Australian court rules queen’s letters can be made public

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CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Australia’s highest court ruled on Friday to make public letters between Queen Elizabeth II and her representative that would reveal what knowledge she had, if any, of the dismissal of an Australian government in 1975.

The High Court’s 6-1 majority decision in historian Jenny Hocking’s appeal overturned lower court rulings that more than 200 letters between the monarch of Britain and Australia and Governor-General Sir John Kerr before he dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s government were personal and might never be made public.

The only-ever dismissal of an elected Australian government on the authority of a British monarch created a crisis that spurred many to call for Australia to sever its constitutional ties with Britain and create a republic with an Australian president. Suspicions of a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency conspiracy persist.

Hocking, a Monash University academic and Whitlam biographer, said she expected to read the 211 letters at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra next week when a coronavirus lockdown is lifted.

She described as absurd that communications between such key officials in the Australian system of government could be regarded as personal and confidential.

“That they could be seen as personal is quite frankly an insult to all our intelligence collectively -– they’re not talking about the racing and the corgis,” Hocking told The AP, referring to the queen’s interest in horse racing and the dog breed.

“It was not only the fact that they were described quite bizarrely as personal, but also that they were under an embargo set at the whim of the queen,” she added.

The archives said it would release a statement on the court finding later on Friday.

Kerr dismissed Whitlam’s government and replaced him with opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as prime minister to resolve a month-old deadlock in Parliament. Fraser’s coalition won an election weeks later.

The archives had held the correspondence, known as the Palace Letters, since 1978. As state records, they should have been made public 31 years after they were created.

Under an agreement struck between Buckingham Palace and Government House, the governor-general’s official residence, months before Kerr resigned in 1978, the letters covering three tumultuous years of Australian politics were to remain secret until 2027. The private secretaries of both the sovereign and the governor-general in 2027 still could veto their release indefinitely under that agreement.

A Federal Court judge accepted the archives’ argument that the letters were personal and confidential.

An appeals court upheld that ruling in a 2-1 decision.

The archives’ lawyers argued the records were created with the “strong conception” that their character was private, and they were received by the archives under those conditions.

The convention across British Commonwealth nations is that communications between the queen and her representatives are personal, private and not accessible by the executive government, they argued.

Buckingham Palace and Government House have previously declined The AP’s requests for comment on the case and did not immediately respond to renewed requests on Friday.

Hocking has been fighting since 2016 to access the letters written by Kerr to the queen through her then private secretary Martin Charteris.

“I’m absolutely delighted by the decision,” she said. “We can’t possibly know our history and write the complete and accurate history if we don’t have access to the original documents that reveal it to us.”

The British royal family is renowned for being protective of their privacy and keeping conversations confidential.

The family went to considerable lengths to conceal letters written by the queen’s son and heir, Prince Charles, in a comparable case in Britain that was fought through the courts for five years.

Britain’s Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that 27 memos written by Charles to British government ministers could be made public despite objections that their publication might damage public perceptions of the future king’s political neutrality.

Years of dogged research by journalists and historians have pieced together answers to many of the questions surrounding how and why Whitlam’s government was dismissed and who was behind it.

Kerr, who died in 1991, rejected in his memoirs media speculation that the CIA ordered Whitlam’s dismissal over fears that his government would close the top secret U.S. intelligence facility that still exists at Pine Gap in the Australian Outback.

In the 1985 Hollywood spy drama “The Falcon and the Snowman,” a CIA plot to oust Whitlam motivated a disillusioned civilian defense contractor played by Sean Penn to sell U.S. security secrets to the Soviet Union.

FILE – In this Nov. 7, 2005, file photo, former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam holds up the original copy of his dismissal letter he received from then Governor-General Sir John Kerr on Nov. 11, 1975, at a book launch in Sydney, Australia. The High Court’s majority decision in historian Jenny Hocking’s appeal on Friday, May 29, 2020 overturned lower court rulings that more than 200 letters between the monarch of Britain and Australia and Governor-General Sir John Kerr before he dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s government were personal and might never be made public. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)
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