Australian governor who removed PM in 1975 assured of his powers by Queen's office, letters reveal

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By Michael Daventry
The release of the letters is a victory for historian Jenny Hocking, who has been trying for years to access them
The release of the letters is a victory for historian Jenny Hocking, who has been trying for years to access them   -   Copyright  Rick Rycroft/AP

The governor who triggered Australia’s biggest political crisis by removing its elected prime minister from office was given assurances by Queen Elizabeth’s office before he acted, according to newly-released letters.

Sir John Kerr stunned the country in November 1975 when he dismissed Gough Whitlam’s Labor government to resolve a deadlock in parliament.

Opposition leader Malcolm Fraser became prime minister and went on to win a stable majority in an election the following month.

The letters released on Tuesday revealed that Kerr, who as Governor-General was the Queen’s official representative in Australia, held extensive discussions with the palace over what powers he held.

Kerr was told in one letter by Sir Martin Charteris, Queen Elizabeth’s private secretary, that some had argued the monarch and her representative no longer had the power to remove a sitting prime minister because it had not been used for many years.

"I do not believe this to be true,'' Charteris continued in the letter.

The letter also said that so long as Kerr did "what the constitution dictates, you cannot possible (sic) do the Monarchy any avoidable harm.''

It was a controversial assurance because Australia's constitutional monarchy is required to be politically neutral and the dismissal obviously benefited the opposition party.

The Queen was not told by Kerr that he had fired Whitlam and replaced him with Fraser until after he had done it.

"There's the question of who made the final decision, and clearly Sir John Kerr, the governor-general, made the final decision," said historian Jenny Hocking, who has been working for years to access the letters.

"A critical set of letters comes only days before the dismissal of the government and that is from [Charteris] saying to the governor-general that the reserve powers — that is the powers by which the governor-general could dismiss the government — do in fact exist and they can be used at particular times.

"That's a really critical conversation to be having with the Queen at the time, and it's one really that the governor-general ought to have been having with the prime minister."

The National Archives of Australia released more than 1,200 pages of correspondence between Buckingham Palace and Kerr dated between 1974 and 1977, after a court ruled in May that they could not be kept secret indefinitely.

Whitlam's removal fuelled calls in Australia to sever its historical connections with Britain and create a republic with an elected president.

Australia remains a constitutional monarchy today with Elizabeth II as its head of state. She is still represented by a governor-general, currently David Hurley.

Britain and Australia both passed laws in 1986 that severed the remaining constitutional links between the two countries.