“Palace letters” point to the plotting behind the 1975 constitutional coup in Australia


Mass protest against dismissal of Whitlam government, Sydney November 24, 1975

Further light has been shed this week on the constitutional coup involving the dismissal of the Labor government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on November 11, 1975 and the acute political crisis leading up to it.

Tuesday saw the long-blocked release of the intensive correspondence between the British Queen’s Palace and the man who executed the coup, Governor-General Sir John Kerr. The letters revealed how closely Kerr conspired with the monarch and her top-level advisers in the British ruling establishment in implementing Whitlam’s removal.

Kerr was a US-connected ex-intelligence officer and judge, whom Whitlam himself had appointed as governor-general in July 1974. Kerr served as the instrument for the government’s removal precisely because the 1901 Australian Constitution preserves the “reserve powers” of the British monarchy, via the governor-general, to dismiss a government.

But Whitlam’s removal did not originate with Kerr, nor with the Palace. To understand the significance of their letters the events must be placed in their historic context.

The “Canberra Coup” was part of the response in the ruling class internationally to the global upsurge of the working class and potentially revolutionary struggles that erupted with May–June 1968 general strike in France. That was followed by the “Hot Autumn” in Italy in 1969, a general strike in Australia in May 1969, a wave of struggles in Britain, culminating in the bringing down of the Heath government in 1974, the downfall of the Nixon administration in the US in 1974 and the final defeat of the American military in Vietnam in 1975, and the ousting of dictatorships in Portugal, Greece and Spain in the period 1974–76.

Whitlam’s government was ousted because it had failed to stem the powerful movement of the working class that had brought the Labor Party to office in 1972, after 23 years of conservative party government, and because of related concerns in Washington over Labor’s ability to stem the popular opposition to the US military alliance, triggered by the horrors of the Vietnam War, and the presence of the key US satellite spy base at Pine Gap in central Australia.

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