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Australia's History Should Be a Public History

Senator Jenny McAllister

Photo Credit: National Library of Australia

Freedom of Information applications don’t ordinarily receive national news coverage, but there is nothing ordinary about Professor Jenny Hocking’s fight to access the Palace Papers. She has spent close to a decade battling the crown, the Attorney General and the National Archives, and ordinary Australians have been emotionally invested in the outcome. It’s difficult to think of another set of documents or another event that would receive such attention. It speaks to significance of the dismissal to individuals and to our national psyche.

In a recent discussion with party members which I hosted, Hocking told us that her passion for Australia’s history was awoken at university, when she became enthralled by the drama of Whitlam’s dismissal. In no small part, the secrecy surrounding these events piqued her curiosity, and raised the broader question, “Is Australia’s history really public?”

Hocking subsequently penned a two volume biography of Gough Whitlam, and a biography of Lionel Murphy – both of which have provided insight, consolation, encouragement and inspiration to me at various points in my political life – along with not a few cautions. As Hocking reminded us last night, Gough understood that “the way of the reformer is hard in Australia”.

So is the way of the historian.

In 2016, Hocking launched a federal court action against the National Archives of Australia to have the letters between Sir John Kerr and the Palace released. Attorney General Christian Porter joined the defence against Hocking, arguing for the continued concealment of the documents.

Finally, in June the High Court ruled in favour of Hocking, and the National Archives were instructed to release the palace letters.

The letters reveal that while the Governor General did not inform the Palace before dismissing Whitlam, the Queen’s private secretary Sir Martin Charteris did advise the Governor General on the constitutionality of dismissing the Australian Prime Minister.

Hocking explains that we should be interested in both the volume and the content of their correspondence.

The quantum is significant; 116 letters from the Governor General to the Queen via her Private Secretary, then 95 letters from the Palace in reply, significantly more than is commonly exchanged.

While Hocking is yet to conclude her analysis of the letters, she considers the content is concerning - at best, injudicious, at worst, improper. The letters do not suggest an appropriate regard for the Governor General’s obligation to take advice from the elected Prime Minister. And in engaging in extended discussion about the use of the reserve powers, the essential obligation of the monarchy to remain apolitical was not entirely observed.

In the words of Professor Hocking, these letters “test the bounds of our democratic structures so profoundly - and they challenge them.”

For constitutional monarchists and republicans alike, there are lessons here about our democratic institutions, and the practices, habits and laws necessary to protect them.

However without Hocking’s efforts, these lessons may well have remained hidden. The decades of secrecy that has surrounded the 1975 Dismissal exemplifies how not to treat our country’s history.

Hocking argues that a key way to ensure this doesn’t happen again is to ensure that the National Archives, universities and historical institutions are properly funded to conduct research into Australia’s history.

In the end, the historians task is to understand the past, and in so doing to help us to understand our present.

It can’t be done in secret.

Australia’s history should always be a public history.

This article draws on a public conversation between myself, party members, and Professor Jenny Hocking on July 30.

Jenny McAllister is a Labor Senator representating NSW in the Australian Senate. Facebook Twitter


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