The view from Billinudgel

State’s head revisited
The Palace Letters confirm the Crown’s neutrality is irrevocably compromised

The Queen and Prince Philip meet governor-general John Kerr, 1977. Image via Alamy

So, now we know that the Queen did not order the coup that dismissed the elected government of Gough Whitlam. And, as far as we know, nor did the CIA, the Illuminati or the little green men from Mars. No conspiracy here. So that’s all right then, isn’t it?

Well no, it isn’t. The Queen did not pull the trigger. But the now-released Palace Letters show that she, her family and her closest advisers were well and truly in the loop during the events of 1975. And since 1975 was all about politics, the neutrality of the Crown is irrevocably compromised.

Governor-general John Kerr’s missives were, as the indefatigable truth-seeker Jenny Hocking has noted, outrageous, but given Kerr’s serial trashing of the conventions of his office, they were hardly surprising. But the manner of the replies from Buckingham Palace was quite simply unconscionable.

Once Kerr had strayed into considering the dismissal of his prime minister, the only correct response would have been to remind Kerr that, under the system of constitutional monarchy, the Queen and her viceroy were duty-bound to take the advice of their ministers, and that therefore the correspondence was now closed.

Instead, Kerr was provided with constant reassurance, occasional encouragement and even advice over the implementation of his highly contentious reserve powers. In particular, Kerr’s fellow grandee, the Queen’s private secretary Martin Charteris, became a player in the great game.

The Australian’s Paul Kelly – who first reported, then interpreted and finally reinvented the Dismissal – still insists that the Queen was completely innocent, and that she was manipulated by Kerr. But the letters reveal a rather different narrative, and it is one that gels with the narrative that other observers at the time (I was one) find far more convincing.

Malcolm Fraser, who knew better than anybody, called Kerr a weak man, and Fraser ruthlessly exploited and finessed that weakness to further his own ambition.

Fraser discerned that Kerr craved approval and adulation from those with the authority he doubted in himself. Kerr had already disobeyed the rules by seeking endorsement from two former justices of the High Court, Garfield Barwick and Anthony Mason, and his own progress to the top was stalled at the NSW Supreme Court. So, invoking his Queen was just another step in his endless quest for vindication.

And Kerr’s claim that by not explicitly warning her that he was ready to act was in order to give her plausible deniability is risible. She was, and is, an intelligent woman, and would have known perfectly well the direction in which Kerr was moving.

Whitlam, however, was utterly deceived. But it is noteworthy that before, during and after the Dismissal, his government always had the confidence of the House of Representatives.

Fraser never did, and never could, pass that test. His appointment may have been legal, but was never legitimate. That only came with the subsequent election, which Kerr demanded as the price of the putsch. Once again, the prime ministerial advantage of choosing the timing of the poll had been subverted, to Fraser’s advantage.

This was a time for the Queen to intervene, to uphold the will of the elected parliament. But she did nothing. Perhaps she thought she had already done enough. And when the letters were released against her wishes, the palace made a rare statement to deny the Queen had any part in Kerr’s unforgivable treachery. Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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