At the centre of it all are the Palace Letters — a trove of 212 items of correspondence between Kerr and the Queen’s representatives, mainly Sir Martin Charteris, then the Queen’s principal private secretary.
The letters, written before and after what has been known for decades as the Dismissal, sat for four decades in the National Archives, deemed “personal” and therefore secret.
After years of argument and legal action by Hocking — who considered it outrageous that documents central to the greatest constitutional crisis in Australia’s history should be kept from the eyes of the public — the High Court early this year ordered that the letters be released.
Most observers thought the unveiling would finally settle old debates.
After all, here were thousands of actual words on paper that flew back and forth between Yarralumla and Buckingham Palace from 1974 to 1977. They can be read by anyone here.
Instead, the contents of the letters inflamed historical passions. Hocking and Kelly/Bramston have now rushed out competing books, each of which analyses the meaning of the letters.
Their conclusions are diametrically opposed.
Central to Hocking’s analysis is that Kerr’s extensive correspondence with Charteris revealed clearly that the governor-general was considering sacking Whitlam, yet the Palace — and thus, the Queen — did nothing to dissuade him nor to warn Whitlam.
Only seven days before the Dismissal occurred, Charteris reassured Kerr that a governor-general’s disputed “reserve powers” — one of which is assumed to allow for the dismissal of a prime minister — did indeed exist.
“The Queen knew from September 1975 that Kerr was considering dismissing the government, that he was remaining ‘silent’ to the prime minister, that he was prepared to act against his constitutional advisers,” Hocking writes.
“Starkly absent from the discussions [between the Palace and Kerr] was any consideration of Kerr’s cardinal duty, to speak to his elected ministers and to ask that most fundamental question, ‘What does the prime minister say?’.”
Kelly and Bramston, however, contend that the last letter written by Kerr to the Palace before the Dismissal had kept his intention secret. It ended with the words “an important decision one way or the other may have to be made by me this month”.
Furthermore, a letter written by Kerr on the day of the Dismissal, November 11, 1975, pleads: “I should say that 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 that it was better for Her Majesty not to know in advance.”
Both sides have drawn a former Australian prime minister into the fray, each of them famously republican.
Malcolm Turnbull, once leader of the Australian Republican Movement, and Paul Keating, who has written that he told the Queen at Balmoral Castle in 1993 that the monarchy was an anachronism, have penned competing forewords to the new books.
Turnbull supports Hocking’s position, writing that Kerr “made it very clear to Charteris that he was contemplating dismissing Whitlam and Charteris did nothing to discourage him”.
Keating, who became fond of the Queen during their meetings in the 1990s, is on the side of Kelly and Bramston, declaring he did not believe she had contemplated using the governor-general to get rid of the Whitlam government or that she was in any way culpable for the events of 1975.
There is, of course, history within the combat, both old and new.
Hocking and Kelly/Bramston have previously written extensively on the Dismissal, competing for the title of definitive historians of that period.
In 2017, Hocking published The Dismissal Dossier, the thrust of which is summed up in its subtitle, “The Palace Connection: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know about November 1975”.
The Palace was thus in Hocking’s frame, based on material she had unearthed in the British Archives, well before Australia’s Palace Letters were made public.
Soon after, in 2018, Kelly and Bramston published their shot across Hocking’s bows, The Dismissal: A Groundbreaking New History.
Their version, relying partly on Kerr’s own diaries, dismissed Hocking’s conclusion about the compliance of Buckingham Palace.
If those books bore competitive titles, the latest take political history writing to a new level of hostility.
Hocking’s book is called The Palace Letters. Kelly and Bramston’s offering is The Truth of the Palace Letters.
In their new book, Kelly and Bramston write: “The 2020 release of the Palace Letters is probably the last stage in the documentary story of Australia’s greatest political crisis. Its value is to reveal to the public the way the Governor-General and the Palace related to each other during the trauma.
“As the authors have argued, the Palace Letters further confirm there was a conspiracy to remove Gough Whitlam – but the revisionists have got it wrong. The conspiracy was located in Government House, not Buckingham Palace.”
Consensus seems unlikely to come soon.
Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.