A historian lost her court bid on Friday to force Australian authorities to release secret letters that would reveal what Queen Elizabeth II knew of her representative’s plan to dismiss Australia’s government more than 40 years ago.
The National Archives of Australia has categorized the correspondence between the British monarch, who is also Australia’s constitutional head of state, and Governor-General Sir John Kerr as “personal” and the letters might therefore never become public.
The Federal Court agreed the letters were “personal’ and not state records, dismissing Monash University historian Jenny Hocking’s application to have them made public. But Justice John Griffiths acknowledged in his judgment a legitimate public interest in the letters “which relate to one of the most controversial and tumultuous events in the modern history of the nation.”
The letters would disclose what, if anything, the queen knew of Kerr’s plan to dismiss Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s government in 1975 to resolve a month-old deadlock in Parliament.
Hocking, who wrote an acclaimed biography of Whitlam, described the ruling as “a disappointing decision for our history, specifically for the history of the dismissal which has long been cast in secrecy.”
She has not ruled out appealing the decision. Hocking had been represented in the case free of charge by Whitlam’s son, prominent lawyer Antony Whitlam.
The Archives, Buckingham Palace and the governor-general’s official residence, Government House, have all previously declined AP’s requests for comment on the case.
The fall of Whitlam’s government is the only time in Australia’s history a democratically elected federal government was dismissed on the British monarch’s authority. Kerr’s surprise intervention placed unprecedented strain on Australia’s democracy and bolstered calls for the nation to split from its former colonial master by becoming a republic.
Hocking had argued the letters should be released regardless of the queen’s wishes because Australians have a right to know their own history.
Without the “personal” classification, the letters could have become public 30 years after they were written like other government documents held in the Archives.
Under an agreement struck between the Palace and Government House months before Kerr resigned in 1978, the letters covering three tumultuous years of Australian politics will remain secret until 2027. The private secretaries of both the sovereign and the governor-general in 2027 still could veto their release indefinitely.
Malcolm Turnbull said after becoming prime minister in 2015 that he would seek the letters’ release but has not spoken of the matter since.