The Truth of the Palace Letters: Deceit, Ambush and Dismissal in 1975 by Paul Kelly & Troy Bramston
RRP: $29.99 (pb)
Reviewed by Gerard Henderson
The strength of The Truth of the Palace Letters: Deceit, Ambush and Dismissal in 1975 is that it demolishes two seemingly conflicting conspiracy theories. The first is that the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency was involved in a decision of Governor-General Sir John Kerr to dismiss Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s Labor government on Tuesday 11 November 1975. The second alleges that Buckingham Palace in general and Queen Elizabeth II in particular had a role in the Dismissal.The book also provides a succinct, clearly written report on one of the most significant events in Australian political history.
The weakness of this work by Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston turns on the failure of the authors to fully embrace the situation facing Kerr on the morning and early afternoon of Remembrance Day 1975. Without the Dismissal, there would have been no conspiracy theories. So it makes sense to start with the events of 11 November 1975 and what led up to them – before the conspiracy theories were conceived.
The Kelly/Bramston Case Against Kerr
The authors summarise their case against Kerr in the Epilogue:
The manner of Kerr’s dismissal of Whitlam was improper and unwise. It was the wrong solution to the crisis…. The conventional critique of Kerr is that he should have followed the orthodoxy and warned Whitlam of the need to supply credible advice to resolve the deadlock over supply. This is a persuasive case. It is the course [Sir Martin] Charteris [the Queen’s private secretary] recommended to Kerr in his letter of 4 November 1975. The essential point is that the reserve powers are more effective when they are not exercised but used by a wise sovereign or Governor-General to procure a political solution.
In her book, The Unveiled Sceptre: Reserve Powers of Heads of State in Westminster Systems (CUP, 2018), Professor Anne Twomey defines the reserve powers as follows:
…the discretionary powers of the head of state that may be used to uphold and maintain the fundamental constitutional principles of the system of government that the head of state represents.
Now travel back to 11 November 1975. It’s close-of-business time. The Coalition in opposition led by the willful and stubborn Malcolm Fraser has blocked supply in the Senate and the government is running out of money to finance the administration of the Commonwealth, pay public servants and defence personnel and more besides. And the Labor government, led by the willful and stubborn prime minister Gough Whitlam, is determined to govern without supply.
Tuesday 11 November is the last day on which an election can be called realistically to be held before Christmas. An election called on this day can be held on Saturday 13 December 1975 – the following Saturday is too close to the Christmas break. The Governor-General has been informed by the prime minister that there would not be enough funds to hold a half-Senate election on this date (which Whitlam wanted) so the situation is urgent since government funds will soon run completely dry.
In short, Australia is in throes of a financial and political crisis. Kerr acts by dismissing the Whitlam government and appointing Fraser as prime minister heading a caretaker government – provided he can guarantee the passing of supply and provided he will call an immediate double dissolution election. Fraser agrees to the terms around lunch time on 11 November 1975 and, soon after, the Senate passes supply. On 13 December 1975, Fraser leads the Coalition to one of the greatest election victories in Australian history.
As it turned out – despite the predictions to the contrary – it all worked out. Fraser defeated Whitlam again in another landslide election victory on 10 December 1977 – after which Whitlam stood down as Labor leader and the party reformed under Bill Hayden’s leadership. Fraser won a narrow victory over Hayden in October 1980 but Labor returned to government with Bob Hawke as leader in March 1983. In other words, it was not long after the events of late 1975 that Australian politics continued as before. There was no long-term constitutional crisis and the political and economic crisis was short-lived.
The essential criticism by Kelly/Bramston is that Kerr should have warned Whitlam – during the period between 16 October 1975 (when supply was blocked) and 11 November 1975 (when the government was sacked) of the possible outcome of dismissal if he could not obtain supply and was determined to govern without it. There are numerous problems with this criticism.
Gough Whitlam’s Contempt for Sir John Kerr
The first problem here is that Whitlam had contempt for Kerr and was most unlikely to accept his advice. In their penultimate chapter, titled “The Modern Governor-General”, Kelly/Bramston cite such former governors-general as Sir Paul Hasluck, Sir Zelman Cowen, Sir Ninian Stephen, Bill Hayden, Dame Quentin Bryce and Sir Peter Cosgrove as suggesting that Kerr should have counseled Whitlam of his intentions if the supply deadlock was not resolved.
That’s all very well. But none of this group had to deal with the likes of Whitlam and Fraser. And only Hasluck had to deal with a supply crisis when the Bill Snedden-led Coalition opposition moved to block supply in early 1974. Then Whitlam sought an early election since he believed (correctly) that Labor would win – which occurred in the double dissolution election of 18 May 1974. The situation had changed by late 1975 – since Whitlam knew that Labor would almost certainly lose an election at that time and was determined to avoid an election before the government’s term expired around May 1977.
Earlier in their book, the authors state that “if a proper warning is given to a Prime Minister there will almost always be another course short of dismissal”. They added: “That’s the vital point”. But it isn’t “the vital point” – since Kelly/Bramston concede that such action would “almost always” lead to another course of action. “Almost always” is a long way short of certainty and Kerr had to make a decision by 11 November 1975.
Kelly/Bramston quote Whitlam telling Paul Kelly as early as May 1995 that Kerr “was a gutless fellow”. The authors write that Whitlam’s “arrogant and patronising attitude towards Kerr” was “almost beyond belief”. In view of this, the theory that Kerr could have counseled Whitlam about how to handle the supply crisis in general – or Malcolm Fraser in particular – is not based on reality. Soon after making this comment, the authors write:
…Whitlam squandered his greatest advantage – as Prime Minister he was not just Kerr’s adviser but had the opportunity to develop a trusting relationship with his Governor-General. Whitlam singularly failed to do this. Whitlam should have engaged Kerr as a man and trusted Kerr as a Governor-General. It meant telling Kerr his plan was to remain in office in the cause of responsible government and force the Senate to retreat. He should have said that if this tactic failed then he recognised advice would be needed ultimately for an election.
Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston are extremely talented journalists and historians free to comment at large. Kerr was a governor-general tasked, when necessary, with making decisions. It’s all very well for the authors to declare – nearly half a century after the event – what Whitlam “should have” said and done with respect to Kerr. The fact is that Whitlam did not do in 1975 what Kelly/Bramston say he “should have” done. Kerr could only deal with what Whitlam did, or did not, do.
In any event, as the authors acknowledge, it was Fraser who drove the crisis by bringing about a situation whereby the Coalition blocked supply in the Senate. It came to Kerr to resolve the impasse between “two resolute and obstinate men” – as Sir Martin Charteris referred to them. No governor-general, before or after 1975, has faced such a situation.
Whitlam’s Threat to Recall (i.e. Dismiss) Kerr
The second problem is that if Kerr moved to dismiss Whitlam, Whitlam had publicly indicated that he would go to the Queen and have Kerr dismissed – or, in the technical term, recalled. This would have caused a political crisis. Moreover, all of Kerr’s actions in October/November 1975 were aimed at not involving the Queen or the Palace in Australia’s political debate. If the Queen dismissed Kerr – acting on the Australian prime minister’s advice – this would have dragged the sovereign into domestic politics. As Charteris wrote to Kerr on 2 October 1975, if Whitlam requested Kerr’s recall the “Sovereign would have no option but to follow the advice of the Prime Minister”.
Kelly/Bramston acknowledge that “there is no doubt that Kerr’s concerns on recall [i.e. his sacking by Whitlam] were justified”. They report that “Whitlam would periodically joke about having to sack Kerr” – and add that “anyone familiar with Whitlam knew he used humour as a political weapon”. Whitlam even raised the possibility of having to sack Kerr in the presence of Tun Abdul Razak, the prime minister of Malaysia, on 16 October 1975 – an event which Kerr hosted at Government House.
And Kelly/Bramston quote John Menadue (in 1975 he was secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet) and Maurice Byers (in 1975 he was Solicitor-General) as believing that Whitlam would have done what he threatened to do – that is, recall Kerr. Also, Kelly/Bramston quote a letter sent by Whitlam to British prime minister Harold Wilson on 31 December 1975 saying that he would have recalled Kerr if he had known Kerr would dismiss him.
Kelly/Bramston concede that “we will never know” what might have happened if, in the words of Whitlam to Wilson, his “suspicions had been aroused” that Kerr would dismiss him. However, they seem to line up with the view that Whitlam would not have done what he said he would do. They come to this view on account of the belief that for Whitlam to dismiss Kerr a letter to The Palace would have been required maintaining and, consequently, there was a timing problem:
The administrative pause [involved] must raise serious doubts whether, in practice, a dismissal of the Governor-General was ever a viable option for Whitlam.
Yet there needs to have been no “administrative pause”. In November 1975 the Prime Minister’s Office was equipped with both a fax and a telex machine – capable of sending a verified letter within seconds of its dispatch. The dismissal of a governor-general by letter to the Queen was certainly a viable option in 1975.
Authors Occasionally Soft on Whitlam & Fraser – but never Kerr
There are no errors in The Truth of the Palace Letters – which is a well and clearly written account of the major political crisis in Australia since Federation in 1901. It is likely to survive as by far the most accessible account of the Dismissal. The authors are critical, to a greater or lesser extent, with respect to the leading players in the Dismissal drama – Whitlam, Fraser and Kerr along with High Court judges Sir Garfield Barwick and Sir Anthony Mason.
However, on occasions, the authors have been soft on Whitlam and Fraser – but not so much on Kerr who is accused of deceit and ambush, even conspiracy. A couple of examples illustrate the point.
Whitlam’s Changing Position on the Power of the Senate
At Page 8, the authors write:
…Whitlam asserted his right as Prime Minister to defy the Senate, to confront Fraser, to break the nerve of the opposition parties and force a humiliating retreat upon them. Whitlam saw this as the greatest moment of his career. He said the Senate’s power had never been used before to force an unwilling government to the people [i.e. to an election] and this was a violation of democracy since governments could only be made and unmade in the House of Representatives not the Senate.
This is letting Whitlam off the hook. It’s true that this was his position in 1975 – as incumbent prime minister. But it was not his position in 1970 – as incumbent Opposition leader. As Sir David Smith documents in Chapter 10 of his book Head of State: The Governor-General, the Monarchy, the Republic and the Dismissal (Macleay Press, 2005), Opposition leader Gough Whitlam and Labor leader in the Senate Lionel Murphy argued that a government which lost a money bill in the Parliament should resign and face an election. For example, on 12 June 1970 Whitlam had this to say:
Any Government which is defeated by the Parliament on a major taxation Bill should resign. …This Bill will be defeated in another place [i.e. the Senate]. The Government should then resign.
On 25 August 1970, Whitlam made the same point:
Let me make it clear at the outset that our opposition to this budget is no mere formality. We intend to press our opposition by all available means on all related measures in both Houses. If the motion is defeated, we will vote against the Bills here [i.e. in the House of Representatives] and in the Senate. Our purpose is to destroy the Budget and to destroy the government which has sponsored it.
As former Democratic Labor Party Senator Jack Kane wrote in his book Exploding the Myths (Angus & Robertson, 1988):
There is no difference whatsoever between what Whitlam proposed in August 1970 and what Malcolm Fraser did in November 1975, except that Whitlam failed…Senator Murphy, for Whitlam, sought the votes of the DLP senators, unsuccessfully. That is the only reason why Whitlam did not defeat the 1970 budget in the Senate and thus fulfil his declared aim to destroy the Gorton government.
It’s true that, as Kelly/Bramston maintain, Whitlam firmly believed in 1975 that governments could only be made and unmade in the House of Representatives – not the Senate. It’s just that in 1975 he was a recent convert to his belief – having expressed a fundamentally different position in 1970.
Believing/Disbelieving Kerr – in the Face of the Evidence
At Pages 125-127, the authors focus on a circa 9.55 am phone call between Fraser and Kerr which took place on Tuesday 11 November 1975. There are two versions of this phone call. Kerr maintained that it was brief – and that he only questioned Fraser whether the Opposition was still intent on blocking supply – it was. Fraser initially accepted this account of the discussion – but later changed his version of events.
In the 1980s Malcolm Fraser co-operated with Philip Ayres in the writing of Malcolm Fraser: A Biography (William Heinemann, 1987). In the lead up to publication, Ayres wrote to Kerr’s office seeking permission to quote from John Kerr’s Matters for Judgment: An Autobiography (Macmillan, 1978). Ayres’ letter contained the following sentence: “Nothing in my chapter on the constitutional crisis contradicts Sir John’s account.”
This statement is not true. In Matters for Judgment, Kerr wrote that in his phone conversation he “said nothing else to him [Fraser] about the situation” beyond asking whether the Opposition’s stance on blocking supply remained the case. Kerr made a contemporaneous note to this effect.
Fraser’s papers contain a note of the conversation he had with Kerr on 11 November concerning the understanding that, if made prime minister, he would (i) seek a double dissolution election, (ii) head a caretaker government which (iii) would not make new decisions, (iv) refrain from setting up a royal commission with respect to the activities of the Whitlam government, (v) undertake to obtain supply and (vi) achieve the dissolution of both the House of Representatives immediately with a view of an election being held on 13 December 1975.
There is no dispute about this conversation – which is consistent with Fraser’s note. The question at issue turns on whether Fraser made the note (on the back of an agenda paper for a Joint Party meeting of the Opposition scheduled for that morning) during his phone conversation with Kerr on the morning of 11 November 1975 – or when he met with Kerr at a pre-arranged meeting at around 1 pm on the same day. Kelly/Bramston accept the Fraser version (circa 1987) and reject the Kerr version (circa 1978 – based on a 1975 contemporaneous note). They put it this way:
Fraser had been tipped off that Kerr was planning to dismiss Whitlam. Fraser agreed to call on Kerr at Government House during the parliamentary lunchbreak. Why did Kerr signal his intentions to Fraser? The surprise dismissal of Whitlam, by ambush, and the commissioning of Fraser was inexorably linked to each other. Kerr did not want to leave anything to chance. He did not want the dismissal to unravel. He wanted reassurance from Fraser that he would accept the terms of his caretaker prime ministerial commission. He wanted it to go smoothly. This was a high-risk operation.
In later years, this phone call became a matter of dispute between Fraser and Kerr, and their respective loyalists. Kerr insisted he only raised these conditions at lunchtime when he was commissioning Fraser. Fraser was certain the conditions were raised in this phone call at 9.55 am. He recalled making a note of the conversation at the time but told Paul Kelly in 1995 that he had lost it. This note has been seen by the authors. The agenda paper is genuine. It is in Fraser’s handwriting. A different pen was used to identify the time and date, and it was signed by Fraser later in the day.
There is no evidence that the document “was signed by Fraser later in the day” beyond Fraser’s claim to this effect. Kelly/Bramston simply believe what Fraser told them for their 2015 book The Dismissal: In the Queen’s Name (Viking, 2015). In fact, the dramatically different hand-writing style on the top half of the document – as distinct from the bottom half – suggests that Malcolm Fraser timed and dated his note sometime after his conversation with Sir John Kerr took place. Also the year “1975” looks like it has been corrected from the original date of “1985” – with the “7” pressed firmly over the “8” (which is still slightly visible). In addition the handwriting is much darker and stronger and the ink at the bottom of the document is significantly different to the top half of the document.
Before Malcolm Fraser’s note can be regarded as a contemporaneous record for his phone call with the Governor-General on the morning of 11 November 1975 it should be tested forensically. The original note is contained in the Fraser Papers at the University of Melbourne.
Kelly/Bramston exhibit considerable naivety in accepting Fraser’s word or memory. For example, Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoir (MUP, 2010) by Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons, contains numerous false statements. Moreover, at the end of the book, Fraser warned that his own memory is “notoriously fallible” – so why should anyone believe what he said or wrote at face value?
In support of their claim, Kelly/Bramston cite the recollections of Liberal parliamentarians Reg Withers and Vic Garland (who were in the Opposition leader’s office when the call took place) – recorded decades after the event. But Kelly/Bramston simply ignore the fact that Bob Ellicott QC (who was shadow attorney-general in November 1975) told Gerard Henderson in 2015 that he, too, was in the room when the Fraser/Kerr phone conversation took place and that the discussion did not last long enough for Kerr to have laid down to Fraser a list of six requirements. This is cited in Gerard Henderson’s “Reflections on the Dismissal, The Sydney Papers Online, Issue 32, 22 December 2015.
Also Kelly/Bramston neglect to mention Kerr’s contemporaneous note of the phone conversation which was first revealed by Gerard Henderson in The Weekend Australian on 30 January 1988. Henderson interviewed Kerr for this article and he provided the author with a note dated 5 November 1987. It quotes from a handwritten note which Kerr wrote on 16 November 1975 titled “Notes by Governor General on discussions with Mr Whitlam and Mr Fraser” which refers, in part, to the Kerr/Fraser phone call at about 10 am on 11 November 1975:
I rang Mr Fraser to find out whether it was true that they had got nowhere and whether it was the Opposition intention to continue to refuse Supply. His answer to both questions was “Yes”.
Kerr’s statement to Henderson added:
This is the sole reference, in my notes of 16 November 1975, to the conversation between Mr Fraser and myself which took place on the telephone between 10 am and 10.30 am on the morning of 11 November 1975.
Kerr’s contemporaneous note plus Ellicott’s recollection directly challenge the Kelly/Bramston decision to accept what Fraser claimed years after the event in his memoirs and also in a conversation with one-time Labor front bencher Clyde Cameron and in a statutory declaration, the latter recollections were only released after Fraser’s death. It is not clear why the authors prefer a contemporaneous note to the later recollection of a man who proclaimed his memory to be “notoriously fallible”.
There is another significant point which Kelly/Bramston overlook. On 11 November 1975, Kerr had no option but to accept Fraser’s offer to form a caretaker government under certain conditions prior to a double dissolution election. After campaigning so hard for an election before the end of 1975, it is impossible to imagine Fraser telling his colleagues that he had rejected Kerr’s offer to form a caretaker government after Whitlam had already been dismissed. Fraser had no option but to accept Kerr’s terms – as Kerr well understood when he dismissed Whitlam and, later, commissioned Fraser.
Debunking the CIA Conspiracy Theory
In the Introduction to the Truth of the Palace Letters the authors refer to the fact that for many years after 11 November 1975 a number of Kerr’s critics claimed that the CIA was involved in the Dismissal:
For many years after there was a powerful impulse to insist that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was involved and that Kerr acted under the influence of the CIA. This argument won its deceptive plausibility from the fact that there was a parallel crisis at the time in the Australian-US intelligence relationship with alarm on the US side that the Whitlam Government might not renew the agreement covering the Pine Gap intelligence facility in Central Australia. A range of advocates have championed variations of this theory including legendary investigative journalist Brian Toohey, author Peter Carey and the UK-based Australian journalist John Pilger.
There never was any evidence for this conspiracy theory – and Whitlam did not believe the claim. Kelly/Bramston cite a CIA briefing note to US President Gerald Ford on 11 November 1975 – it was released in part in August 2016 and declassified in full in July 2020. It reveals that the CIA described the Dismissal as a “surprise move” and a “complete shock”. In short, the CIA did not have a clue about Kerr’s possible intentions with respect to Whitlam.
The authors also state that Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, when in government, received advice from the likes of Robert Hope (who headed the Royal Commission on Australia’s Security and Intelligence Agencies) and Geoffrey Yeend (secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet) who did not believe that the CIA was involved in the Dismissal. They add that the recently released Palace Letters – which Kerr always wanted released – “offer nothing but a wasteland for the CIA theory”.
Debunking the Queen/Palace Conspiracy Theory
It’s relatively easy to drum up a reason why the CIA would have liked to see the end of the Whitlam government – even if it had no means to bring this about. But no one has proffered a reason why Buckingham Palace or the Queen herself had an interest in interfering in Australia’s national politics – for or against – the Whitlam government.
The principal proponent of the Palace conspiracy is Melbourne based historian Professor Jenny Hocking – who played a key role in obtaining the release of the Palace Letters via a victory in the High Court against the National Archives of Australia, which acted in accordance with the request of Kerr’s estate when his papers were lodged in the NAA. Others who have joined in the conspiracy chorus are the Australian Republic Movement’s Peter FitzSimons and Michael Cooney plus author Anna Funder and more besides.
The Palace Letters – which are available online – contain a couple of crucial letters, First, Charteris’ letter to Kerr dated 4 November 1975 acknowledging that the governor-general had the reserve power to dismiss a government but advising that it is “clear that you will only use them in the last resort and then only for constitutional and not for political reasons”. Second, Kerr’s letter to Charteris advising that had dismissed Whitlam. Kerr wrote: “I decided to take the step I took without informing the Palace in advance because under the Constitution the responsibility is mine and I was of the opinion that it was better for her Majesty not to know in advance, though it is, of course, my duty to tell her immediately.”
The two pieces of correspondence provide proof that the Palace did not urge Kerr to dismiss Whitlam and was not aware that he had done so until after the event.
Evidence destroys conspiracy theories. However, since many people believe what they want to believe, it’s likely that Jenny Hocking and others will continue to blame the Palace and the CIA, possibly both, for a decision Kerr made on his own behalf – having only consulted Barwick and Mason to ensure that he was acting constitutionally. Kerr did act in accordance with the Constitution.
The Truth of the Palace Letters is a fine work of scholarship written in a clear, easy to read manner. The essential problem with the work is that, in discrediting conspiracy theories about the CIA and the Palace, it develops a real conspiracy of its own. Here’s how Kelly/Bramston conclude the Introduction:
The 2020 release of the Palace Letters is probably the last stage in the documentary story of Australia’s greatest political crisis. Its value is to reveal to the public the way the Governor-General and the Palace related to each other during the trauma. But it also serves another purpose – by releasing the correspondence it allows a conclusive judgement to be made on competing historical versions about the role of the Queen. As the authors have argued, the Palace letters further confirm there was a conspiracy to remove Gough Whitlam – but the revisionists have got it wrong. The conspiracy was located in Government House not Buckingham Palace.
This is an unsatisfactory conclusion about 11 November 1975 and all that. As the authors concede, the possibility of Kerr dismissing Whitlam – and, indeed, of Whitlam sacking Kerr – was widely discussed in Australia in October and early November 1975. What occurred on 11 November 1975 did not come as a complete surprise.
Fraser commenced the political crisis. Whitlam continued it. Kerr resolved it – by using the reserve powers when neither Fraser nor Whitlam would budge. This act – which was never challenged constitutionally – may have been prudent or imprudent. But it was no conspiracy.
* * * * *
Malcolm Fraser’s Note of 11 November 1975 (Or Is It?) – You Be the Judge
۰ Kelly/Bramston believe Malcolm Fraser’s account that this note was written during a phone conversation with Sir John Kerr at around 10 am – and signed and dated later that day.
۰ Reviewer Gerard Henderson accepts Sir John Kerr’s view (supported by a contemporaneous note) that this was written at Government House at around lunch time. The reviewer believes that the note was subsequently back-dated by Malcolm Fraser (in dramatically different handwriting and pen) some years later.
You be the judge.