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British RoyalsHistory

The Queen’s role in Australian political row revealed


FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH OFFICE VIA FLICKR

It’s been the subject of debate for decades but now the Queen’s real role in a political event that rocked Australia have been revealed. Letters just released confirm that Elizabeth II had no advance knowledge of the sacking of the country’s Prime Minister by her Governor General in 1975.

The letters had been kept secret for over forty years but were finally made public following a court challenge by historian, Professor Jenny Hocking. They reveal that the removal of Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister and the replacement of his government was a decision made by the then Governor General, Sir John Kerr, with Buckingham Palace finding out about it after it had happened.

The sacking of Gough Whitlam was highly controversial. Mr Whitlam and his Labour Party had been elected in 1972, following two decades of conservative rule. His popularity began to wane as the economy began to falter. Although he controlled the House of Representatives, the opposition controlled the Senate and in October 1975, they began to defer the bills needed to approve government spending and demanded an election. When Gough Whitlam refused to call a poll, Sir John Kerr stepped in. He removed the government from office and installed a caretaker government led by Malcolm Fraser.

As he sacked Gough Whitlam, on Novemebr 11th 1975, Sir John Kerr said ”a Prime Minister who cannot obtain supply, including money for carrying on the ordinary services of government, must either advise a general election or resign. If he refuses to do this I have the authority and indeed the duty under the Constitution to withdraw his Commission as Prime Minister.”

The actions of the Queen’s representative surprised many and questions immediately arose as to how much Her Majesty had known of the decision to remove the government beforehand. The letters show that Elizabeth II wasn’t informed of the actions before they took place. Sir John Kerr said was able to remove Gough Whitlam because of the powers implied in his role by the Australian constitution.

However, correspondence between Sir John Kerr and Martin Charteris, the Queen’s private secretary, in early November 1975 touched on the possibility of a dismissal with Lord Charteris saying that any such event was ”a last resort” and could only take place for ”constitutional, not political, reasons”.

In total, around 1,200 documents have been released including correspondence in which Sir John Kerr confides his concerns that Gough Whitlam might ask for his dismissal as Governor-General, an action he says would place the Queen in ”an impossible situation”.

The controversy around the removal of Gough Whitlam led to a rise in calls for Australia to become a republic. However, it remains a constitutional monarchy with the Queen as Head of State. Her powers are largely symbolic.

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Lydia is a writer, blogger and journalist. She's worked in the media for over twenty years as a broadcast reporter, producer and editor as well as feature and online writer. As well as royals and royal history, she's a news junkie and podcaster.