Representatives of the British government flew to Australia in the lead-up to the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government to meet with the then governor-general, casting further doubt on the accepted narrative that London officials did not play an active role in Australia’s most significant constitutional crisis.
Historian Jenny Hocking discovered files in the British archives showing Sir Michael Palliser, the newly appointed permanent under-secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, arrived in Canberra a month before the dismissal and held a joint meeting with Sir John Kerr and the British High Commissioner, Sir Morrice James, just as the Senate was blocking supply.
Sir Michael later reported back to London that Sir John “could be relied upon”.
“What is in those files is, to my mind, volcanic,” Professor Hocking, a research professor with the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University, told Fairfax Media.
“These are extraordinary materials indicating that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British High Commission are in discussion about the possibility of interfering in domestic Australian politics, specifically in the half Senate election, in the lead-up to November 1975.”
Although there is no detailed report on the meeting nor any correspondence relating to it, there is a draft itinerary to show this “planned contact between the head of the Foreign Commonwealth Office and the Queen’s representative in Australia on such a significant date in our political history,” Professor Hocking said.
Immediately after the meeting Sir John Kerr cancelled a planned international trip to remain in Australia.
Professor Hocking believes the Queen knew what might happen to the government well before it happened – unlike Whitlam, who was caught completely off-guard by the actions of November 11, 1975.
Although Sir John’s role in updating the Queen and the British government about the events is well known, what remains unclear is how active government and royal players in London were in trying to prevent the 1975 half Senate election from being called.
“Kerr met with the British High Commission within days of the dismissal and communicated to him had dismissed the government in order to protect the Queen’s position. That should have no place in the governor-general’s thinking,” Professor Hocking said ahead of Wednesday’s release of a new edition of her book, The Dismissal Dossier, which contains the revelation of the meeting pointing to Britain’s involvement in the dismissal.
“Prior to 1986 and the passage of the Australia Act there was a perception that the Australian states were in a quasi colonial relationship in which Britain could exercise its own interests. It acted to protect those interests in approaching the government-general. It’s an extraordinary development.”
Professor Hocking is also waiting for a Federal Court judgement on her application to have access to what are known as the ‘Palace letters’, the correspondence between Sir John Kerr and Buckingham Palace which she believes will – finally – reveal just what the Palace knew of Sir John’s intentions in the lead-up to the dismissal.
The letters are held by the National Archives of Australia which has deemed them “personal” – rather than official – correspondence that will not be released until 2027. They may never be released if Buckingham Palace decides to exercise its power of veto over their release.
Professor Hocking says a joint Australian-British inquiry into the events leading up to the dismissal, which remains Australia’s greatest constitutional crisis, is needed.
“We need to know what happened at this key time in our history but we also need to look forward to the implications of this for the way we might construct the powers of a head of state when we become a republic,” Professor Hocking said.
Next month marks the 42nd anniversary of the dismissal.
Further evidence of Queen’s involvement in the 1975 dismissal uncovered.
Published by Sydney Morning Herald, O