Supporters of the monarchy have achieved a significant win in a recent Australian High Court challenge which resulted in the release of previously classified letters between former Governor-General Sir John Kerr and Buckingham Palace. The court challenge was launched by supporters of the Australian Republican Movement who believed that the letters in question contained evidence of Palace collusion in the 1975 dismissal of former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam. The Republicans were successful in having the letters released by the National Archives, however the contents of the letters have disproved the Republican conspiracy theories completely.
In 1975, Australia was stuck in parliamentary deadlock with the lower house, the House of Representatives, controlled by Mr Whitlam’s Labor Government and the elected Senate controlled by the opposition Liberal Party, led by Malcolm Fraser (an interesting Canadian connection exists here as Mr Fraser’s grandparents were Scottish Gaels from Pictou, Nova Scotia). The Australian Parliament is a combination of the Westminster and American systems, often dubbed ‘Washminster’, and differs from Canada’s purely Westminster system of government. In Australia, the party that controls the most seats in the lower house holds government, but the elected Senate is an active force and is by no means bound to support legislation forwarded by the lower house for approval. In 1975, the opposition-controlled Senate refused to allow supply (the funds required to undertake government), which resulted in severe deadlock, with neither government nor the opposition agreeing on a remedy. Eventually, the Governor-General was left with no choice but to dismiss the prime minister after he refused a full election of both houses of parliament in order to allow the people to decide.
On 11 November 1975, the Governor-General dismissed Mr Whitlam as prime minister and appointed Mr Fraser as caretaker prime minister on condition that he would immediately request the dissolution of both houses of parliament and call an election – which is what happened. When the results of the election were tallied, Mr Fraser and his Liberals were returned by the Australian people by a very large majority. The dismissal is best remembered for the line spoken by Mr Whitlam on the steps of Old Parliament House immediately following his sacking in which he said, ‘well may we say God save the Queen, because nothing will save the Governor-General,’ which captures the mood of this very controversial period.
Despite the fact that the dismissal took place only to allow an election, conspiracy theories had long persisted in Australia in which is was alleged that other forces were at work in Mr Whitlam’s downfall, who was by far Australia’s most left-wing prime minister and remains so. One theory alleged intimate involvement by the Palace to ensure removal of the radical prime minister. The Australian Republican Movement has long campaigned on this theory, promoting the idea that the monarchy allowed unelected ‘foreign’ powers to interfere with Australia’s internal affairs.
Of course, anyone with an understanding of our constitutional monarchy – the principles of which are the same in Australia as they are in Canada – knows that neither the Palace nor Her Majesty would ever involve themselves in such a plot. Moreover, the Australian constitution does not provide such powers to Her Majesty; reserve powers relating to the dismissal of a prime minister are given only to the Governor-General, even when Her Majesty is present in Australia.
Unsurprisingly, the letters released by the National Archives confirmed that not only did the Palace have no involvement in the dismissal, the Governor-General did not even inform the Palace prior to dismissing Mr Whitlam. The Governor-General took the decision to dismiss Mr Whitlam on his own, in accordance with the powers delegated to him in the constitution. The Republicans did attempt to manipulate what the content of the letter meant, but most of the Australian public and media rightly rejected these attempts at blatant manipulation of the facts and the whole episode ended up hurting the Republican cause in this country.
In the end, the Republicans spent a considerable sum attempting to have these letters released, but the real beneficiary was the Crown and the monarchist movement in Australia. The truth is that, whilst controversial, the Governor-General and the Queen acted in perfect constitutionality and there was no plot or conspiracy to unseat Mr Whitlam – a fact that even Mr Whitlam himself acknowledged later in life. The whole episode, along with its conspiracy theories, can now be put to bed and the nation can move on, confident in its system of constitutional monarchy; a very happy outcome.
This article was originally published in the September 2020 edition of Canadian Monarchist News, the periodical of the Monarchist League of Canada.