- The Truth of the Palace Letters, by Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston. Melbourne University Press, $29.99.
On the 11th of November, 1975 the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, removed the sitting Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, without the warning that convention obliged. It has been called an ambush and a coup; the Constitutional crisis of our history.
The high-profile secrecy which has shrouded that fracture in Australian democracy, gradually diminishing over the past 50 years, has inflamed the national imagination. The highest heights of legal and political thought seem to shed their wigs for tinfoil hats and search deeply in the inscrutable face of the issue, finding ghosts in its tell-nothing features and the shadows they cast. It would be silly, if it weren't so constitutionally serious.
Now, near 50 years on, 211 correspondence letters between Kerr and the Palace have been released. Drawing on these 'Palace letters', Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston, authors of The Truth of the Palace Letters: Deceit, Ambush and Dismissal in 1975, present an account which they hope will "shut the book" on the Whitlam dismissal: placing Kerr, acting rogue, as centrally culpable.
The release of the Palace letters concluded four years of litigation by Australian academic, Professor Jenny Hocking. Her book, The Palace Letters: The Queen, the Governor-General, and the Plot to Dismiss Gough Whitlam, also published last month, continues to argue her influential view: that the British Monarchy were actively complicit in the dismissal. These two accounts stand in opposition to each other. Hocking's foreword by Malcolm Turnbull is matched by Kelly and Bramston's by Paul Keating.
Having dealt briefly with the question of CIA involvement in their introduction, Kelly and Bramston are largely concerned with engaging Hocking's position; pointing to Kerr, and no one above, below, beside, or in the bushes behind him. Grander conspiracies, the authors say, "display a lack of national maturity" which struggles to conceive of a "homegrown conspiracy"; "our own failures".
The authors' criticisms of Hocking are strong; often emphatic to the point of venomous, and reveal the fierce rivalry between these two republican positions.
While each chapter of The Truth of the Palace Letters focuses on different aspects of the crisis, the telling has an appealing narrative tempo, which follows generally chronologically. The nuance of the crisis is alive in its pages: the decisions and the gambles, the forces of personality; above all Kelly and Bramston underscore the distortion of Australian constitutional and legal conventions which stains the records of so many senior figures - from justices, to party leaders, to senators, to the Governor-General himself. The shadows cast on the high-profile players highlights the vulnerability of constitutional conventions to a lack of non-partisan integrity (America, take notes).
The Truth of the Palace Letters' penmanship is clear, authoritative, and snappy. It is concisely curated from a multitude of sources, including the works of Professor Anne Twomey, one of Australia's foremost experts in public and constitutional law, and interviews with four Governor-Generals, two Prime Ministers, and two modern opposition leaders.
The book's argument appears in its most academic clarity in the final chapter, but the entire text strives for a legal nuance which can deflate its competitor theories. When you don't know the precedence' say the authors, quoting Twomey, "everything appears to be unprecedented".
Sometimes you do really think the authors have it in for Kerr, as they connect their strong criticisms of his professional conduct with his personal traits and foibles. It is Kerr's deception, and his political action in an apolitical, unelected role that hardens the authors against him. Still, for their intimacy with the man, the letters and this book cannot help but contain a degree of sympathy for the dilemma, imagined or otherwise, that Kerr put himself in. Though, the authors maintain, "in reality there was always another course - warning Whitlam, the conventional response of the sovereign".
The worldliness of the authors' explanation - shaved by an Ocham's razor almost bald of its fantasticism - does not detract from its Machiavelli-meets-Shakespeare spectacle, and does nothing, in the eyes of the authors, to diminish its significance to Australia.
It is the critical comment of this book that the Whitlam dismissal was an "Australian project", and that acknowledging that is a part of the consolidation of a mature national identity.
The authors' hope that their account might dot the sentence on the Whitlam dismissal however, seems ill-fated.
If the sort of words Hocking is sure to offer in reply are any indication, the dismissal, perhaps as it should, will inspire the Australian imagination for years to come.