CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Queen Elizabeth II’s office assured her representative in Australia he had the power to bring down the Australian government a week before he took the extraordinary move in 1975 and created a political crisis, according to letters released Tuesday.
The National Archives of Australia released more than 1,200 pages of letters and press clippings between Buckingham Palace and Governor-General Sir John Kerr from August 1974 to December 1977 after a court ruled in May that they could not be kept secret indefinitely.
Kerr dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s reforming center-left Labor Party government on Nov. 11, 1975, to resolve a deadlock in Parliament on the authority of the queen, who is Australia’s head of state.
The queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, wrote to Kerr on Nov. 4, 1975, that the monarch’s power to dissolve a parliament had not been used in years and some argued that the power no longer existed.
“I do not believe this to be true,” Charteris wrote.
Charteris also wrote that if Kerr did “what the constitution dictates, you cannot possible (sic) do the Monarchy any avoidable harm.”
“The chances are you will do it good,” Charteris said.
Kerr did not tell the queen he had decided to remove Whitlam and replace him with opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister until after he had done it.
“I was of the opinion that it was better for Her Majesty not to know in advance,” Kerr wrote on Nov. 11, immediately after taking the unprecedented step.
The palace said the letters proved that the decision to dismiss the Whitlam government was Kerr’s alone.
“While the Royal Household believes in the longstanding convention that all conversations between prime ministers, governor generals and the queen are private, the release of the letters … confirms that neither Her Majesty nor the Royal Household had any part to play in Kerr’s decision to dismiss Whitlam,” a palace statement said.
Charteris congratulated Kerr for not warning Whitman that he was considering bringing down his government.
That could have put the queen in an “impossible position” if Whitlam tried to get her to fire Kerr while Kerr was trying to fire Whitlam. Kerr died in 1991.
Charteris also revealed that Whitlam had telephoned him at 4:15 a.m. London time on Nov. 11 as a “private citizen” and said he should be “recommissioned” as prime minister so that he could choose the date of the next election.
“He spoke calmly and did not ask me to make an approach to the queen or indeed do anything other than the suggestion that I should speak to you and find out what was going on,” Charteris wrote to Kerr on Nov. 17 .
Sydney University constitutional law expert Anne Twomey said the letters undermined the theory that Whitlam had been brought down by the British royal family.
The letters show that Whitlam had sought British intervention to keep him in power, she said.
“The only smoking gun is Whitlam himself trying to get reinstated,” Twomey said.
The only dismissal of an elected Australian government on the authority of a British monarch triggered a political crisis that spurred many to call for Australia to sever its constitutional ties with Britain and create a republic with an Australian president. Suspicions of a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency conspiracy persist.
The release of the letters is a victory for historian and Whitlam biographer Jenny Hocking who has been trying for years to get access to them.
Hocking said the head of a constitutional monarchy must at all times remain politically neutral. But she said she was startled by the level of discussion that had occurred between Kerr and Buckingham Palace “over matters that were intensely and profoundly political.”
She described Charteris’ advice to Kerr on his powers and how they should be used as “scandalous.”
“The nature of the letters, the fact that a dismissal of an elected government took place using what are largely seen as arcane reserve powers of the Crown, and the fact … we can now see such a depth of discussion between the Palace and the governor-general of the time will inevitably make people think about where we want to go as an independent, autonomous nation,” Hocking said.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese, Australia’s opposition leader, said the 1975 crisis reinforced the need for an Australian head of state instead of the British monarch.
“It is, I think, a blight on our character as a nation that a democratically elected government was dismissed,” Albanese said.
“The action of the governor-general on Nov. 11 to dismiss a government, to put himself above the Australian people, is one that reinforces the need for us to have an Australian head of state, reinforces the need for us to stand on our own two feet,” he added.