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The treasure hunt that changed Australian history

22 minutes


Jenny Hocking

Emeritus Professor
Monash University

Episode Notes

How far would you go to right a wrong? Would you crowdfund your way to the High Court? That’s exactly what Professor Jenny Hocking did when she realised Australians were being kept from accessing the real history behind the historic 1975 Whitlam government dismissal. We take you behind the scenes to the treasure hunt for those 200 explosive Palace letters – the same letters that led to one of the most controversial political actions in Australian history. 

Ginger Gorman (host) (00:02):

I’ve been a journalist for 20 years or so, and for most of those years, I’ve lived in Canberra. Some people call it the heart of Australia’s democracy. Others think of it more like a political bubble. About 15 minute’s drive from my home is the National Archives of Australia. It’s at the bottom of this hill. I think you know the hill I’m talking about. Capital Hill Parliament House, and it’s tucked away behind Old Parliament House. Now, I reckon you probably remember what happened there.

Gough Whitlam (00:36):

Well, may we say, “God save the Queen” because nothing will save the Governor-General.

Ginger Gorman (host) (00:48):

So, the Archives Building isn’t actually as easy to find as other big national institutions in Canberra, which is kind of fitting for this story because it turns out it’s home to some of our country’s best-kept secrets. I guess when I was thinking about whose secrets the Archives is protecting, the things that came into my brain was stuff like ASIO spies, real cloak and dagger stuff, stuff from the Cold War, things to do with U.S. allies. What I didn’t know was that the secret that the Archives, our Archives, the National Archives of Australia, has been fiercely guarding for decades from the Australian public was protected on behalf of the queen.

Emeritus Professor Jenny Hocking (01:40):

So, they’re enormously important letters. They’re contemporaneous discussions between two people at the pinnacle of a constitutional monarchy, the Governor-General and the queen, at a time of unprecedented crisis in Australia. So, of course, these letters are a dramatic part of our history, and interestingly, they were held in our National Archives under the queen’s embargo, which meant that the queen herself had placed an embargo over our viewing of those letters.

Ginger Gorman (host) (02:12):

That’s Jenny Hocking, Emeritus Professor, award-winning biographer, political commentator from Monash University, fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and releaser of these secret documents. Jenny spent 10 years, 10 years, trying to get the palace letters, but the National Archives fought her tooth and nail all the way to the High Court.

Ginger Gorman (host) (02:43):

Now, what’s happened is that we Australians have finally seen the contents of these letters that the former Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, and the queen’s private secretary at that time, Sir Martin Charteris, wrote to one another throughout Kerr’s appointment. And we’ve learned the extent of the palace’s involvement in the 1975 dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s government.

Ginger Gorman (host) (03:10):

This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman, and I want to take you through the extraordinary story of Professor Jenny Hocking’s discovery of the letters a decade ago, and why she didn’t give up fighting until those letters were made public.

Gough Whitlam (03:25):

The proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor-General’s official secretary was countersigned, Malcolm Fraser.

Ginger Gorman (host) (03:53):

It’s impossible to overstate how important this moment was in Australian political history. If we just go back to that period of time for just a moment and think about it, this was a new Labor government that had come in after 23 years of conservative government and Gough’s government was promising all sorts of things. Things like no-fault divorce, free education, the vote for 18-year-olds, and many other things besides. So, when it was all over, a lot of people were gutted. In this story, Law Professor Graeme Orr recalls his vivid memories of November 11, 1975.

Professor Graeme Orr (04:37):

November 1975 was a hot summer’s day in Brisbane. I remember coming home from my grade four class and I’d left my cray-pas on the veranda facing West at our home. They’d melted. My mother was crying. I initially thought it was because of the mess my crayons had made, but I quickly learned it was because of the tumult of the day. My parents grew up working class but were also small business people. They particularly liked Whitlam because education. Some of it was just the ethos of education. My mum loved Whitlam saying that every child deserved to have a desk to study by and a light to read by. My sisters had already been able to get into university on a Menzies scholarship, but free education was something my parents could have only dreamed about. The policy that made most difference to our lives however was Medibank. My mother had a serious chronic illness for 20 years. She was kept alive for 20 years by Medibank and Medicare.

Ginger Gorman (host) (05:40):

Social commentator Jane Caro was just a kid at that time too, but even so, she was already really well aware of the injustice of the moment.

Jane Caro (05:51):

One of the really fantastic things he did do was he made university education free, but it wasn’t people like me necessarily who benefited most. It was particularly mature age female students, women who were probably a generation or so older than I was, and who had not been given the opportunity to go to university when you had to pay for it. Their brothers had been preferred over them because of sexist attitudes, so when it was free, there was no longer a blockage and one of the people who took advantage of that was my own mother, who in fact did the HSC the same year I did, then went to university the same year I did at the same university.

Jane Caro (06:31):

We were both at Macquarie University in fact when the dismissal happened and we were very shocked. We were particularly shocked I think that Malcolm Fraser was made caretaker Prime Minister. That didn’t make any sense to us. It did have the feelings of a ruling class coup, where the people who’d felt appalled that the Labor party should finally have ended the stranglehold the liberal party had on Australian government for, as I say, over two decades, finally got their own back.

Ginger Gorman (host) (07:02):

And really since that huge moment in 1975, Australians have been totally obsessed with the dismissal, but none more so than Professor Jenny Hocking.

Emeritus Professor Jenny Hocking (07:14):

There’s been a lot of reasons why the history of the dismissal has been so, I call it dynamic. It’s been changing in the most dramatic ways in recent years. In particular, in very large part because of these records in the archives in Sir John Kerr’s papers. So, it’s not a static history by any means and that’s been I think what’s enthralled me from the beginning is to see there’s been a hidden history and to find ways to start to unpack that.

Ginger Gorman (host) (07:46):

It’s an extraordinary story about how you finally got these documents released. When did you first come across mention of them in your deep research into the Whitlam government and that era?

Emeritus Professor Jenny Hocking (07:59):

I first started looking in great detail in Sir John Kerr’s papers, which are in the National Archives, around about 2005 because all of those records were due to begin the process of public release. It was during that time that I became aware that there was this file, an AA file it’s called, that was closed to the public and that consisted of correspondence between the Governor-General and the queen. I was told only that it was personal and confidential and that it couldn’t be accessed. So really, there was nothing much I could do about that. When a document is called personal in the National Archives, there’s a sort of catch-22, which means it doesn’t come under the Archives Act.

Ginger Gorman (host) (08:43):

It’s very hard to see just from a layperson’s view how people who are ostensively governing the country, the monarchy, but also our political leaders, could ever claim that any of those documents were written in a personal capacity. They’re not love letters. They’re letters about the governing of the country and the politics of the time.

Emeritus Professor Jenny Hocking (09:05):

What the Archives and Buckingham Palace argued was that there was what was called a longstanding convention of royal secrecy if you like, where letters between the monarch and the Governor-General or governors or Prime Ministers had always been termed personal and confidential and therefore were to be released only under the terms and conditions agreed by the monarch. So, that’s how these letters were treated and really you’ve come to the nub of the court case. We, of course, argued no, that’s wrong. They’re not Commonwealth records and they ought to be recognized as Commonwealth records.

Ginger Gorman (host) (09:40):

Tell us a bit about the backstory. So, you’ve said that you couldn’t take this to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. So, how did it end up in the federal court then?

Emeritus Professor Jenny Hocking (09:52):

I’d actually first put in a formal request to look at what was called a copy file of the palace letters in 2011, and I’d been denied that. I requested that again in 2015, was also denied that. It was at that point that I met the Sydney barrister, Tom Brennan. I’d just released a book called the Dismissal Dossier, where I put together a range of materials I’d found in the Archives, never thinking about a court case. Never. It was just not something … the possibility of going to the federal court with all of the resources required never crossed my mind, but Tom Brennan wrote a very interesting article, which I just happened across on the internet and read, called Australia Owns its History, and of course, I was intensely interested in this because it was about the fact that we couldn’t access our palace letters. And I contacted Tom quite out of the blue and said, “I completely agree with this. I’ve just had this book out, the Dismissal Dossier.”

Emeritus Professor Jenny Hocking (10:51):

We had a talk about it, and after that, I started thinking about a court case and I thought, “Well, maybe there is an opportunity to take this to the federal court and to mount an argument about the fact that, in our view, these letters were clearly Commonwealth records, not personal, and that they ought to be made available therefore to the Australian public.”

Ginger Gorman (host) (11:11):

As an academic, it’s extraordinary that your academic work has been used in a legal case in the high court ostensively to further your academic work and the public’s right to know. It’s almost mind-blowing in a way, the way that these dots have actually ended up being connected together. Plus, you had extraordinary buy-in from the public who were crowdfunding your work.

Emeritus Professor Jenny Hocking (11:38):

Yeah. These two things had to go together always because even with … I mean, I knew nothing about this whole process until it began. I consider it to have been a remarkable confluence of interests, almost a one-off possibility, which I was determined if I could that I would continue with, but even with pro bono legal support, which is a massive generosity of those involved, there’s still vast expenses of simply lodging a case and all of the associated costs with that. So, there was an underlying sense that these were documents in our Archives, really clearly important historical documents, and that it was wrong that the queen could place an embargo over them. So we had very strong crowdfunding support and both those elements were essential to continuing the case right through to the high court.

Antony Whitlam QC (12:32):

Most people would think that any correspondence between the Governor-General and the queen or the queen’s private secretary, touching on the questions of what occurred in 1975 should be in the public Archives and accessible to historians by now, and it was in that [inaudible 00:12:48] really that it allegedly was not.

Ginger Gorman (host) (12:52):

You know, one of the things I was thinking when I was researching and doing the interviews for this podcast is this is exactly like the movie, the castle, where somehow this case goes all the way to the highest court in Australia, the High Court. Although, the difference here is that it’s actually real. One of the many people who’ve backed Jenny in the early days of the court battle in the federal court was Gough Whitlam’s own son, Antony Whitlam QC.

Antony Whitlam QC (13:25):

Why did I get involved? Well, a very good legal opinion to be put together by Tom Brennan, a barrister, and it convinced me that proposition was certainly arguable, that under the Archives legislation this correspondence should be accessible to the public by now. They’re obviously being urged on by the palace to do that. That’s quite apparent. I mean, very early on in the litigation, there was evidence put on by current officials in the royal household, the existing private secretary to the queen, saying that they regarded as most important that any correspondence between the monarch and any of the vice legal representatives and several other rungs of the Commonwealth, should not be made public. Of course, the difficulty then was that was just contrary to the legislation in this country. I mean, the Archives legislation wasn’t around in ’75. At that point, any access to Archives was a matter for a decision by the government of the day.

Ginger Gorman (host) (14:27):

Jenny was really fighting against the idea that the correspondence was personal. What did you make of that claim?

Antony Whitlam QC (14:35):

Nonsense, of course. The only time there would ever have been any personal relations with a Governor-General and the monarch was very likely in the war when the queen’s brother was the Governor-General. So, they mark correspondences private, but that hardly makes it personal.

Ginger Gorman (host) (14:52):

And it certainly was a win in terms of the public interest and for the everyday Australian to actually understand what happened during the dismissal.

Antony Whitlam QC (15:03):

Yes. I suppose that’s right. I mean, it certainly adds to the picture enormously by giving you a lot of the correspondence. What was the interesting part was how early in the piece the Governor-General had been canvassing propositions about his possible exercise of this power to dismiss the government from very early on during his office. It’s some alarming predisposition on his part, quite apart from what eventually transpired in the houses of parliament in 1975.

Ginger Gorman (host) (15:40):

I mean, I also found it fascinating that you got an insight into Kerr as a person, that he really desired the palace’s approval and was writing sometimes numerous times a day and often in quite a sort of smarmy fashion.

Antony Whitlam QC (15:56):

Smarmy. Well, yes. That didn’t surprise me so much because much of his correspondence after he left office was already in the Archives and I’d seen that, and that time was revealed in that correspondence. Well, it’s a curiously servile sort of term for correspondence in the end part of the last century.

Ginger Gorman (host) (16:21):

If you imagine Australia right after the dismissal, it is not at all hard to picture why the country was so fiercely divided between the left and the right side of politics. After 23 years under a conservative government, the left felt certain it was their turn, and the dismissal was an interference by the monarchy at an unprecedented level. And Australians wanted answers, answers that we’ve never had before. Decades later though, and you suddenly have a historian discovering that actually, the dismissal was so much more than it first seemed. It turns out that those documents deemed private or personal, were pages and pages of correspondence, something like 1,200 pages, in which the Governor-General corresponds back and forth with the queen’s private secretary. And frankly, the contents are shocking. Here’s Jenny Hocking again.

Emeritus Professor Jenny Hocking (17:26):

What shocked me was from his first letter, how critical he is, how undermining he is, of the government. The government has appointed him only a couple of months earlier, only a matter of weeks earlier, and he is already to Sir Martin Charteris, who’s the queen’s private secretary, expressing doubt about decisions of the government, even questioning the legality of the government’s decision regarding the joint sitting in 1974, which was actually a historic moment and Sir John Kerr’s first major public action in convening that joint sitting. So, there’s an extraordinary sense of both self-aggrandizement, but also overweening doubt and need for approbation from the palace throughout these letters that Malcolm Turnbull described them as revolting. In a sense, there is that you feel both as an Australian, but also as I suppose, somebody interested in our political structures, that it’s an undue deference. It’s an almost quasi-colonial deference to a fading imperial relationship that now would strike us utterly unreasonable.

Ginger Gorman (host) (18:43):

What did you think of him as a person when you had finished reading all that correspondence?

Emeritus Professor Jenny Hocking (18:47):

Look, I would say a couple of things. Kerr is clearly very disturbed by his own actions. If you take them within the entirety of Kerr’s papers held in the National Archives, he is utterly obsessed by the events of 1975. I ended up actually feeling very sorry for him. He had become a captive of the decisions he had made that he was, in many respects, certainly by the leader of the opposition, cajoled and urged and threatened in Malcolm Fraser’s own words to make. And this is a very disturbing element in the history is how much pressure Kerr was placed under.

Emeritus Professor Jenny Hocking (19:25):

So, he ruminates repeatedly in his papers. Not just in these letters. Of course, these are for the queen’s viewing, but in his personal papers where he makes private reflections, he goes back over and over again, over single conversations, single episodes, meetings, decisions, et cetera, and it’s clear that those events never left him. And yes, at the end of that, I both felt that I never wanted to go back into his letters again, but also felt intensely sorry for everyone involved. There were no winners in 1975, except probably Malcolm Fraser who came out, of course, with the Prime Ministership, but both Kerr and Whitlam of course were deeply, deeply damaged in different ways by those events.

Ginger Gorman (host) (20:09):

This does bring up a really interesting question about the role of the Archives, and the Archive has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending this case. And in fact, has ended up having to pay your legal costs, which is taxpayer’s money. I guess what I’m asking you is how do you see the Archive’s role in this and how do you see their role in terms of releasing information to the public?

Emeritus Professor Jenny Hocking (20:36):

I think the case has really crystallized some of the concerns academics and researchers, in general, have had about the Archives in recent years. There’s been real challenges to all public collecting institutions because of funding cuts and the Archives has been no different from that. They’ve lost, I think 25% of their staff in the last decade. But there’s been a significant complaint and a consistent one about the delays in accessing records, so I put that as the context to a decision by the Archives to make the sorts of resource decisions and expenditure decisions in contesting this case all the way to the high court. The total cost for the Archives now is probably closer to $2 million we estimate, and that will come out in their own reporting on that. But it’s a really significant sum.

Ginger Gorman (host) (21:34):

Jenny Hocking’s book is The Palace Letters: The Queen, The Governor-General, and the Plot to Dismiss Gough Whitlam, and it’s out now. Seriously Social is a production of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. I’m Ginger Gorman. Next week, the unexpected silver lining in the pandemic. We are commuting less and it’s changing our lives for the better. Thank you again for listening to Seriously Social, and don’t forget, if you like what you are hearing, share our podcast with your friends and on your social channels and rate us wherever you get your podcasts from.

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