Gough Whitlam dismissal: Australian high court rules that Queen's secret letters can be released

Gough Whitlam dismissal: Australian high court rules that Queen's secret letters can be released
Gough Whitlam dismissal: Australian high court rules that Queen's secret letters can be released

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Secret correspondence between Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and the Australian governor-general who sensationally dismissed the country’s Prime Minister in 1975 can now be made public, a court has ruled.

The Labor Leader, Gough Whitlam, was removed from office by the Queen’s representative at the time, Sir John Kerr, in what is often described as the greatest political crisis in Australian history.

The ruling of the Australian High Court on Friday is a landmark step in paving the way for the 211 so-called “Palace letters” to be released after the National Archives had repeatedly refused to do so. The correspondence had been deemed by the archive to be embargoed until 2027 and could not be made public without permission from the Queen.

Although the contents of the letters are not yet known, many historians have asked what Buckingham Palace knew about Whitlam’s removal from power and what involvement the Queen may have had in the constitutional crisis.

One such historian is Jenny Hocking, who won the million-dollar court case in Australia on Friday that had dragged on for four years.

In a decision that could provide crucial insight into the events that led up to November 11, 1975, Justices James Edelman and Michelle Gordon agreed that the letters were commonwealth records not “personal” letters. They ordered the archives' director-general to reconsider Professor Hocking’s request for public release.

Prof Hocking believes that she has previously found proof that Buckingham Palace knew of Kerr’s intentions to sack Whitlam. She is now convinced that the letters will determine whether or not the Queen held any sway in the governor-general’s decision.

The academic, who lost a bid to have the letters released in the Federal Court in 2016, has called on the National Archive of Australia (NAA) to release the documents immediately. The NAA will also pay her legal costs.

“I would be horrified if they did [deny access] given the four-year legal case,” Prof Hocking told reporters in Melbourne.

“Even cabinet records, the most confidential records of government, are released after 20 years. Unless it has the Queen's medical details in it, you would expect them to be released.”

In a statement issued after the ruling on Friday, the director-general of the NAA, David Fricker, said: “We accept the High Court’s judgement and will now get to work examining these historically significant records for release under the provisions of the Archives Act 1983.

“The National Archives is a pro-disclosure organisation,” Mr Fricker said. “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. We work extremely hard to do this for the Australian people.”

Elected in December 1972, Whitlam was seen as a progressive but he was a polarising figure. In October 1975, the opposition Liberal Party refused to pass supply bills in the Senate until the government agreed to call an election. Whitlam refused, leaving the government potentially without funds for months.

Instead, he asked Kerr for support for a half-Senate election, but the governor-general dismissed Whitlam on November 11. Malcolm Fraser, appointed as caretaker Prime Minister in his place, went on to win a national election the next month to cement his role as leader.

The former Liberal Senate leader, Reg Withers, said that Sir John had been planning to remove Whitlam from office before the fateful day.

It was also later revealed that Chief Justices Garfield Barwick and Anthony Mason advised Kerr on how to dismiss the prime minister.

Updated: May 29, 2020 10:09 PM

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