Australian Court Rules For Britain’s Queen’s Letters To Be Public

Australian Court Rules For Britain’s Queen’s Letters To Be Public

By Martin Cole-

 An Australian court has ruled on Friday that the country’s archives must release letters between Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and her local representative during the 1970s.

Hocking has been fighting since 2016 to access the letters written by Kerr to the queen through her then private secretary, Martin Charteris.

The move sheds light on the sacking of its then prime minister Gough Whitlam.

The archives has held the correspondence, known as the Palace Letters, since 1978 and  should have been made public 31 years after they were created.

Under an agreement struck between Buckingham Palace and Government House, the governor-general’s official residence, months before Kerr resigned in 1978, the letters covering three years of Australian politics were to remain secret until 2027.

The British Royal Family are generally very private about their affairs, but this matter has been decided by the courts.

The Royal family went to great lengths to conceal letters written by the queen’s son and heir, Prince Charles, in a similar case in Britain which was battled through the courts for five years.

Eventually, The UK’s Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that 27 memos written by Charles to British government ministers could be made public despite objections that their publication might damage public perceptions of the future king’s political neutrality.

The latest ruling from down under will be of much interest to journalists,  many of whom had been curious to discover how and why Whitlam’s government was dismissed, and who was behind it.

Kerr, who died in 1991, rejected in his memoirs media speculation that the CIA ordered Whitlam’s dismissal over fears that his government would close the top secret U.S. intelligence facility that still exists at Pine Gap in the Australian Outback.

The sacking of Gough Whitlam by Governor-General John Kerr in 1975 was one of Australia’s most divisive political events because it represented an unprecedented level of intervention by the Commonwealth.

The Queen with  Governor-General in Australia,Sir John Kerr  Image: Getty Images

Full Story

Australians have never  been told the full story behind Whitlam’s removal during a political deadlock over the Budget, according to aggrieved historians.  In 2016 a historian sued the National Archives of Australia for access to letters between Kerr and the queen at the time. The lawsuit failed on grounds that the letters were private.

On Friday the High Court overturned the Federal Court ruling and said the historian, Jenny Hocking, should get access to the so-called “palace letters” since they were the property of the governor-general’s office, which was a Commonwealth institution.

“It’s a wonderful decision for transparency, for accountability of government,” Hocking told reporters.

“It’s a story that has been absolutely clouded in secrecy, in distortion and in so much unknown. With this decision one of those last remaining areas of secrecy and great unknown will be released to the Australian public.”

Kerr died in 1991 without the extent of his coordination with the queen made public. Australia federated in 1901 but the British monarch remains the country’s official head of state, although the relationship is usually ceremonial.

Many government documents from the Whitlam era have been made public in recent years because of a rule which requires commonwealth documents to be released after 31 years. The “palace letters” were kept secret since they were deemed private.

Whitlam died in 2014 but his sacking prompted one of the country’s most often quoted political barbs.

Majority

The High Court’s majority decision in historian Jenny Hocking’s appeal on Friday, May 29, 2020 overturned lower court rulings that more than 200 letters between the monarch of Britain and Australia and Governor-General Sir John Kerr before he dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s government were personal and might never be made public.

The High Court’s 6-1 majority decision in historian Jenny Hocking’s appeal overturned lower court rulings that more than 200 letters between the now 94-year-old monarch of Britain and Australia and Governor-General Sir John Kerr before he dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s government were personal and might never be made public.

Constitutional Ties

Australia broke its constitutional ties with Britain to create a republic with an Australian president following pressure from a largely discontent Australian public.

The 211 letters at the National Archives of Australia are now expected to be put on public display in Canberra as soon as the coronavirus lockdown is lifted.

She described as absurd that communications between such key officials in the Australian system of government could be regarded as personal and confidential.

Archives director David Fricker later said staff had begun assessing whether there was any information in the letters that should still be withheld. The archives have 90 business days — or more than four months — to do so.

Kerr dismissed Whitlam’s reforming government and replaced him with opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as prime minister to resolve a month-old deadlock in Parliament. Fraser’s conservative coalition won an election weeks later.

Under an agreement struck between Buckingham Palace and Government House, the governor-general’s official residence, months before Kerr resigned in 1978, the letters covering three tumultuous years of Australian politics were to remain secret until 2027. The private secretaries of both the sovereign and the governor-general in 2027 still could veto their release indefinitely under that agreement.

Buckingham Palace said in a statement that the High Court decision was a “legal matter in the Australian courts and we would not comment.”

Protective

The British royal family is renowned for being protective of its privacy and keeping conversations confidential.

The family went to considerable lengths to conceal letters written by the queen’s son and heir, Prince Charles, in a similar case in Britain that was fought through the courts for five years.

Britain’s Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that 27 memos written by Charles to British government ministers could be made public despite objections that their publication might damage public perceptions of the future king’s political neutrality.

Years of dogged research by journalists and historians have pieced together answers to many of the questions surrounding how and why Whitlam’s government was dismissed and who was behind it.

Kerr, who died in 1991, rejected in his memoirs media speculation that the CIA ordered Whitlam’s dismissal over fears that his government would close the top secret U.S. intelligence facility that still exists at Pine Gap in the Australian Outback.

 

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