Letters that would reveal how much Queen Elizabeth II knew in the lead-up to the dramatic dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975 will remain hidden from the public, a court has ruled.
In a Federal Court judgment on Friday, Justice John Griffiths dismissed a bid for the letters from professor Jenny Hocking, who has been fighting for them on the basis that Australians should have the "full story" of the downfall of former prime minister Gough Whitlam.
Known as the "Palace Letters", the correspondence includes a number of letters and telegrams exchanged between governor-general Sir John Kerr and Buckingham Palace in the mid-1970s.
They were given to the National Archives of Australia in 1978 under the agreement that they would be kept private until at least 2037, and thereafter only released with the consent of the Queen's private secretary and the governor-general's official secretary.
In 1991, the date of possible release was amended to 2027.
In the ruling in Sydney on Friday afternoon, Griffiths said the records related to "one of the most controversial and tumultuous events in the modern history of the nation".
Hocking's case sought to have the letters, which are held as Kerr's personal property, recognised as Commonwealth records and released publicly.
Griffiths ruled that the correspondence was the personal property of Kerr and did not belong to the Commonwealth for a number of reasons, including the language used by Kerr in a letter to the Queen's private secretary Martin Charteris, that suggested he viewed the papers as his personal property.
The letter, Griffiths noted, contained expressions such as "my will", "my papers", "my other papers", "papers which are exclusively mine", "if I were to die" and "I would not wish to leave this correspondence in Government House. Each Governer-General takes with him such material".
"These expressions strongly suggest that Sir John regarded the correspondence to and from the Palace to be his personal property and which were to be dealt with in accordance with his instructions, including by way of testamentary disposition if not disposed of before his death," the decision read.
Griffiths also noted that both the Queen and the Commonwealth had recognised the correspondence as Kerr's private property, and cited past examples of how governors-general dealt with correspondence to the Queen.
Griffiths also concluded that the National Archives had not erred in its decision to deny Hocking access to the letters.
In dismissing the application, Griffiths noted that the parties had agreed no costs order would be made in the event that Hocking was unsuccessful.
The correspondence spans from August 15, 1974 to December 5, 1977 — a time period that includes the events of November 1975, known as The Dismissal, in which Kerr sacked Whitlam as prime minister and installed Malcolm Fraser as caretaker PM in his place, following the Fraser opposition blocking supply to the government.
Fraser immediately called an election and won a majority.
Hocking, a historian who has authored a book about The Dismissal and a biography of Whitlam, described the letters as the "missing piece of the puzzle" of one of the biggest controversies in Australian political history.
"Australians have a right to know their own history and the full story of the
dismissal of the Whitlam government," she said, prior to the judgment on Friday.
Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.
Contact Lane Sainty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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