There Is No Smoking Sceptre At The Palace

Written by: and
15 July 2020
There Is No Smoking Sceptre At The Palace - Featured image
Originally Appeared In

The release of the “Palace Letters” reveals Queen Elizabeth had as much to do with the dismissal of the Whitlam government as did the CIA.

The correspondence, now made public, between Sir John Kerr and Buckingham Palace reveals very little that’s new or interesting, other than that Kerr deliberately did not tell the Queen that he was planning to sack the prime minister. But conspiracies die hard, and no doubt the myth-making about Gough Whitlam’s martyrdom will continue unabated.

The relevance of the Palace Letters has less to do with their contents, and more to do with the efforts of some left-wing academics to prove to themselves that the somehow illegitimate actions of Kerr sanctify Whitlam and his government. The truth is that during the constitutional crisis of 1975 Whitlam had as little regard for constitutional convention as did Kerr, and when Labor was comprehensively defeated at the subsequent federal election, Kerr’s decision effectively received a democratic mandate.

The letters are shocking – but only for those who put so much hope into them. In a letter dated November 11, 1975 from Kerr to Sir Martin Charteris, the private secretary to the Queen, Kerr wrote: “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.”

Charteris’ response six days later confirmed the Queen was not informed of the dismissal in advance and noted Kerr acted with “perfect constitutional propriety”.

The letters should go a long way in redeeming the reputation of Kerr. He made the best choice available to him to navigate the political stalemate, while fulfilling his constitutional role and ensuring that the final decision was one made by the Australian people.

If anything, it is Whitlam whose reputation is diminished by the release of these letters. The letters reveal that following his sacking before the election, Whitlam attempted to have the Queen recommission him as prime minister. As constitutional expert Professor Anne Twomey of Sydney University has commented: “So instead of the British interfering in Australia’s constitutional system, [it] seems that Gough Whitlam was rather hoping the British would interfere into the system by making him Prime Minister.” This hardly fits the popular stereotype of Whitlam as a proud and independent Australian republican.

The Australian people understood that the cause of Gough Whitlam’s dismissal was Gough Whitlam. At the post-dismissal election in 1975 Whitlam was defeated in the biggest landslide in Commonwealth history, followed by another heavy defeat in 1977.

Despite this, and due in no small part to the angry response to the dismissal, the event has cast a shadow over Australian politics ever since.

No prime minister has changed Australia more than Gough Whitlam. In a flurry of reform between 1972 and 1975, He established bureaucratic-run healthcare, effectively nationalised higher education with free tuition, and increased public sector numbers and salaries. He more than doubled the size of cabinet from 12 to 27 to administer all the extra Commonwealth activities.

When the Whitlam-led Labor party was elected in 1972, government spending was 19 per cent of Australia’s GDP. When Labor lost the 1975 election, the same statistic had soared to almost 24 per cent. In 2019-20 federal government spending was 24.6 per cent of Australia’s GDP.

Malcolm Fraser, who was a staunch opponent of the Whitlam agenda in parliament and was in the best position to roll back the Whitlam reforms, left them largely untouched. Perhaps in response to the rage over Whitlam’s dismissal, Fraser ensured his government was largely a continuation of the Whitlam era. And no government has since challenged the Whitlam legacy in any effective way.

For those who are interested in the future of opportunity and prosperity of Australians, the letters are a reminder of the politically motivated fury that has effectively kept Whitlam’s ideas in power for 45 years.

The Palace Letters will not advance the republican cause as it is a niche issue of interest to a relatively small group of people concentrated mainly in academia and the ABC. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese is wrong when he said on Tuesday the letters should prompt a renewed discussion about the republic. Right now the Australian people have far more important things to worry about.

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