Queen would have been in 'impossible' position over sacking of Australian PM, letters show

Rebecca Taylor
·Royal Correspondent
·5 min read
5th April 1977:  Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General of Australia, escorts Queen Elizabeth II to her aircraft at Perth Airport, following her Jubilee Tour of the country.  (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Sir John Kerr did not tell the Queen about his decision. (Getty Images)

The Queen was not told about one of the most controversial sackings of a prime minister in Australia because it would have put her in an ‘impossible’ position, letters reveal.

Gough Whitlam was removed as PM in 1975 by her governor-general, Sir John Kerr – the Queen’s representative – because he had failed to pass a budget and then did not resign or call an election.

The decision to remove him has been the subject of speculation ever since, particularly how much the Queen knew before his dismissal.

Letters have now been released by the National Archives of Australia following legal proceedings, as a court had previously deemed them “personal and confidential correspondence”, and said they should remain in the archives until 2027.

In one, Sir John told Sir Martin Charteris, the Queen’s private secretary that he had taken unilateral action against Whitlam without talking to the Queen about it.

He wrote: “I should say 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 it was better for Her Majesty not to know in advance, though it is of course my duty to tell her immediately.”

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 11: (EUROPE AND AUSTRALASIA OUT) Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam faces the media on the steps of Parliament House in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory following the dismissal of his government by Governor-General Sir John Kerr. (Photo by Graeme Thomson/Newspix/Getty Images)
Gough Whitlam faces the media on the steps of Parliament House in Canberra after he was dismissed in 1975. (Getty Images)

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In a letter dated 20 November 1975, a week after the crisis, Sir John says Whitlam told him the crisis could become a “race to the Palace” and that Sir John “simply could not risk the outcome for the sake of the monarchy”.

He said: “If, in the period of say 24 hours, during which he (Mr Whitlam) was considering his position, he advised the Queen in the strongest of terms that I should be immediately dismissed, the position would then have been that either I would, in fact, be trying to dismiss him while he was trying to dismiss me — an impossible position for the Queen.”

The archived letters show Sir Martin and Sir John were in regular communication, with Sir Martin assuring Sir John on 17 November 1975 that the Queen had read the letter “with close attention” and promising confidentiality.

Sir Martin also reassured Sir John his actions couldn’t easily be challenged from a constitutional point of view, adding: “I have no doubt Mr Whitlam will try to make the constitutional issue the heart and soul of his campaign but as an extremely shrewd politician who does not live very far away from this house said to me on the 11th of November ‘It is never possible to fight an election on one issue’.”

Sir Martin said Whitlam had called him on the day of his dismissal, writing: “He spoke calmly and did not ask me to any approach to the Queen, or indeed to do anything other than the suggestion that I should speak to you to find out what was going on.”

The private secretary said Sir John’s decision showed “admirable consideration” for the Queen and her position.

He wrote: “If I may say so with the greatest respect, I believe that in NOT informing the Queen what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with perfect constitutional propriety but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position.”

However the release of the letters has not done enough to exonerate the Queen for everybody.

(AUSTRALIA OUT) Former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam before delivering the keynote speech at the Whitehorse Business Week Breakfast at the Box Hill Town Hall, Melbourne, Victoria, 19 October 2004. THE AGE Picture by ANDREW DE LA RUE (Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Gough Whitlam failed to pass a budget and then neither resigned nor called an election. (Getty Images)

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Graham Smith, speaking for Republic, which campaigns to end the monarchy, said: “We're told the Queen's main role is to advise and warn her prime minister, yet she took no action to warn Gough Whitlam that his governor general was considering such drastic action.

“Whitlam still had the confidence of the house, he had recently been re-elected, yet the governor general thought he could overrule the people and the constitution and dismiss the PM.

“Kerr wrote to the Queen on many occasions and made it clear what he was thinking of doing. The Queen fully engaged with that discussion and made no attempt to warn or advise Whitlam.

“The Queen should be making a statement this morning, explaining her actions and apologising to the Australian people.

“I have no doubt Australians will be looking at these letters and wondering why they have put up with the monarchy for so long. I hope they now lead the way in moving to a republic.”

MARTIN CHARTERIS 1951: Carrying a ten gallon hat as a souvenir of his visit, Major the Hon. Martin Charteris, Princess Elizabeth's Private Secretary, arrives at London Airport from Montreal, Canada, via New York.   (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
Martin Charteris, was the Queen's private secretary, for many years. (PA Images)

A Buckingham Palace spokeswoman said about the dismissal of Australia’s prime minister in 1975 by the governor-general: “At Her Majesty’s Coronation on 2 June 1953, the Queen swore an oath to govern the Peoples of Australia ‘according to their respective laws and customs’.

“Throughout her reign, Her Majesty has consistently demonstrated this support for Australia, the primacy of the Australian constitution and the independence of the Australian people, which the release of these letters reflects.

“While the Royal Household believes in the longstanding convention that all conversations between prime ministers, governor-generals and the Queen are private, the release of the letters by the National Archives Australia confirms that neither Her Majesty nor the royal household had any part to play in (Sir John) Kerr’s decision to dismiss (Gough) Whitlam.”

After he was sacked in 1975, Whitlam stood on the steps of Australia’s parliament and said: “Well may we say ‘God save the Queen’ – because nothing will save the governor general.”

Sir John cut short his five-year period as governor general and moved back to the UK.

The Queen is not involved in the day-to-day running of the government in Australia but as a constitutional monarch, is sovereign and plays a symbolic role.

She is Queen of Australia and acts as such in her activities there. Her governor-general is her representative there, and is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Australian prime minister.

He or she acts independently of the British government.