News

The contentious file of  ‘palace letters’ finally released this week was revealing. It was also missing three pieces of correspondence. By Karen Middleton.

Archives searching for missing  ‘palace letters’

Then Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam (centre) arriving in London in April 1973.
Credit: Keystone Press / Alamy

The National Archives of Australia was urgently searching late this week for at least three missing letters sent between then governor-general Sir John Kerr and Queen Elizabeth II around the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975.

The missing correspondence is part of the “palace letters”, made public following a 10-year battle between the archives and historian Jenny Hocking.

The letters that have been published chronicle a devolving relationship between Kerr and Gough Whitlam. They reveal the moment the governor-general began to turn firmly against his prime minister: when Kerr was publicly criticised over his role in what became known as the Loans Affair.

Kerr did not inform the Queen that he had authorised pursuing the loans until seven months after he had signed the documents.

On the missing correspondence, the National Archives confirmed to The Saturday Paper that a letter from Kerr dated February 4, 1975, was “not on file in the Kerr palace letters”, despite the Queen’s then private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, referring to it in a reply on February 10, 1975.

“The National Archives is checking other Government House and departmental records to determine if the letter has been filed elsewhere,” it said in response.

It was also investigating the other two letters that appear to be missing – one from the Queen and another from Kerr.

The correspondence that surrounds the missing letters suggests they did not directly concern the Dismissal, but instead relate to the introduction of an Australian honours system and the Queen’s acceptance of Papua New Guinea’s invitation to remain as monarch and head of state after its independence.

It is not clear if any other letters are also missing.

Other palace letters add weight to the view that Kerr’s dismissal of the Whitlam government was not only an attempt to resolve a constitutional crisis but was also an act of self-preservation and a belated demonstration – following the Loans Affair – that Kerr could stand up to a man who had pushed the constitutional boundaries and dragged him into controversy.

The letters reveal Kerr did not give the Queen advance warning that he was going to dismiss Whitlam – something for which the monarch thanked him.

They also confirm she knew he was contemplating the possibility for months.

The palace assured Kerr he had the power to do so and conveyed strong personal support for his general performance, requesting that any of Kerr’s actions mind the monarchy’s reputation.

The palace also warned him that if the prime minister advised the Queen to sack Kerr, she would have to do so, even though she would “take most unkindly to it” – a message likely to have fed into the governor-general’s calculations on both timing and approval. The letters suggest Kerr saw his ultimate loyalty as lying with London.

Among the correspondence, which spans the course of Kerr’s tenure from July  1974 to December 1977, one missive in July 1975 has the governor-general clearly distancing himself from Whitlam.

“What I shall now say is very confidential,” Kerr wrote on July 21, after taking three detailed typewritten pages to explain the government’s secret, failed pursuit of huge and highly unorthodox private loans from the Middle East, particularly via Pakistani banker Tirath Khemlani.

Kerr goes on to explain, and attempt to justify, the role he played in authorising the pursuit at the time.

This explanation was not transmitted to the Queen when the events occurred in December 1974. It was only shared seven months later, after the Loans Affairs had plunged the government into controversy.

While Kerr had offered detailed political observations on other matters, he had not, until this point, described the Whitlam government’s highly irregular plan to source $4 billion in loans from Middle Eastern financiers, except in passing, despite formally endorsing it.

By the time of Kerr’s July 21 letter, the government’s loan pursuit, abandoned within months, had become public. Debate was white hot. Whitlam defended his government and Kerr was dragged into the fray.

Under the constitution, the government advises the Crown of its executive plans and seeks its approval through a body comprising senior ministers and the governor-general, known as the executive council.

It had emerged that in December 1974, when Whitlam had convened a council meeting to endorse the loans plan, Kerr had not been present.

It was not unusual for Kerr to miss a meeting. In her biography of Whitlam, Jenny Hocking wrote that Kerr missed 26 of the 97 executive council meetings during his term. There was provision for a minister to deputise for the governor-general.

Journalists had discovered Kerr had been at the opera in Sydney, not at the meeting in Canberra. He was criticised for both failing to show up and failing to push back.

Whitlam’s version, as retold by Hocking, was that Kerr’s office was notified about the snap meeting on the afternoon of Friday, December 13, but the governor-general had already left for Sydney.

Kerr’s version, in his letter to the Queen, is markedly different. It suggests he was not notified until afterwards, in the early hours of December 14.

In his July 21 letter to Charteris, Kerr suggests Whitlam set him up.

“I was never told that a meeting was to take place, never asked to preside and never agreed to it taking place in my absence,” Kerr wrote. “I would have cancelled plans to go to Sydney had I known of the meeting.”

Kerr wrote that his private secretary, David Smith, took a call at 2am telling him the meeting had occurred and documents would arrive in the morning for Kerr to sign.

Kerr tells the monarch that Whitlam called him in the morning seeking his “ex post facto approval” of the meeting and advising him to sign the minute authorising pursuit of the loans.

Kerr wrote that the December meeting had involved Whitlam, then deputy PM Jim Cairns, appointed as treasurer two days earlier, attorney-general Lionel Murphy, and the minister for minerals and energy, Rex Connor, who had been the Khemlani go-between.

Kerr wrote that he had made a detailed note of everything that happened – which by his own previous account was only made after Whitlam addressed parliament about the Loans Affair on July 9.

In his 1979 memoir, The Truth of the Matter, Whitlam would accuse Kerr of belatedly concocting what Kerr’s own memoir described as “shock” at the prime minister’s actions.

Authorisation to seek the loans was revoked five months later, in May, and the plan abandoned.

“No money had in fact been borrowed,” Kerr assured the palace while debate was raging in Australia. “... No commissions had been paid. None were payable. Financially, these exercises were dead.”

Nevertheless, the flak was flying.

As the political climate deteriorated into a full-blown crisis, with Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser refusing to provide Whitlam’s government with supply, Kerr wrote letter after letter to the palace, reporting every detail to a riveted monarch.

In late October, Charteris responded that Kerr was clearly doing all he could to defuse the situation between “two resolute and obstinate men”.

A few days later, Charteris observed the political battle seemed to be “swinging in the prime minister’s favour” and that Whitlam was “tremendously formidable”.

On October 22, Kerr wrote that he had sought legal advice on the reserve powers, the Crown’s prerogative to dissolve parliament. “It has been my intention and still is, to do nothing constitutionally at this time,” he wrote, noting that public calls for him to intervene were forcing him to think.

With Whitlam’s approval, Kerr called Fraser to Government House but said he was unable to broker a compromise. At least, he observed to the palace, he had shown Australians he was “not sitting inactively at Yarralumla doing nothing”.

Kerr reported that Fraser was privately expecting a backlash over his stance – and that Kerr believed it remained a political crisis, not a constitutional one.

On November 4, Charteris told Kerr he believed that, though dormant, the reserve powers still existed, and by existing acted as a brake on people’s actions.

“This is the value of them,” Charteris wrote. “But to use them is a heavy responsibility and it is only at the very end when there is demonstrably no other course that they should be used.”

On November 5, Charteris informed Kerr that the ABC had contacted the palace and been told the Queen was being kept informed. “Of course, this does not mean she has any wish to intervene, even if she had the constitutional power to do so,” he wrote. “The crisis, as you say, has to be worked out in Australia.”

Pointedly, Charteris observed: “Anything you may do could indirectly affect the Monarchy in Australia. This places you in what is, perhaps, an unenviable but is certainly a very honourable position.”

In what some may interpret as carefully worded permission, Charteris wrote: “If you do, as you will, what the constitution dictates, you cannot possible [sic] do the Monarchy any avoidable harm. The chances are you will do it good.”

Kerr wrote again on November 11, after terminating Whitlam’s commission.

“I decided to take the step I took without informing the Palace in advance because under the Constitution the responsibility is mine and I was of the opinion that it was better for Her Majesty not to know in advance,” Kerr wrote.

The palace replied on November 17. Charteris described taking a call from “private citizen” Whitlam at 4.15am London time on November 11, saying that as parliament had now passed supply – with Fraser as prime minister – he, Whitlam, should be reinstated.

Charteris assured the governor-general that although “politicians will, of course, rage”, Kerr’s actions “cannot easily be challenged from a constitutional point of view”.

“If I may say so with the greatest of respect, I believe that in NOT informing the Queen what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with perfect constitutional propriety but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position,” he wrote.

This week, the palace issued a statement reaffirming that the Queen believed correspondence should remain private but that the letters confirmed “that neither Her Majesty nor the Royal Household had any part to play in Kerr’s decision to dismiss Whitlam”.

Others, including Jenny Hocking, see it very differently.

She rejects the assertion, made by the palace and various commentators, that the letters prove the Queen was completely uninvolved.

“My big take-out is they’ve both crossed the line of appropriate behaviour,” Hocking tells The Saturday Paper. “But it puts beyond any question that the Queen was involved in the decision-making in the months leading up to the dismissal.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2020 as "Letter down".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

Our journalism is founded on trust and independence

Register your email for free access or log in if you already subscribe

      Keep Reading                 Subscribe