The view from Billinudgel

It’s about time
The High Court’s landmark ruling on the ‘Palace Papers’ is a win for Australian social democracy

Gough Whitlam in October 1975. Image © Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy SEARCH Foundation

It has taken more than 40 years, but Australian social democracy has prevailed over British hereditary privilege.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Gough Whitlam’s biographer, Jenny Hocking, we are finally permitted to see the exchanges between Buckingham Palace and Yarralumla in those fraught weeks before the dismissal of our government in 1975.

The letters between the Queen and governor-general John Kerr – the man handpicked by the very prime minister he later disobeyed, deceived and betrayed – have been declared by the High Court to be public documents, not private letters as they have been absurdly portrayed in order to hide the truth from the mob.

The concealment has always been unconscionable. Elizabeth II is our queen, our head of state. She cannot take time off whenever it suits her to chat with pen friends, however eminent they may be. Tough at times, but it goes with the job – and the job is 24/7. 

If the idea of a constitutional monarchy means anything, it entails a certain transparency. Ideally the ruler must accept advice from his or her ministers, in this case Whitlam. And that stricture applies even more so to the representatives the ruler appoints to oversee the affairs of government.

These conventions are considered unbreakable, and if they are broken – as they were so spectacularly in the lead up to John Kerr’s cowardly coup – we, the people, are entitled to an explanation of all the circumstances surrounding them. If there was a justification, let’s hear it. Without one, conspiracy theories will flourish, as they have for well over a generation. 

This is not a matter of prurient curiosity or of public interest, although there is a lot of interest, even from those who were not born when the political crisis took place. It goes to the heart of our system of government, to the links between the various areas of power on which we rely to preserve us from autocracy and dictatorship. The refusals from both the Queen and Kerr to disclose their discussions that led up to the crisis were not, and are not, theirs to make.

The doctrine of divine right was, we thought, abrogated in 1649 with the removal of Charles I. The mere concept that it could be resurrected in Australia three and a half centuries later is inherently ridiculous. And to imagine that it could be sustained by a cabal of bureaucrats, lackeys and lawyers well into the 21st century simply beggars belief.

This was a matter of national sovereignty. As Jenny Hocking said, it was demeaning for Australia to be subject to the Queen’s veto over how and whether our documents can be released. Now, thanks to Hocking’s indefatigable efforts, pride has been salvaged.

We will decide who controls our records, and the circumstances in which they will be controlled.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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