The Queen was not told in advance about the controversial sacking of Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, newly released letters reveal.
Removing Mr Whitlam from office in 1975 was one of the most contentious moments of Australian political history and raised huge questions about Australian independence from Britain.
It is the only time to date that an Australian democratically-elected government has been dismissed on the British monarch’s authority and has been subject of intense scrutiny ever since.
After an Australian High Court ruling, royal papers have finally been released that shed further light on the decision.
One of the letters, from then governor-general Sir John Kerr – Her Majesty’s representative in Australia – is addressed to her private secretary Sir Martin Charteris in London.
It shows Sir John decided to get rid of Mr Whitlam without seeking the Queen‘s consent.
He wrote: “I should say 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 it was better for Her Majesty not to know in advance, though it is of course my duty to tell her immediately.”
The correspondence also reveals Sir John acted out of fear of his own dismissal and the position the situation would put the Queen in.
Appearing to agree that Sir John’s actions were constitutional, Sir Martin replied that the dismissal “cannot easily be challenged from a constitutional point of view however much the politicians will, of course, rage”.
Mr Whitlam was sacked and replaced by opposition leader Malcolm Fraser in November 1975.
At the time, Australia had reached a constitutional crisis after the Senate refused to pass a budget unless an election was held.
Mr Whitlam’s Labour government refused and after three weeks of political stalemate, Sir John made the decision on behalf of the Queen to install Mr Fraser’s Liberal Party as a caretaker government.
The newly-sacked leader made a famous speech on the steps of Parliament House in Canberra, saying: “Well may we say ‘God save the Queen’ – because nothing will save the governor-general.”
Mr Whitlam’s sacking triggered a political crisis that spurred many to call for Australia to sever its constitutional ties with Britain and create a republic with an Australian president.
But Sydney University constitutional law expert Professor Anne Twomey said the letters undermined the theory that Mr Whitlam had been brought down by the Royal Family.
She said the letters show that Mr Whitlam had sought British intervention to keep him in power.
“The only smoking gun is Whitlam himself trying to get reinstated,” Prof Twomey said.
The newly-released letters show the Queen’s private secretary said Mr Whitlam rang him at 4.15am on the day of his dismissal.
Sir Martin said Mr Whitlam “spoke calmly and did not ask me to any approach to the Queen, or indeed to do anything other than the suggestion that I should speak to you to find out what was going on”.
He added that Sir John had shown “admirable consideration” for the Queen by not informing her beforehand but admitted “there have been some who have questioned what you have done”.
Sir Martin said: “If I may say so with the greatest respect, I believe that in NOT informing the Queen what you intended to do before doing it, you acted not only with perfect constitutional propriety but also with admirable consideration for Her Majesty’s position.”
Sir Martin went on to suggest that if Mr Whitlam later returned to power he should be “extremely grateful” to the governor-general for what he did.
The private secretary concluded his letter by saying the Queen sent her best wishes to Sir John “in this difficult time”.
The letters have been released by the National Archives of Australia.
It followed a ruling by the Australian High Court which overturned an earlier decision that deemed the correspondence “personal” and not state records.