Australia to publish Queen's private letters amid mystery over dissolution of Labor government in 1975

Giovanni Torre
Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General of Australia, escorts Queen Elizabeth II to her aircraft at Perth Airport, following her Jubilee Tour of the country. - Central Press

Australia's highest court ruled on Friday to make public letters between Queen Elizabeth II and her representative that would reveal what knowledge she had, if any, of the dismissal of an Australian government in 1975.

Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party had been elected in 1972 after 23 years in opposition and pursued an ambitious reform program.   

The reasons for the Whitlam government’s dismissal three years later have been fiercely debated for more than four decades, and the Palace letters could give some insight into the machinations that led to it.  

Historian Jenny Hocking argued in the High Court that correspondence between a governor-general and a monarch was the property of the Commonwealth, and the majority of the court agreed.  

Professor Hocking told the ABC she was “absolutely delighted”.  

“It's a wonderful outcome for our history, it's a wonderful decision for transparency and for accountability of government, but most importantly it's a really important decision for knowing the full story of the dismissal of the Whitlam government,” she said.  

Mr Whitlam’s Labor party was re-elected in 1974 but the following year Queensland senator Bert Milliner died and the state government defied convention and refused to replace him with the party’s chosen candidate, ultimately giving the opposition the ability to block government bills.  

The dismissal led to angry mass protests and Mr Whitlam urging his supporters to “maintain the rage”, but Labor lost the subsequent Federal election.  

Professor Hocking said the dismissal was “a story that has been absolutely clouded in secrecy, in distortion and in so much unknown”.   “With this (High Court) decision, one of those last remaining areas of secrecy and great unknown will be released to the Australian public,” she said.  

The National Archives also holds telegrams and attachments like newspaper clippings, exchanged between the Queen and Sir John from 15 August, 1974 to 5 December, 1977.   

The letters were due for release 12 years ago but were not covered by the rules binding Commonwealth documents at the time because they had been marked “private” correspondence rather than “Commonwealth records”, a labelling the court has now declared erroneous.  

The National Archives released a statement after the judgement was brought down saying it was reconsidering Professor Hocking’s request in light of the ruling.