Australian court orders release of Queen's letters over PM sacking

Sydney (AFP) –


Australia's top court has ordered the release of Queen Elizabeth II's correspondence about the 1975 sacking of democratically elected prime minister Gough Whitlam, which palace allies had battled to keep secret.

The country's High Court said letters between the British monarch and her Australian representative, governor-general John Kerr, over the affair were public record.

Kerr sacked Whitlam, the popular leader of the centre-left Labor party, three years after his election -- causing a deep constitutional crisis that still scars Australian politics.

The reasons for his dismissal are still fiercely argued, with allegations of British and even American efforts to smother Whitlam's reformist agenda.

The queen's representatives had argued the correspondence -- held in the Australian national archive -- was private and had successfully kept them secret for decades.

But that argument was rejected by a majority of the court, which ruled Friday the letters were the "property of the Commonwealth or of a Commonwealth institution" and so part of the public record.

It was not immediately clear when access to the letters might be granted.

But the letters could help show if the British government tried to influence events in its former colony and what role the queen, Prince Charles and top royal advisers may have played.

Local historian and Whitlam biographer Jennifer Hocking took the case to court arguing that the texts were "extraordinarily significant historical documents" and needed to be accessed.

"They are contemporaneous real-time communications between the queen and her representative in Australia, written at a time of great political drama, and are a vital part of our national historical record," she wrote at the start of the case.

"As an independent autonomous nation, Australia has a right to know its own history, including and in particular the records pointing to British involvement in that history."

Hocking was represented by a legal team that included Whitlam's oldest son.

Whitlam -- who died in 2014 -- is still hailed as a champion of Australia's left.

He had opposed Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, sought to assert Australia's sovereignty and end what he called "colonial relics" of the relationship with Britain.

He ended conscription, established the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, tried to normalise relations with China, set up a free public health service, made university free and replaced "God Save the Queen" with Australia's national anthem.

His detractors accuse him of destabilising the economy.

Kerr fired him without warning on 11 November 1975 after protracted political fighting and parliamentary machinations that weakened Whitlam's government.

Kerr then appointed opposition Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser as interim prime minister, without a confidence vote being held in parliament.

Fraser went on to win a landslide election victory later that year.

Australia became independent in 1901, but the queen is still head of state. A referendum on becoming a republic failed in 1999.