An Australian court has ruled that correspondence between Queen Elizabeth and her representative in the country during the lead up to the dismissal of a former prime minister can be made public.
Historian Professor Jenny Hocking has fought for a decade for access to the letters, her legal battle with the National Archives of Australia (NAA) costing millions of dollars.
Prof Hockings said the decision by the court ends “decades of residual British control over Australian archive material, kept from us in the name of the Queen through the exercise of an alleged Royal veto”.
The cache of 211 letters were sealed in the NAA and the Federal Court previously accepted the Archives’ argument they were “private and personal”. They were intended to remain private until at least December 2027 and the Queen held the final veto over their release, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
The correspondence preceded governor-general John Kerr’s dismissal of Labour prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1975, who was replaced by opposition leader Malcolm Fraser. The decision was one of the most controversial moments in Australia’s political history.
Mr Whitlam famously said on the steps of Parliament House in Canberra after he was sacked: “Well may we say ‘God save the Queen’ – because nothing will save the governor-general.”
Sir John went later cut short his five-year term as governor-general short and resigned in December 1977. He eventually moved to London.
The High Court ruled on Friday the letters were Commonwealth records, not personal, which compels the NAA to reconsider Prof Hocking’s request for access.
The NAA has also been ordered to pay the historian’s legal costs, including Federal Court hearings and her appeal last February, which was dismissed.
In a statement released on Friday, NAA director-general David Fricker said: “We accept the High Court’s judgement and will now get to work examining these historically significant records for release under the provisions of the Archives Act 1983.
“The National Archives is a pro-disclosure organisation. We operate on the basis that a Commonwealth record should be made publicly available, unless there is a specific and compelling need to withhold it. We work extremely hard to do this for the Australian people.”
Prof Hocking told the Guardian that as the NAA had had over a decade to prepare for this moment, she “expect[s] them to be ready and waiting for me by next week”.
Shadow attorney general Mark Dreyfus and shadow assistant minister for the republic, Matt Thistlethwaite, called on the archives to immediately release the documents.
In a statement, they said: “The Australian people have a right to know the full history of the greatest political and constitutional crisis in Australia’s history.
“All 211 of the so-called ‘palace letters’ between the Queen, her private secretary and the then-governor general should be made accessible to the Australian people immediately.”
Additional reporting by agencies