God Save the Monarchy? Whitlam’s Dismissal, the Kerr Letters, and the Push for a Republic

By Rory Coverdale

Australia is one of the most democratic countries in the world – at least, according to an annual Democracy Index by Economist Intelligence Unit, placing us ninth out of 167 countries. With 9.09 out of 10 overall, and perfect scores for two categories (“Electoral Process and Pluralism” and “Civil Liberties”), 8.93 for “Functioning of Government”, and 8.75 for “Political Culture”, our lowest score was “Political participation” (7.78).

On 11th November 1975, a democratically-elected leader, Labor’s Gough Whitlam, was driven out of office by our Governor-General at the time, John Kerr. The Governor-General, constitutionally the Queen’s representative, has ‘[…] and may exercise […] such functions and powers of the Queen as Her Majesty may be pleased to assign to him’.[1]

This constitutional framework has been criticised for being undemocratic and unaccountable to the people. The need for national self-determination is one of the key factors motivating the Australian Republican Movement (A.R.M.), a political group which aims to reform Australia as a Republic with a President occupying the powers of the Queen and Governor-General. They were one of the leading voices behind the 1999 referendum on the amendment of the Constitution to install a President as head of state.

Nowadays, it argues that the progress of Australia depends on having Australians give their loyalty to Australia only, pom governmental systems removed, claiming that in a land that is a beacon of equality, a head of state being a foreign monarch is ‘inherently unfair, undemocratic and undignified’.[2]

Historian Jenny Hocking has recently won a High Court case, requiring any letters related to Whitlam’s dismissal to be publicly released for the first time. The question can finally be answered- did the Queen insist on it? Yes, to a degree. The Royal Secretary and Kerr repeatedly reassured each other after the fact that there was “no choice”. To read the letters, one would come away believing that there was a corrupt, mad, chaotic Whitlam, unfortunately dismissed due to his inaction to secure supply, by a resolute, yet reluctant, Kerr, carrying out his constitutional duty as all other options had been exhausted.

During a conversation I had with Thomas Keneally, a historian and one of the founders of the A.R.M., he said plainly that the Queen knew about Kerr’s decision.  He said that the queen’s loyalty is to the Prime Minister- if she cannot do that, he said, why have her? “This is not democracy,” he added.  The letters also reveal the fact that everyone, including the Palace, knew about the dismissal beforehand, except for Whitlam himself and the general public (including even Malcolm Fraser).

In particular, a national leader’s loyalty should lie with their people.[3] The dismissal of a democratically-elected leader by someone who is not accountable to the people arguably goes against this. And, with the Queen’s correspondence released, it is possible to know the answers to questions that have plagued us since the dismissal. While Kerr did dismiss the theory that the CIA was involved[4], his letters do paint a picture of someone that is frankly disloyal. Kerr, in a letter to the Palace, dismisses his critics as ‘unversed’, but he does ‘not complain about this… politics is politics and people are entitled to line up for whatever emotional reason appeals to them.’[5] And, perhaps a product of his audience, the letters contain assurances of Kerr’s ‘continued loyalty and humble duty’ to the Queen[6]– not Australia or its people.

As Thomas Keneally said to me, the function of viceroys- our Governor-General, for example- is to ensure that the government does things conducive to the monarchy’s interests, and that no Governor-General would be as ‘megalomaniacal’ as Kerr was in 1975. The Governor-General, therefore, is a post that aims to serve the Queen (despite its mostly ceremonial function now), by virtue of a constitution which defines it as a regal representative. The A.R.M., since their inception, have always seen the national self-determination of Australia as water, and the monarchy as oil.

As more information comes to light about the Palace’s role in the dismissal, national self-determination may take on a whole new meaning for Australia. Certainly, the revelations could bring forward the question of what a government can do for its people when it remains subject to the whims of another country.

[1] Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, s. 2. Accessed via Austlii.

[2] A.R.M.- About, https://republic.org.au/about, cited 20 July 2020.

[3] A.R.M.- About, https://republic.org.au/about, cited 20 July 2020.

[4] Letter from John Kerr Martin Charteris, Private Secretary, dated Fifth December 1975, p. 1 (National Archives of Australia, NAA: AA1984/609, Part 2, p. 4)

[5]Letter from Kerr to Charteris, dated 28 November 1975, p. 1 (National Archives of Australia, NAA: AA1984/609, Part 2, p. 18).

[6] Letter from John Kerr to Martin Charteris, dated 28 November 1975, p. 2 (National Archives of Australia, NAA: AA1984/609, Part 2, p. 19).