Recently, developments about Governor-General John Kerr and his dismissal of Gough Whitlam have resurfaced again. Recent news indicates that the High Court will be declassifying the 211 letters sent by Governor-General Kerr to the Queens private secretary Sir Martin Charteris.
These letters, are being used by the Australian Republican Movement to try and connect their theory that the Royal Family knew Kerr’s plan to dismiss the then sitting Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam and encouraged Kerr to remove Whitlam.
As well as the Republican Movement is using this as another push for a Republic by stating that we were never independent and only doing so is to remove the Monarchy as they see it as a “Colonial Relic”. From the same people that would support renaming Australian States because of their Colonial Past.
However, what is interesting is how the Australian Republicans view the dismissal in their ideological echo chamber compared to how the rest of Australia views the dismissal. Many Australians were in favour of Whitlams removal, bar the hardcore Labor voter whom of which were a tiny minority within the Labor party that are more akin to the modern Greens.
What I am going to retort with, about the letters, what the Republicans view, and what the letters could be about, will be detailed below.
Firstly, let us talk about how Australia obtained its Independence. Unlike America which had a bloody war with the United Kingdom, or from the decolonisation process in many parts in the British Empire to obtain Independence; Australia acquired independence in a peaceful and clever manner. Australia’s Independence came about in a Devolution rather than a Revolution. Our Independence started in stages, starting with the Commonwealth of Australia Act, which granted Australia our Constitution, a Federal Government and the Australia that we know today. This provided us with autonomy, self-determination and control over our own affairs. Of course, it wasn’t perfect, Britain still did control certain institutions in Australia that did have an impact in our governance and jurisdiction.
What followed next was the Statute of Westminster, which enabled all self-governing Dominions within the British Empire; such as Australia, with complete legislative independence. This proved to the world that Australia is an independent country. However, there was one more hurdle in the way to some to obtain such “true” independence.
This is the final method in which we obtained our Independence. The Australia Act of 1986, which finally removed any and all powers the UK parliament could ever do to us, making Australia entirely Independent from the UK.
What is the problem?
To surmise, the problem isn’t about how we obtained our Independence, but rather the situation of the Queen and Governor-General in Australian affairs when it comes to a democratic deadlock or an issue within the parliament that cannot be solved in a democratic manner.
The issue comes from the Australian Republican Movement in how they interpret the situation in 1975 with Prime Minister Gough Whitlams dismissal. This was a Constitutional Crisis in Australia, a great Constitutional Crisis, due to a political crisis in the Senate as it blocked the passage of Supply Bills thus stopping the democratic process in the Australian parliament by the Opposition. Even though the Whitlam government was rife with scandals and political miscalculations in its first year.
Where does the Queen and Governor-General come into this?
First, let me take you back to the 1920s, but to be much more exact, the 1926 Imperial Conference. This conference declared that the Governor-General in every Dominion; including Australia, was no longer to be the representative of His Majesty’s Government in Britain, and that it was no longer in accordance with a Governor-General’s constitutional position for him to continue as the formal channel of communication between the two Governments.
The Conference further resolved that, henceforth, a Governor-General would stand in the same constitutional relationship with his Dominion Government, and hold the same position in relation to the administration of public affairs in the Dominion, as did the King with the British Government and in relation to public affairs in Great Britain. It was also decided that a Governor-General should be kept as fully informed of Cabinet business and public affairs in the Dominion as was the King in Great Britain.
The 1930 Imperial Conference decided that recommendations to the King for the appointment of a Governor-General would no longer be made by British Ministers but would instead be made by the Prime Minister of the Dominion concerned. This decision, together with those taken at the 1926 Conference, further strengthened the constitutional role of Governors-General and their relationships with their respective Dominion Governments.
Now, allow me to take you to a time close to the Whitlam Dismissal pertaining the Queen. In 1973, the Royal Style and Titles Act, pushed by the Whitlam Government, made the Queen to be known in Australia as, “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth” rather than “Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Australia and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith“.
This was done to make the Royal Family to be legally and officially the Australian Sovereign. And to have this title to be enshrined in Australian law.
This is an entity that was recognised by Gough Whitlam himself, since he understood that the Queen is, the “Queen of Australia” rather than the “Queen of the United Kingdom”.
Now, let us go into the meat of this issue.
The point of contention is of the Dismissal Papers, or known as the “211 letters” from the Governor-General to the Queens Private Secretary over the matter of the political and democratic stalemate. It is often hypothesized by the Republican Movement that the Royal Family, or that the Queen herself was directly involved in removing a sitting Prime Minister.
However, the Queen has always behaved as a constitutional monarch should behave. As Queen of Australia she not only has a right to be notified of what is happening within her government but a duty to be informed and to advise.
She is not merely a ceremonial monarch, but an active constitutional monarch, not on behalf of the British Crown, as republicans say, but as Queen of Australia, an entity recognised by Whitlam himself in his Royal Style & Titles Act 1973.
Being an active constitutional monarch is not the Queen’s personal choice but a requirement under our Australian constitutional arrangements. Of course, upon appointment, the Governor-General assumes that active status as the representative of the Queen but nevertheless the Queen, as Queen of Australia, should always be informed, even as a matter of courtesy.
However, let me be clear, that requirement to inform does in the way not mean interference in the political system of this country as republicans would have us believe.
The Governor-General has a right to seek advice on any matter whether from the law officers of this nation or from the palace itself. However, the decision Sir John Kerr took to dismiss the government (and arrange for an immediate election) was not by use of Crown/ Reserve powers but under section 64 of the Australian Constitution which authorises a Governor-General to appoint and dismiss a government:
“The Governor-General may appoint officers to administer such departments of State of the Commonwealth as the Governor-General in Council may establish. Such officers shall hold office during the pleasure of the Governor-General.”
The fact is, whether republicans like it or not, we have a Constitution established under the Crown and until the people decide otherwise this is our system of governance. A system that works very well and has stood the test of time against all sorts of political intransigence.
Whatever the circumstances leading up to the election of December 1975, the fact is the political crisis brought on by the Senate blocking supply was resolved by a vote of the people. That is our system where the people must always be in control and the job of the Queen and her representative the Governor-General is to ensure that that is always the case.
I cannot say what happened since I wasn’t born around the time this was happening. However, after reading into what I have learned from both sides, I can surmise that the Australian Republican Movement are stretching the events to support their push for a Republic, given that the Historian pushing to declassify the letters is an avid Republican who has been attempting to uncover documents that show how much Queen Elizabeth II, the Royal Family and British government knew about Kerr’s plans, not to provide a balanced historic view into the contentious and highly sensitive event, but to push an agenda in painting the Royals as the prime suspects in Whitlams dismissal and used Governor-General Kerr as their pawn to remove an Australian Prime Minister.
I would prefer if more than one Historian to look into the letters, one Monarchist historian, one non-aligned historian and a historian that doesn’t care about politics to provide a more balanced case into this historic event and to minimise any political agendas if this were reviewed by only one Historian.