An elite boys’ club conspired unconstitutionally to sack an Australian prime minister in ways that secretly involved the Crown — and were it not for the tenacity of one woman decades later, the public would never learn the true story.
Is this what happened in 1975? Given the extraordinary steps taken to suppress letters between the governor-general and the then queen and future king, it’s difficult to draw other conclusions.
These documents would come to be known as the Palace Letters, and the quest for their release has meant difficult and expensive work across many years by an Australian historian, Emeritus Professor Jenny Hocking.
It’s compelling viewing.
The documentary follows Hocking’s journey of loss after loss, culminating in triumph only once her case had reached its final possible forum, the High Court of Australia.
We’re also shown the lengths to which the National Archives of Australia went to suppress some documents that had, in fact, once been freely available because “no one asked” — but the moment someone did ask, access was barred. Hocking tells us she was also warned that her own access to the archives might be revoked.
After the High Court gave the release order on May 29, 2020, the documentary shows the then National Archives director-general reneging on an agreement with Hocking to make a joint statement. Instead — and after a delay of six weeks — he released them with a highly selective presentation of one or two letters of the hundreds released, in what Hocking calls “a textbook case of controlling the narrative”. One media outlet went on to claim falsely that Hocking’s arguments were “completely demolished” by the release of the letters. Hocking herself had only learned of the archives’ media conference from a journalist.
What the letters in fact show is that former governor-general Sir John Kerr was receiving oral and written advice — without the knowledge or consent of the prime minister — from the then High Court judge Sir Anthony Mason, then chief justice and former Liberal Party politician Sir Garfield Barwick, then private secretary to the queen Sir Martin Charteris, and also, from the Prince of Wales himself — today, King Charles — with whom Kerr had met personally and discussed the dismissal just months before.
And surely, given the national outrage and public censure that followed the events of November 1975, Kerr would have been chastened in this behaviour? Astoundingly not: we learn in the documentary that he attempted the very next year to draw on his perceived reserve powers to unseat an Australian prime minister once again — this time, Malcolm Fraser. Only this time, the Palace Letters show that nobody was willing to entertain a correspondence with him on the notion, instead moving quickly to shut it down.
To insist that these letters were private or “personal correspondence”, which had been a chief line of argument against Hocking, beggars belief, as does the prohibition against the letters’ release until the deaths of all relevant protagonists.
Endorsing such protocols is the very definition of privilege. Documents of obvious public interest and democratic value had been suppressed not for 30 years in line with Commonwealth records, and not on any specific legislative or constitutional basis, but simply to protect their authors from dishonour — thus treating the authors as individual men, not as authorised representatives of public institutions responsible to their citizens.
Of the key protagonists, all are now deceased except King Charles and Sir Anthony Mason. Now 98 years old, Mason released a detailed statement in 2012 maintaining he has “always considered that Sir John [Kerr] acted consistently with his duty except in so far as he had a duty to warn the prime minister of his intended action and he did not do so.”
Equally compelling is the documentary’s feminist narrative. Hocking reveals that her mother had been the barrister representing Eddie Mabo. It’s a deeply moving moment as we come to appreciate the national service of both mother and daughter: Barbara Hocking, helping to expose the lie of terra nullius, and then Jenny Hocking, helping to expose the lie of a constitutionally justified dismissal. Each woman’s work has the power to transform our understanding of what legitimates the exercise of power and the rule of law in Australia.
We also see in The Search for the Palace Letters the astute roles of high court judges Virginia Bell and former chief justice Susan Kiefel, who each make valuable and timely interventions during the trial in the High Court.
The contents of the Palace Letters aren’t simply matters of curiosity or “fascination”, as Hocking herself puts it in the documentary. These are matters of the most pressing national interest.
As Australians, we need to look very carefully at the documents and conventions that underpin our democracy.
The visit this November of King Charles will remind all Australians that, in law, we are subjects of the British Crown. While a former Australian citizen is now queen of Denmark by marriage, currently the only way to become Australia’s head of state is to be a member of the United Kingdom’s royal family.
Given parliamentarians and governors-general swear allegiance to the monarch and not to the people, how misguided were Kerr’s actions? Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull tells us in The Search for the Palace Letters that Kerr’s correspondence was “not just irksome but humiliating. He was behaving like a colonial governor, not like the de facto head of state of Australia.” And yet, on his reading of the letter of the constitution, and on the advice that the Palace Letters record, Kerr felt entirely justified in taking that colonial action.
We all owe Hocking a debt of gratitude for persevering with what should never have been one woman’s responsibility to achieve: one of the most significant developments in Australian constitutional history. Watching The Search for the Palace Letters is a necessity for all Australians — and then, read the Palace Letters, and make up your own mind.