EXPLAINER

Palace letters: What will their release mean for our democracy?

Prime minister Gough Whitlam outside Parliament House following his dismissal by the governor-general on November 11, 1975. Picture: Getty Images

Prime minister Gough Whitlam outside Parliament House following his dismissal by the governor-general on November 11, 1975. Picture: Getty Images

At 11 o'clock this morning, we should learn something very important about our country.

Journalists and politicians were to be denied prior access so the masters of spin wouldn't be able to promote any early partisan interpretation.

It may well be a national moment, one of those times when the bustle of life pauses and internet use jumps.

It will be exciting.

What was the furore about?

On November 11, 1975, the government of prime minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed by Sir John Kerr, the governor-general (the Queen's representative in Australia).

Many would argue that it was the most dramatic and important event in the history of the country since Federation in 1901, perhaps excluding war.

It's hard to think of anything more momentous since 1975.

The Whitlam government was the first Labor government for 23 years.

It was elected by the people in a democracy but dismissed by the Queen's representative so it was always going to be controversial.

Was there conspiratorial skulduggery involved, with the remote British establishment interfering in Australian affairs?

Or was it an inevitable solution to a political crisis when the Whitlam government was paralysed and unable to pass legislation?

Before the dismissal, the opposition in the Senate had blocked the government's Supply Bills.

Supply Bills are passed (or in that case, not passed) to authorise the funding a government needs just to keep on with its day-to-day business.

If a government can't get a Supply Bill through, it can't govern.

Before the dismissal, there was a crisis. Nobody disputes that.

And the Kerr Palace Letters?

As the National Archives which holds them puts it: "The records cover the period of Sir John Kerr's term as governor-general (1974-77).

"There are six files, which include more than 1000 pages. There are 212 letters, many with attachments such as newspaper clippings, reports, and copies of letters related to meetings and events attended by Sir John Kerr during his tenure as governor-general."

On May 29, the historian Jenny Hocking won her High Court bid to get access to the letters which she said were of "immense historical significance".

Until then, the National Archives had argued that they were deposited as private correspondence and not for general release.

From 11 o'clock, they will be very public.

What might we learn?

We might learn how independent Australia really is or, at least, was 45 years ago. On this argument, if the Queen in London can dismiss a democratically elected Australian leader, there is a limit to Australian independence.

Professor Hocking described the situation as "relics of colonialism" and "the lingering imperial power that come from an incomplete severance of colonial ties".

That sentiment was echoed by John Warhurst, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, who chaired the Australian Republic Movement from 2002 to 2005.

He thinks the Letters will confirm that "the British Crown was interfering in the 1975 dispute in ways that should offend anyone who wants Australia to be a fully independent nation. The Palace did not stand above the fray".

He also thinks that "Kerr acted as the Queen's representative, rather than as an independent head of state."

The nub of the matter

Sir John Kerr was an Australian barrister and judge. Although under the Australian constitution, he is technically the representative of the Queen, defenders of the current system argue that, in reality, he was independent of the Queen. He was chosen by the prime minister of Australia, they say, and the Queen merely rubber-stamped the choice.

On this argument, Australia was independent. The Queen stayed out of it.

If the letters show that Sir John really was acting solely in what he perceived to be Australia's best interests, the argument that Australia is not truly independent takes a knock.

If, on the other hand, the letters show an interventionist attitude from London, the republican cause may be bolstered.

And if there is any indication that the Queen and her advisors took action against the Whitlam government because they thought it was left-wing, the row will be loud and long and stretch to London.

What do historians want to learn?

All of the above, of course, but also about how the constitution actually works in practice.

Professor Hocking who has written a biography of Whitlam told this paper: "We know very little in terms of what transpired between the governor-general and the Queen at that time.

"There's no doubt these letters are really critical to understanding how extensive that contact with the palace was and what aspect the contact actually played in Kerr's thinking at the time."

The drama of power

Clashing super-egos, power, the monarchy - no sex but, apart from that, what more do you want from a drama?

The Letters will surely reveal how big personalities behaved, though the main Australian participants are now dead so they can't defend their actions.

The human detail - the asides and personal impressions - may be fascinating. Did bruised egos intrude or did they rise to the moment? We may find out.

It's hard to imagine that a big picture won't emerge.

Is it a story of Labor betrayed by the devious upper-class Poms? Or a story of a system working as it's meant to? Or maybe something more complex in between.

Gough Whitlam stood on the steps of the old Parliament House and said: "maintain your rage".

At 11 o'clock, the website of the National Archives of Australia will determine how much or how little rage should be maintained.

This story What might the Palace letters reveal? first appeared on The Canberra Times.