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Writing to the Queen

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 28 July 2020

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?

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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