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A night at the opera: How Whitlam and Kerr fell out

Jul 22, 2020 • 17m 59s

After a 10-year legal battle, the “palace letters” were finally released last week. They show exactly how Gough Whitlam’s relationship with the governor-general broke down.

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A night at the opera: How Whitlam and Kerr fell out

270 • Jul 22, 2020

A night at the opera: How Whitlam and Kerr fell out

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

After a ten year legal battle, led by Professor Jenny Hocking, the Palace Letters were finally released last week.

Read in full, they show how Gough Whitlam’s relationship with the Governor-General broke down - and how involved the Queen was through this collapse.

Today - Karen Middleton on one of the key moments in Australia’s political history, and the final details kept secret until now.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Karen, can you tell me what the palace letters are and what people were hoping that they might reveal?

KAREN:

Well, the palace letters are all the correspondence between the then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, and her majesty the Queen in the whole time of his tenure as Governor-General. So they range from August of 1974 to December of 1977. And, of course, that covers the period of the dismissal of the Whitlam government in November 1975.

RUBY:

Karen Middleton is the chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper.

KAREN:

They've been at issue for a long time because they were secret and it was hoped that they would reveal, and I think they do reveal, what the Queen knew about John Kerr's plans to sack Gough Whitlam and whether she was an active participant in that process or more of a passive observer.

RUBY:

And so when you read through these letters, what struck you?

KAREN:

Well, they're incredibly informative, just about the kind of correspondence that there was, at least through that period, between Government House and Buckingham Palace.

And the nature of the correspondence is really interesting. John Kerr writes in huge detail about everything that happens in politics in Australia.

And it really does emphasize that the Queen is in charge and that he is telling her every little thing that he can find out. She's encouraging him via her private secretary to give all the detail. At one point, he says, “Am I telling you too much, are these letters too long? Should I keep them shorter?” And the queen, via Sir Martin Charteris, her private secretary, says, “No, not at all. Tell us everything. Fascinating.”

So you do get a sense of that relationship. And you also get, even though there's this tone of sort of dobbing on Whitlam a bit and reporting back on him, you do get a sense that that things came to a crunch between Kerr and Whitlam around about July of 1975 when a public scandal broke around the Loans Affair involving the Whitlam government. And you start to see in much more detail, and in particular in one letter, John Kerr really distancing himself from Gough Whitlam and trying to justify his own role, having been dragged into that loan scandal himself.

RUBY:

Can you tell me more about the Loans Affair? What was it?

KAREN:

Well, it was a pretty weird thing, frankly.

The Whitlam government was having trouble with the Senate. Oppositions had never blocked supply before this time. And there was a convention that that not happen. But the Opposition was threatening to do it in this case and so that the Whitlam government was looking around for sources of funds.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man # 1:

“The loans affair was seeking authority through the executive council to raise very large sums, I think 4 billion dollars in total, and they didn’t have authority or approval of the loan council.”

KAREN:

These private loans came up, a suggestion that they could source money through private brokers in the Middle East.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man # 1:

“The loans were clearly intended to be for permanent purposes and not temporary purposes.”

KAREN:

They were looking at four billion dollars worth of loans. So not a small amount.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man # 2:

“The facts are these: that amount, of course, is totally unprecedented. And I believe that the government has been involved in a quite massive attempt to cover up, because this whole issue has very sinister and secret implications.”

KAREN:

And they had a meeting in late 1974, December 1974, of the executive council, which is a function of our Constitution, its a council of members involving senior ministers and the Governor-General. And there was a meeting to authorize pursuing these loans. And Sir John Kerr was not at that meeting.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man # 1:

And we obviously didn't like the way in which the particular executive council meeting had been held without the Governor-General being present, with the Governor-General really being presented with a fait accompli.

KAREN:

So there was a process that meant he didn't have to be there. And there's some dispute about whether or not he knew about this meeting at all. It was held late in the evening and in fact, past midnight into the next day. He had gone off to Sydney and he wasn't present.

And then his private secretary, according to the letter he wrote to the Queen sometime later, received a call at two o'clock in the morning saying this meeting had occurred and that he was going to be sent papers the next day to sign.

There are two different versions of events about this meeting. Gough Whitlam's version, published sometime after the Dismissal, was that Kerr’s office was notified the afternoon before. Kerr’s full version, which we read in detail for the first time now, says to the Queen that he didn't know at all about this meeting until afterwards. So he's basically telling her that Gough Whitlam set him up.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man # 1:

The press adored it, they had a field. Because it was just weird stuff. I mean, a Middle Eastern gentleman who ate peanuts raising millions of dollars for the Australian government when we had perfectly sensible Treasury officials and reserve bankers and all sorts of other people who've advised on and effect these sorts of things. It was lunacy.

KAREN:

And this correspondence comes out much later than the meeting was held. The correspondence is dated July of the following year, and he's only writing about it to the Queen because a scandal has broke about the loans.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man # 2:

It was an attempt to raise money as we believed, illegally and bypassing all the normal channels.

KAREN:

There wasn't public knowledge about them until this point. Gough Whitlam is having to explain himself in parliament. The role of the Governor-General in having belatedly signed off on pursuing the loans has been exposed and he's got dragged into it. And then he writes a letter to the Queen trying to explain.

RUBY:

Right. And so when the story initially broke about the loans affair, what was said in the press about Kerr?

KAREN:

Well, it was pretty derogatory. He was annoyed, clearly, in the letter he wrote to the Queen that he was being dragged into it. And, he was annoyed there was criticism of him because he'd been at the opera in Sydney. And I think he felt by the tone of the letter to the Queen that he wasn't being protected by the Whitlam government, that the Whitlam government was effectively hanging him out to dry.

RUBY:

And so it was this the moment that his relationship with Whitlam really broke down?

KAREN:

Well, that's how I read it. I mean, he either didn't think it was important enough to tell the Queen at the time or he didn't want to tell her for some other reason.

But he tells her a lot of other things. So the flavor of this correspondence is that he's talking about all kinds of things, even down to the suit that he chose to wear to his swearing in. But not this big thing that later on, he says, was, you know, it's such a terrible thing to have happened. So it's kind of fascinating that we don't know about that until later.

This is the first direct sort of sense that he's really parting ways with Whitlam, that he's actually saying he's done something. He's forced me to do something that I wouldn't have done if I'd known about this in advance. That's where he really seems to be advocating to the Queen on his own behalf and against what the prime minister has done.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Karen, the palace letters reveal a breakdown in relations between Kerr and Whitlam, and that looks to have started with the Loans Affair. Can you tell me about what happened between that point in time and the Dismissal?

KAREN:

Well, the political climate was very febrile that when the Loans Scandal broke, the Whitlam government's popularity was already subsiding. There was a lot of pressure on Gough Whitlam. The opposition were toying with the government about blocking supply and then had begun in the latter part of the year to refuse it - or delay the vote, at the very least. And the government was anxious, and there was a sense of a crisis and a scandal around the government.

And Kerr at that point was writing lots and lots of letters to the Queen, explaining what was going on, all of the detail.

In July of that year, Kerr has interestingly written a letter to the Queen including an editorial from The Canberra Times which had called on him to sack the government and take the country to an election. And this was the first public call for the Governor-General to act. It's very interesting that he included that…

RUBY:

Mmm.

KAREN:

...and just drew the Queen's attention to it and said, you know: look what this very respectable newspaper is suggesting that I do.

That's the first clear indication that it's an active thought in Kerr’s mind about dismissing the government.

And then fast-forward to October when Kerr mentions in a letter that he has taken some legal advice on the use of the reserve powers, which are the powers that deem that it's the Queen's prerogative to dissolve Parliament.

Now, they're not specified powers, they're not written down. That's why they're called reserve powers. And so there was some question about how extensive they might be. And he indicated that he had taken advice on these powers, and he was also saying at that point that he believed that it was a political crisis, that it still wasn't yet a constitutional crisis, but he was watching it closely.

And then we get to November, early November, I think, around the 4th, Martin Charteris writes back one of his letters to Kerr and tells him that the Crown believes that even though the reserve powers are dormant, that they do still exist and that their very existence was their great value because they acted as a kind of deterrent on people's actions. By knowing that they existed, it kept people who, you know, governments in check. But he was very clearly saying to Kerr, yes, the reserve powers do exist.

And very interestingly, I think, one of the things that Charteris observed in a letter was that he wrote: “Anything you may do could indirectly affect the monarchy in Australia. And this places you, John Kerr, in what is perhaps an unenviable but certainly a very honorable position.”

And then he goes on to give what I have to say, reads an awful lot like permission, carefully worded, to say: “If you do as you will, what the Constitution dictates, you cannot possibly do the monarchy any avoidable harm. The chances are you will do it good.”

He is saying, well, if you act in accordance with the Constitution, you won't only protect the monarchy. You might actually do it some good. Now you can see how a lot of people might interpret that as permission from the palace to act in the way he did.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man # 1:

“Canberra is the scene of events unprecedented in Australian history, the Prime Minister Mr Whitlam was today sacked.”

KAREN:

And then he wrote again on November 11 after terminating Gough Whitlam's commission.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man # 1:

“An hour later Mr. Frasier was sworn in as the leader of a caretaker government.”

Archival Tape -- [noise/ jears]

Archival Tape -- John Kerr:

“Well I, Sir John Robert Kerr, the Governor-General of Australia, do by this, my proclamation, dissolve the senate and the house of representatives.”

Archival Tape -- [tape of people on steps jeering “We Want Gough”.]

KAREN:

He did not tell the Queen in advance that he was actively going to do that. Didn't give a date or a time. But he wrote to her afterwards and said it's done.

RUBY:

So, Karen, where does all of this leave us on the question of whether the Queen knew about the dismissal?

KAREN:

Well, this is where interpretation comes in. Now, many people have said since the letters were made public last week: Well, this proves the Queen did not know it was happening. And that is true. She wasn't told in advance the specifics of when Sir John Kerr was going to sack Gough Whitlam or even definitely that he was going to do it.

Archival Tape -- Gough Whitlam:

“Well may we say God save the Queen. Because nothing will save the governor general.

KAREN:

But to say that she didn't know it was a live possibility I think is wrong. She clearly knew. There were a series of letters where it was canvased as an option. She, via her private secretary, said that it was a legitimate option because she said the reserve powers existed, but that letter also did say that it should be a last resort. Now, it didn't define what a last resort was, that was left up to Sir John Kerr to decide.

And in one of the letters, the Queen also reminds him that if we got to a stage when Gough Whitlam tried to act first and sack the Governor-General - appealing to the Queen to sack the Governor-General - that the Queen would have to accept that advice. She would have to accept the advice of her prime minister and she would sack Sir John Kerr. So there's a clear message there between the lines to the Governor-General: Well, he might sack you if you don't get in first.

So I think to say that she wasn't actively aware and engaged with the prospect of removing the Prime Minister and the elected government is wrong. She clearly was.

RUBY:

Karen, how significant is the release of these letters in terms of understanding possibly the defining moment of our political history?

KAREN:

I think they're very important.

I think it's important that we know what is said between a Governor-General and the Queen, that we have an understanding of the nature of the relationship and that we get to see the kinds of decisions that are taken and the thinking behind those decisions.

And now we have, and we do have, a much greater understanding of how that Governor-General in particular saw his role as the representative of the Queen and where his loyalties lay.

And I have to say, you know, when you read the bulk of the correspondence, the impression you get is that he very much saw that his first loyalty and priority was to Her Majesty. He was divulging these private conversations. He was telling inside stories about the government and what the prime minister's plan was, and that’s a reminder that the Queen is an active participant.

She is neither uninterested or disinterested in this process. She's interested in a fascinating sense. She's clearly reading every detail. And she's encouraging him via her private secretary to tell her every last thing. And she's an interested party. She is the monarchy. She is reminding him in these letters that how Australia thinks of the monarchy will be affected by the decisions that he makes. So she's got a vested interest here. And it's a real reminder that she's not a passive observer of the processes in Australia, that she's got an interest in the outcome. And the minute you have an interest in the outcome, you cannot be said to be not a political participant: you clearly are.

So you can see that laid very clearly out in these letters. And I think for those who are interested, both in the monarchy and in the ideas of becoming a republic, it's a real value to read these letters and to get a deeper understanding of how our system works now. And maybe we can reflect on how it might work into the future, whether we remain as a constitutional monarchy or one day move to become an Australian republic.

RUBY:

Karen, thank you so much for your time today.

KAREN:

Thanks, Ruby.

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news:

The prime minister has announced that the Jobkeeper wage subsidy will continue for another 6 months at a reduced rate. It will be cut from $1500 a fortnight to $1200 for full time workers. It will go down to $750 a fortnight for part time and casual employees working less than 20 hours a week. Businesses will have to prove they are still in financial distress each quarter as the payment is extended to March next year.

Scott Morrison also flagged changes to the Jobseeker payments. Those payments will continue for another 3 months, but will be reduced by $300 a fortnight, meaning people on the program will receive a total of $800 a fortnight from September.

In Victoria, 374 new cases of Coronavirus were recorded yesterday. Three elderly women have died, bringing the state’s death toll to 42.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

After a 10-year legal battle, the “palace letters” were finally released last week. In full, they show how Gough Whitlam’s relationship with the governor-general broke down - and how involved the Queen was through this collapse.

Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton.

Background reading:

Archives searching for missing ‘palace letters’ in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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270: A night at the opera: How Whitlam and Kerr fell out