The World

What Did the Queen Know and When Did She Know It?

Australia gets to the bottom of a 45-year-old political mystery.

Black-and-white photo of Gough Whitlam.
Gough Whitlam in 1973. Australian Conservation Foundation/Wikipedia

Forty-five years ago, Australia’s most popular Labor prime minister, a man whose face and words still adorn fashionable tote bags, was sacked by Queen Elizabeth II’s representative. As if this wasn’t strange enough, until Tuesday, Australians didn’t know who—if anyone—authorized it.

Gough Whitlam was removed from office on an unforgettable Remembrance Day, Nov. 11 1975, after two consecutive election wins but only three years in office, by Governor-General Sir John Kerr and replaced by conservative opposition leader Malcolm Fraser (not to be confused with more recent conservative usurper Malcolm Turnbull). The move was ostensibly to break a deadlock in Parliament, as the opposition-controlled Senate was refusing to pass appropriation bills until another general election was called—an over-the-top demand that left the prime minister with the choice of election or resignation. Whitlam refused and was visiting the governor-general to call for a half-Senate election when he was served his termination notice. While Australia has been politically independent from the United Kingdom since 1942, the queen is still the head of state and appoints an Australian governor-general, on the advice of the prime minister, to act on her behalf. The governor-general has certain “reserve powers” not included in the constitution—including dismissing a prime minister or appointing one if an election result is unclear—which come via the authority of the monarch.

Still, the governor-general’s role is mostly ceremonial and is not supposed to involve taking sides in political disputes. Whitlam’s removal came as a massive shock to Whitlam and to the Australian public—particularly the left. Despite a short and tumultuous time in office, the reformist Whitlam was responsible for many of the Australian left’s greatest accomplishments—universal health care, free university (since undone), recognizing Indigenous land rights, funding the arts, commencing moves to change the national anthem from “God Save the Queen,” and asserting a more independent national identity. Whitlam was also a charismatic orator, and that afternoon uttered one of the most famous phrases in Australian history, telling a crowd of outraged protesters from the steps of Parliament House: “Well may we say ‘God save the queen,’ because nothing will save the governor-general!”

For many, Kerr has gone down as a “crafty and calculating” villain, an unelected official who violated his supposed political neutrality. But what of the queen of England, Australia’s actual head of state, whom the governor-general stands in for? Was this an example of neo-imperialism, of a monarch reining in her unruly subjects on the other side of the world? Australians have long been fascinated by the queen’s role in the crisis, and after four and a half decades, we finally know. Sort of.

The so-called palace letters—211 archived letters exchanged between Kerr and the monarch, through her private secretary Sir Martin Charteris—were released on Tuesday, after 45 years of intrigue and several years of court battles led by Whitlam’s biographer Jenny Hocking. (Whitlam died in 2014, Charteris in 1999, Kerr in 1991; the queen, of course, outlives them all.) The letters, written between 1974 and 1977, and with increased frequency around the time of Whitlam’s dismissal, had been held by the National Archives of Australia but were considered “personal” records and placed under the embargo of the queen, until an Australian High Court decision in May declared them property of the Commonwealth, over the objections of the archives, Buckingham Palace, and the Australian government, to the excitement of historians, anti-monarchists, and political junkies across the nation. On Tuesday, the National Archives’ website crashed from the number of people trying to access the letters at once.

The letters show that the queen was not explicitly told of Whitlam’s impending dismissal, nor did she order it, but that the palace consulted at length in Kerr’s monthslong deliberations, offering legal advice and encouragement as he weighed his options and powers (while the palace’s missives are penned by Charteris, they confirm the queen did read Kerr’s). The government and the opposition seemed unable to reach a compromise, with the opposition claiming Kerr should sack Whitlam if he could not state how he would break the deadlock.

The “last resort” option to dismiss Whitman’s government was discussed in the letters, and Charteris confirmed to Kerr that he had the authority to use it. But Kerr chose not to forewarn the queen of what was to become known as “the Dismissal” for her propriety, writing on the day “I was of the opinion that it was better for Her Majesty not to know in advance”—“admirable consideration” for which Charteris later thanked him. The letters also reveal Kerr’s fears that he would be replaced by the prime minister if Whitlam got wind of his intentions, implicating the queen (and Prince Charles) in messy political gamesmanship she ought not have been part of.

“If such an approach was made you may be sure that The Queen would take most unkindly to it,” Charteris assured Kerr. But the ultimate decision, it was stressed, remained with Kerr, with Charteris telling him the “unenviable” choice was his to make. The palace, he said, was confident Kerr would not do the monarchy any harm in the course of action he chose.

(Other juicy details from the letters: 25-year-old Prince Charles having to be dissuaded from buying an Australian cattle station to avoid a PR disaster during a British recession; general bitching about coverage from prominent Australian “pro-Labor” journalists in the months following the dismissal; and concerns about the support Kerr was receiving from a racist, anti-Semitic but pro-monarchy right-wing group, “which has taken up my cause.”)

The release of the letters ought to put to rest several conspiracies regarding the queen’s role in the saga, namely that she personally ordered Whitlam’s removal. There’s a separate set of conspiracy theories around whether the U.S. was also involved in the removal of a PM who withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam. These are likely to remain. (As comedian Tom Ballard tweeted, “Now release the letters from the CIA”). At the same time, the letters’ release has raised further questions over the role of the queen in Australia more generally.

The reasons Australia has remained under the British Commonwealth depend upon whom you ask, but it’s clear that it in some part rests on apathy—if being a constitutional monarchy ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But revelations like this can fire up the apathetic in the electorate. After all, why should the palace have been consulted about our constitutional crisis at all? Why should the monarch’s unelected representative have had the unilateral power to do this? And why weren’t Australians allowed to see these “personal” letters—letters pertaining to the removal of an elected prime minister—until now? The palace was quick to respond to the letters’ release, saying they showed that it had nothing to do with the dismissal, but why should that even be in question? Australians in recent years have seemed relatively cool with sudden, election-free leadership changes, but it’s a whole different story when an unelected head-of-state enacts one.

Hocking, the academic who fought for their release, has called the letters “every bit the bombshell they promised to be.” She says they show that the queen contravened a defining feature of a constitutional monarchy, which is that the monarch “remain strictly neutral with respect to political matters.” She did this by engaging with Kerr on “inherently political matters, even advising him on the powers of the Senate and, critically, the existence and potential use of the contentious and contested reserve powers to dismiss the government.” “The damage this has done to the Queen, to Kerr, and the monarchy is incalculable,” she writes.

Labor figures and Republicans (those who want to see Australia leave the monarchy) have also jumped on the letters, calling for a fresh look at a republic, something Australia last voted down in 1999. Turnbull, the now-former prime minister and a former head of the Republican movement, said that Kerr reported to the queen “like a local manager reporting to head office and seeking advice as to his options,” while current Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the affair was “a blight on our character as a nation” that “reinforces the need for us to have an Australian head of state.”

The release of the letters might finally be enough to rouse a few more Australians to the view that the head of state should not just be Australian but accountable to Australians. There was no secret conspiracy between the queen and the governor-general contained in the letters; rather, there was a simple reminder of the very open secret that the Australian head of state is a hereditary monarch living on the other side of the world, with an unelected representative here who apparently doesn’t require her approval anyway.

Well may the British say “God save the queen”—the letters tell us it’s time Australia moved on.