Whitlam dismissal 'palace letters' case wins right to be heard by high court

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Court to hear case launched by historian Jenny Hocking to force release of letters between the Queen and Sir John Kerr

Jenny Hocking
High court to hear ‘palace letters’ case launched by Jenny Hocking over royal letters about Australian PM Gough Whitlam’s dismissal. Photograph: Peter Rae/AAP

A battle to release sensitive royal correspondence about the dismissal of the Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam will make its way to Australia’s highest court.

The high court on Friday agreed to hear a case launched by the academic and historian Jenny Hocking, aimed at forcing Australia’s national archives to release the letters, extending a legal fight that began in 2016.

The so-called “palace letters” are a series of exchanges between the Queen, her private secretary, and the governor general, Sir John Kerr, in the lead-up to the 1975 dismissal of Whitlam.

The documents are held by the National Archives of Australia (NAA), and have been embargoed from public release by the Queen, potentially indefinitely. The NAA has argued they are “personal” communications between the Queen and the governor general, and are therefore exempt from the usual provisions that open up official records to public release after 30 years.

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The finding that letters between the Queen and her official representative could be “personal” has outraged some. The Labor MP Julian Hill described it as a notion that “offends all concepts of transparency and democracy”.

Hocking has said it simply does not pass the pub test.

“It is difficult to reconcile the label ‘personal’ for any letters between the governor general and the Queen, two positions at the apex of our system of constitutional monarchy, let alone those written at a time of intense political upheaval and regarding the dismissal of a prime minister and his elected government,” she wrote in November.

The federal court has already found against Hocking. Last year, the federal court justice John Griffiths ruled the letters should remain secret, despite recognising their clear public interest.

“The legal issues … do not turn on whether there is a public interest in the records being published,” he ruled.

An appeal to the federal court’s full bench was subsequently rejected, and Hocking turned to the high court, which on Friday gave her special leave to appeal.