged public interest in the release of the letters. Buckingham Palace had also provided correspondence to Government House at the Federal Court reaffirming their insistence that the letters remain closed in the interests of protecting the monarch and the monarchy.
You write in your book that the Palace continues to claim that Martin Charteris, Prince Charles and the Queen did not have a part to play in Kerr’s decision to dismiss Whitlam. However, it is clear that the correspondence between Kerr and the Palace tells a different story. Do you think that it is likely that the Palace will ever admit to the part that it played in the dismissal?
Buckingham Palace has not changed its set-piece response to the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 45 years, despite the extensive revelations which have changed the early dismissal history so profoundly. The continued denial that they played any part in Kerr’s decision to dismiss the government simply does not fit with the history as we now know it. The letters discussing the reserve powers are the most obvious indication of this role in Kerr’s decision, among others which I discuss in The Palace Letters. Elsewhere in his papers Kerr refers to ‘Charteris’ advice to me on dismissal’ and the Palace letters have now spelt that advice out. It is simply absurd for the Palace to continue to deny what the letters themselves tell us. We deserve better than that and so does our history.
Do you think that the release of the Palace letters will have an impact on Australia’s archival relationship with the Palace or with the Britain?
The High Court decision is extremely significant, beyond the immediate interest in the release of the Palace letters. It has already had a broader impact on our archival matters as the National Archives is soon to release the royal correspondence of all other Governors-General from Casey to Bill Hayden – against the express wishes of the Queen and Government House. This has set a most significant precedent for the release of royal correspondence which could and should be used in other jurisdictions among Commonwealth nations to seek access to their royal archives in this way.
You have written that the Palace letters can tell us lessons of ‘independence, accountability and transparency’. Could you elaborate further on what you mean by this?
The decades of struggle to release the Palace letters remind us that in certain unexpected and significant ways the monarch retains residual imperial powers that deny our independence and shield her activities from scrutiny. This is not appropriate for a modern independent nation. These ‘colonial relics’ as Whitlam called them enabled the Governor-General to communicate about matters at the heart of the formation of government in Australia without the knowledge of the elected government. And that same residual power enabled the Queen to embargo her correspondence with the Governor-General that would reveal it to us. Those at the apex of a constitutional monarchy should be as accountable and transparent in their actions as any other part of governance. The antiquated notion of ‘royal secrecy’ protecting a hereditary Head of State from scrutiny should have no place in a democratic nation in which transparency is central.
If Kerr and Whitlam were alive today, how do you think they would each react to the release of the Palace letters?
Kerr wanted the letters released as he felt they would bolster support for his actions in dismissing Whitlam without warning if it were known that he had been in regular discussion with the Queen about these matters. However, with the historical recalibration that has taken place in the last decade the Palace letters have only further damaged Kerr’s standing by revealing his secret consideration of political and constitutional matters with the Queen, including the possible dismissal of the government, while failing to consult with his Prime Minister. The response to the Palace letters is not as Kerr would have wanted it to be.
Whitlam would have been appalled and dismayed by the content of the letters and the political intrigue between Kerr and the Palace they reveal. He believed that the proprieties of office were being respected, at least by the Queen, if clearly not by Kerr. Whitlam was frequently asked whether he thought Kerr had spoken to the Queen about the matters leading up to his dismissal and he always responded in disbelief, that it simply was not possible that Kerr had discussed these matters with the Queen – “because if he had, she would have said; ‘Have you spoken to your Prime Minister about it’.” Which of course, as the letters have shown, she never did. For a constitutional monarch this failure to remind Kerr of his fundamental responsibility to speak to the Prime Minister was, as the late great journalist Mungo MacCallum described it, ‘unconscionable’.
Were there any final thoughts or comments that you would like to leave our readers with?
Buy this book – you will not be disappointed!