Last Monday, ABC TV showed the one-hour documentary The Search for the Palace Letters.

Written and directed by Daryl Dellora and produced by Sue Maslin, it told the story of Monash University emeritus professor Jenny Hocking’s successful attempt to obtain the release of the correspondence between governor-general John Kerr and Bucking­ham Palace concerning his dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government on November 11, 1975.

It was very much a family affair since the opening credits state that Hocking “has spent much of her career studying Gough Whitlam and the dismissal”. It adds that Hocking’s “partner, director Daryl Dellora, has documented her journey to release the Palace Letters for this film”.

Somehow, I feel part of this journey (pardon the cliche). Hocking’s bio on X states: “Award winning author The Palace Letters, biographer Gough Whitlam, Lionel Murphy, Frank Hardy”. And it adds “ ‘Official historian of the Australian left’ – Gerard Henderson”. I appreciate the citation.

Hocking is a left-wing historian. She has spent much of her very productive career employed in taxpayer-subsidised universities and/or as a ­recipient of various government-funded grants.

In this capacity, Hocking has written sympathetic biographies of Whitlam, Lionel Murphy (the left-wing attorney-general in the Whitlam government who was appointed by Whitlam to the High Court) and the author, and one-time Communist Party operative, Frank Hardy.

Hocking has commented widely on the dismissal. Most recently in The Palace Letters: The Queen, the governor general and the plot to dismiss Gough Whitlam (Scribe, 2020). This is a book which can be judged by its cover. It’s an advance on an earlier left-wing conspiracy theory, popularised by the late John Pilger, that the dismissal was a plot engineered by the US Central Intelligence Agency. Who knows? – perhaps a palace/CIA unity ticket was involved in this instance.

Readers have to get to the endnote on page 235 of a 265-page book in order to discover that the research for this book “began in 2006 as an Australian Research Council linkage grant” with the National Library of Australia and the National Archives of Australia.

The Search for the Palace Letters, a documentary by Film Art Media, received some crowd funding. But it also obtained financial support from such government-funded bodies as VicScreen, ScreenWest and Screen Australia. Moreover, it was released on the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster and will remain there as part of the ABC’s iview package.

In view of the large amount of taxpayers’ money directed to the Dellora/Hocking team, a professional outcome would have seen at least a pretence at objectivity – or balance. But, no. Hocking has been a Whitlam fan and a Kerr antagonist for close to half a century – as has her partner.

Hocking dominates the documentary. She speaks direct to the camera for much of the hour. Moreover, since the documentary took four years to put together, there is footage of the professor at work either at the NAA or at home.

As Hocking herself acknowledges, Kerr always wanted his correspondence with the palace released. I am one of the few friends/associates of Kerr with whom he discussed the dismissal in the years leading up to his death in March 1991. He was quite proud of how he had explained the political turmoil in Australia in late 1975 to the Queen, through her advisers, and felt he had nothing to hide.

Like Hocking, the constitutional lawyer Anne Twomey also sought access to Kerr’s papers over a decade ago. Unlike Hocking, Twomey did not have backing to take the matter to court when the NAA ruled that the papers were private since they had been lodged by Kerr’s stepdaughter with certain restrictions as to release. In the event, after two ­defeats in the Federal Court, Hocking obtained a six-to-one ­victory in the High Court.

This decision was welcomed by Kerr’s opponents and supporters alike. The problem then emerged as to how the correspondence would be interpreted. Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston did not agree with how Kerr handled the dismissal. However, in their book The Truth of the Palace Letters (MUP, 2020) they demonstrate that the Queen and her advisers had no ­involvement in Kerr’s decision.

Moreover, the Kelly/Bramston book contains 36 pages of copies of the palace correspondence – allowing readers to reach their own conclusions. Hocking, on the other hand, runs a line about an alleged plot. Yet she provides no reason as to why the Queen wanted Whitlam to be dismissed and how this would be of benefit to the palace or, indeed, Britain.

Apart from Hocking and, briefly, her two legal advisers, the only other interview on the film is with former Liberal Party prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull wrote the introduction to Hocking’s 2020 book and used the occasion to bag Kerr on the Dellora/Hocking film. Here Turnbull described Kerr as “a drunk … he was sozzled most of the time”. No evidence was provided to support this assertion. Moreover, the quality of Kerr’s letters indicate that he was sober when they were written.

However, in his 2020 memoir A Bigger Picture, Turnbull acknowledged that Kerr had to resolve a “hard case”. After all, a stubborn opposition leader Malcolm Fraser was intent on blocking supply and a stubborn prime minister was intent on governing without supply. Kerr resolved the issue by dismissing Whitlam and appointing Fraser as prime minister on the understanding that he would call a double-dissolution election – which the Coalition won decisively in mid-December 1975.

Despite claims to the contrary, there is nothing in the Dellora/Hocking film that has not been generally known for some three decades since the case for a “plot” is not supported by evidence. But at least their latest effort is not as dramatic as when the duo co-operated in the 1995 documentary Conspiracy.

In this ABC film, which was presented in a “True Stories” series, the Dellora/Hocking duo alleged that the bombing of the Sydney Hilton in 1978 was a conspiracy involving the likes of ASIO and ASIS along with commonwealth and NSW police plus parts of the NSW judiciary. Really. Another unproven conspiracy theory funded primarily by public funds without any dissenting views allowed. Your taxes at work.