Speech on 'Palace letters' between Queen Elizabeth II and Sir John Kerr

Parliament House, Canberra.

Mr DREYFUS (Isaacs—Deputy Manager of Opposition Business) (11:12):  Transparency and probity have not been the hallmarks of the Abbott-Turnbull government, with failures from tax transparency to the refusal to release the Attorney-General's diary, marking the Abbott-Turnbull years like ink blots on a parchment of otherwise inconspicuous and subpar governance. The Attorney-General failing to support the freedom of information laws that he is in fact responsible for overseeing was an unedifying spectacle but one that Australians are now used to seeing under this government. Despite this government's scant regard for transparency, I speak today to call on the Prime Minister to take action to require the National Archives to release the so-called palace letters—the letters between the Queen and the then Governor-General Sir John Kerr regarding the dismissal of the Whitlam government.

It is farcical that some 41 years after the Dismissal the full facts of the event are not known. Indeed, it is a gross disservice to the history of our great country that such a central event in Australian political history has been hidden from the public eye, and the contribution to this debate that we have just heard from the member for Berowra in fact demonstrates the point. He was prepared to engage in yet further speculation and then say, 'I don't know about the events that these letters are concerned with.' The Australian public deserves to know from these letters and from every other document relevant to this matter exactly what occurred.

In 2005, 30 years after the Dismissal, the National Archives of Australia released Sir John Kerr's notes, journals, reflections and letters regarding the Dismissal. These pieces of correspondence revealed, or should I say exposed, the collusion of Sir John Kerr with Malcolm Fraser to dismiss the Whitlam government. We learned a lot from the release of these documents 30 years after they were written, but the palace letters, the central part of the puzzle, remain unreleased.

The reasons that the letters between Sir John Kerr and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth were classified as 'personal' is unclear, to say the least. To my mind, it is a ludicrous suggestion that they should be described as 'personal'. Queen Elizabeth II was and is the monarch of Australia. Sir John Kerr was her representative in Australia. The letters between the two were written entirely because of their respective positions. They were not inviting each other to afternoon tea. The relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Sir John Kerr was a governmental and professional one—one befitting the relationship between the Queen and the Governor-General. If Sir John Kerr had not been the Governor-General, these letters would not have been written. They were written to discuss a matter of governance—namely, whether the Governor-General would dismiss the democratically elected government of Gough Whitlam.

The suppression of the palace letters is a complex affair. As they are still classified as 'personal letters', they are not considered to be Commonwealth records and accordingly do not fall under the Archives Act, meaning that their suppression cannot be challenged through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, as could occur with other records belonging to the Archives, but instead only through the Federal Court.

I acknowledge the work of Professor Jenny Hocking of Monash University, who has launched a legal action against the National Archives for the release of the palace letters. Professor Hocking's action supports the great tradition of transparency in this country, and she is owed a debt of gratitude for her commitment to removing ambiguity and ensuring accuracy of Australian history. The palace letters are a piece of Australian history that is far too important not to be released. Any action to suppress these letters, whether through inaction or through direct opposition, is a hit on the principles of open access and transparency that all governments should support.

I understand that the Prime Minister has proposed a formal approach to the Queen requesting her approval to release our country's own records. We live under a passive monarchy, where the rule of law and the principles of transparency and probity are not run past the monarch for her approval but established in this parliament in which I speak today and upheld in the courts of Australia. This is not a matter of whether you are a republican or a monarchist; it is a matter of the accuracy of one of the most important events in modern Australian history. The position of the Governor-General is one of public interest. Letters between the Queen and her representative, the Governor-General, are by definition governmental and professional and should be treated as such by the Archives Act. I know that the Prime Minister is a keen follower of our national history, and I call on him to support Australia's great egalitarian tradition and take the appropriate steps to ensure that the National Archives release these documents.