New Light Shed on Australia’s Greatest Constitutional Crisis

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New Light Shed on Australia’s Greatest Constitutional Crisis

In 1975, the Australian Governor-General dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and birthed a flurry of conspiracy theories.

New Light Shed on Australia’s Greatest Constitutional Crisis
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Bert Verhoeff / Anefo

Considered the greatest constitutional crisis in Australian history, the downfall of Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on November 11, 1975, has been the subject of conspiracy theories ever since. 

Some believe the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in an attempt to thwart Whitlam’s efforts to close down the agency’s spy base at Pine Gap, orchestrated the coup. Others believe the orders came directly from the United States government, which had become frustrated by Whitlam’s decoupling of Australia from U.S. economic and foreign policy.

But, it appears, if Whitlam’s demise was subject to foreign interference, it most likely came from Buckingham Palace. Whitlam was dismissed and his government dissolved by the then-governor-general, Sir John Kerr, who represented the queen. Debate continues today as to whether Kerr had the right to do this and, perhaps more importantly, whether he acted under the direction of the palace. 

Forty-five years on from that sunny November day, historians and journalists continue to search for answers. Jenny Hocking, a professor of Australian Studies at Monash University and the author of “Gough Whitlam: A Moment in History,” has been at the forefront of that effort. 

A decade ago, when Hocking began researching the Whitlam debacle, she tried to retrieve a trove of letters sent between Kerr, the queen, and her private secretary from the Australian national archive, but the letters were blocked under royal decree. 

Realizing that those letters perhaps contained the truth, Hocking took on the palace – and won. 

Several years and a million-dollar court battle later, the National Archive uploaded all 212 letters to their website this week. The letters, Hocking said, have “proved to be every bit the bombshell they promised to be, and neither the Queen nor Sir John Kerr emerge unscathed.”

“It is a defining feature of a constitutional monarchy that the monarch ‘has to remain strictly neutral with respect to political matters,’ that the Queen must remain above politics at all times,” wrote Hocking. “[But] hundreds of pages challenge that claimed political disinterest, as Kerr relays conversations, meetings, and events to Buckingham Palace in the context of the most intensely political situation unfolding in Australia.”

In one letter written just days after Whitlam’s dismissal, Sir Martin Charteris, the queen’s secretary, wrote to the speaker of the House of Representatives, Gordon Scholes, that “the Queen has no part in the decisions which the Governor-General must take in accordance with the Constitution.” But the letters show that to be untrue. In fact, the queen’s responses to Kerr played a critical role in his planning and eventual decision to dismiss the government. In other words, while the queen may not have pulled the trigger, she did show the governor-general how to load the gun.

Charismatic and progressive, Whitlam moved quickly to radically change Australia’s economic, legal, and cultural landscape. His government introduced the universal health insurance scheme, known today as Medicare, passed reforms in the area of “self-determination” for indigenous Australians, and returned stolen lands in the Northern Territory to the Gurindji people. His government also moved to abolish university fees and increased spending on schools by six-fold.  

Despite his seeming popularity among voters, he continued to anger a lot of powerful people in Australia and abroad. Within weeks of being elected, he sanctioned an Australian Federal Police raid on the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO). His government believed that ASIO was withholding files relating to threats against the communist Yugoslav Prime Minister Džemal Bijedić. 

The Cold War was in full-swing and Australian allies were concerned that Whitlam was cozying up to the communists. In turn, Whitlam held suspicions that Australia’s own intelligence agencies were working to undermine his government. The raids on ASIO’s Canberra and Melbourne offices failed to produce reason for Whitlam’s concerns. Months later, Whitlam confessed that it was his government’s “greatest mistake,” but the damage to his government’s credibility was already done. 

Whitlam then turned his attention to the U.S.-Australia relationship. He argued that a foreign power, be it an ally or not, should not be able to dictate the country’s economic and foreign policies or run bases on Australian soil. He took particular issue with the CIA-run Pine Gap base in the middle of the Australian desert. 

Victor Marchetti, a former CIA agent who helped set up the base, told Australian journalist John Pilger, “This threat to close Pine Gap caused apoplexy in the White House.” Whitlam’s government also denounced the American-led war effort in Vietnam, which led senior CIA figure Theodore Shackley to warn ASIO that “if this problem cannot be solved, [we] do not see how our mutually beneficial relations are going to continue.” 

Many journalists argue that while American efforts to topple Whitlam make for a good story, the narrative simply lacks evidence. The souring of U.S.-Australian relations could very well have added weight to Kerr’s decision to act against Whitlam and his government in 1975, but Kerr’s decision to sack Whitlam is also widely seen as an attempt to save himself. 

In October, just one month before Whitlam would be sacked, the opposition in the Senate demanded that Whitlam call an early election for the House of Representatives and urged Kerr to dismiss Whitlam if he failed to do so. 

Whitlam, believing that Kerr would not dismiss him, pushed for a half-Senate election instead. He then told Kerr that he would have the governor-general replaced if Kerr obstructed his plan. In hindsight, threatening Kerr in this way may have been Whitlam’s undoing. 

On the morning of November 11, 1975, Whitlam arrived at Kerr’s residence to formally tell him of his decision to call a half-Senate election, but he was instead informed by the governor-general that he was no longer Australia’s prime minister. The head of the opposition, Malcolm Fraser, was waiting in the next room. As soon as Whitlam left the residence, Kerr instated Fraser as Whitlam’s successor.

Before Whitlam could consult his colleagues in the House of Representatives, Fraser moved to dissolve the government. So instead, Whitlam took to the steps of parliament, where he spoke to the press and the hundreds of Australians whom had gathered there. 

“Well may we say, God save the queen… because nothing will save the Governor-General,” he said. “The proclamation that you have just heard read by the Governor-General’s official secretary, was counter signed, Malcolm Fraser.” 

The Palace letters have revealed that in the days and weeks leading up to Whitlam’s dismissal, Kerr had sought guidance and discussed his options with the Palace. He did not, however, inform the Queen of his decision until after it was done. 

“I should say that I decided to take the step I took without informing the Palace in advance because, under the Constitution, the responsibility is mine and I was of the opinion that it was better for Her Majesty not to know in advance,” he wrote to the Palace later that day.

The letters lay bare that the queen, as head of the constitutional monarchy, did not remain politically neutral and that Kerr, instead of acting on the advice of the prime minister, moved to salvage his own career and worked hand in hand with the opposition and the Palace in dismissing Whitlam. 

In another letter sent to the Palace, just over a week after Whitlam was dismissed, Kerr admitted that he had to act without giving Whitlam a chance to call an election, because he feared he would be sacked himself.

“As you know from earlier letters, on occasions, sometimes jocularly, sometimes less so, but on all occasions with what I considered to be underlying seriousness, [Whitlam] said that the crisis could end in a race to the Palace. I could act, if necessary, directly myself under the Constitution. I am sure that he would have known this and the talk about the race to the Palace really constituted another threat,” he wrote. “I was in a position where, in my opinion, I simply could not risk the outcome for the sake of the monarchy. 

“If, in the period of say 24 hours, during which [Whitlam] was considering his position, he advised the Queen in the strongest of terms that I should be immediately dismissed, the position would then have been that either I would, in fact, be trying to dismiss him while he was trying to dismiss me – an impossible position for the Queen.”

Hocking told The Age that while initial focus will be on the contested events of November 1975, the details of the letters will raise questions over “royal secrecy” and whether Australia should become a republic. 

“Inevitably, it will reflect upon how we feel having, as our head of state, a queen who is resident elsewhere and is not an Australian citizen,” she said. “If we see that the system that we are told is not broken actually was broken in 1975, then I think people will think about whether we can do better.”

Professor Mark McKenna, a leading Australian historian told the BBC that the letters showed that the “fate of an elected government [was] being determined to a large extent by an unelected Governor-General and his voluminous, almost obsessive correspondence with the Palace… The release of the ‘Palace letters’ reinforce the need for an Australian Republic.”

This train of thought is being discussed at the highest echelons of parliament, too. Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said November 11, 1975 remains a “blight on our character as a nation.”

“The fact that we have waited 45 years for correspondence between the Queen and Palace, and the Governor-General in Australia, says that there is something very wrong with our structures of government, the fact that someone across the other side of the world was involved and engaged in this process,” he said.