The answers to a half-century of questions may be just hours away, with the release of personal letters from Queen Elizabeth to Sir John Kerr set to shed light on one of the most pivotal moments in Australian history – the 1975 Whitlam dismissal.
At 11am on Tuesday, a large batch of personal correspondence between the Queen and Australia’s governor-general of that time are to be publicly released by the National Archives.
Dubbed the ‘Palace Letters’, the secret notes between London and Canberra are hoped to reveal the extent of Buckingham Palace’s involvement in the ousting of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and the installation of Malcolm Fraser into the highest job in the land.
Decades-long mysteries, questions and conspiracy theories are on the cusp of being answered after Monash University’s Professor Jenny Hocking led a years-long legal battle for the letters’ public release – against the wishes of the British Crown, the Australian government, and the National Archives.
A May decision of the High Court of Australia ruled the significant volume of letters should be released publicly after they had been marked to be kept secret until at least 2027.
According to the National Archives Director-General David Fricker, some 212 letters totalling more than 1000 pages of correspondence will be released “without exemption”.
“The National Archives has examined the records for public release under the provisions of the Archives Act 1983 and I have determined all items will be released in full,” Mr Fricker said, following speculation regarding what, if any, of the communication may be redacted.
The Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University last week described the release of the letters as “a triumph for history, for transparency and democratic accountability of those in public office”.
Writing for the John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations website on Monday, Professor Hocking called the release of the letters on Tuesday “an extraordinary moment”.
“Their release will answer one of the great unknowns about that tumultuous time – just what the Governor-General and the Queen discussed in the months leading up to the dismissal,” she wrote.
— Prof Jenny Hocking (@palaceletters) July 13, 2020
Although he saw the release of the letters as a pivotal and exciting moment in Australian history, especially for historians, Central Queensland University academic Dr Benjamin Jones said there may not necessarily be a “smoking gun” in the letters.
“We don’t know what will be in them. A good historical practice is not to presume too much, but to go into the archives and see where it may go,” he told The New Daily.
“That’s the problem with the secrecy, it breeds conspiracy theories and presumption.”
Dr Jones said the legal victory that had forced the release of the letters set an important precedent for access to important historical information, for academics and the general public.
“The High Court has given a timely reminder to the National Archives that their mission is to preserve significant documents for public use, not to protect them from the public,” he said.
“Whatever the contents of the Palace Letters, I hope this sets a precedent and that the next historian seeking material from the NAA does not need legal assistance to do so”.
Peter FitzSimons, chair of the Australian Republic Movement, said the letters may turn attention back to the relevance of the British monarchy to modern Australian society.
“We don’t know what’s in those letters, but we do know this, it will generate focus on the sheer absurdity of an unelected person from an aristocratic family in England having anything at all to do with what should happen to our democratically elected leader,” Mr FitzSimons told The New Daily last month.
“Any time there is any focus on the absurdity of that arrangement, it helps the [Republican] cause.”
104 years ago the future of Australia changed forever.
Happy birthday, Gough. pic.twitter.com/aPIdeiMqan
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) July 10, 2020
The release of the letters comes just days after the federal Labor party marked the 104th anniversary of Mr Whitlam’s birth, on July 11.