More than four decades since they were penned, the Palace letters — dubbed the missing link in Australia’s political history — have been released.
And while they may reveal the Queen was unaware of then governor-general Sir John Kerr’s decision to sack the Whitlam government in 1975, they also provide an invaluable insight into some of the more eccentric discussions unfolding during one of the country’s most storied political chapters.
Like, did you know we almost had “super-knights”? Or what about the time Sir John was accused of working for the CIA?
Sir John was a very faithful correspondent — sometimes three piled up at the palace before a reply could be written.
We scoured the archive so you don’t have to. Here’s what you might have missed.
The Prime Minister of NZ ghosted John Kerr
Meeting new people can be a tricky path to navigate.
Sometimes, you hit it off. Other times, you’re the awkward plus-one at a party wondering if you should call mum to come and pick you up.
It’s a quandary Australia’s former governor-general knows all too well, after being met with a “quite different” and “low key” reception by New Zealand’s prime minister in 1975.
Having travelled across the pond, Sir John had been gunning for a bit of face time with Bill Rowling — a feeling, it would seem, that was not mutual.
After attending to the Governor-General’s dinner “very late, just in time to be seated”, Mr Rowling — at least by Sir John’s account — disappeared (“That was the last I saw of him”).
“I was given no explanation and certainly no apology for the absence,” Sir John wrote of his failure to attend the New Zealand Government’s own farewell banquet.
“I was told the Prime Minister would ring to explain. He did ring but simply said he would not be there giving no reason or regrets.
“I found this a little puzzling as I had, at some inconvenience, held a protocol dinner for him and his wife at Government House Canberra during his short visit.”
Mr Rowling’s attitude was put down to “inexperience in handling these matters”.
And while we may never know his side of the story, one can assume it’d go something like: “It’s not you, it’s me”.
Looking a gift horse in the mouth
When it comes to gifts, the Queen is a tricky person to buy for. There’s no milling about, trying to decide if picking up a gift card will look like you’ve phoned it in.
Ahead of her Australian visit, a doubtful Sir John wrote “on a personal basis” to the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, asking about the protocols and suitability about gifting a racehorse to Her Majesty.
“It is of course always appropriate for an attempt to be made to ascertain whether any gift offered to Her Majesty is acceptable,” Sir Martin wrote back to Sir John in 1977, addressing the Australian Government’s intention to gift the Monarch a racehorse.
“This is not so much for reasons of protocol, but in order to be sure that the gift would in fact give pleasure.”
Sir Martin said the news had reached the palace from other sources and the Queen “knows all about it” and is “most interested”.
Next came a very specific list of requirements for the gift (no receipts needed here).
It should be a filly bred for racing in Europe, he wrote: “A number of leading mares should be put to a selected Australia sire and… from the resulting progeny the best should be chosen”.
Sounds difficult? Don’t worry, Lord Porchester — the Queen’s racing manager — has already had a chat to champion trainer Colin Hayes, he continued.
The sire will be called Without Fear and should be “sent to England as a two-year-old”.
“All this sounds extremely satisfactory and I understand that I may expect to receive a definite proposition on these lines to place before The Queen,” Mr Charteris concluded.
If only gift giving was always that easy.
The governor-general of PNG wasn’t having it
Politicians are usually well versed in the language of restraint.
But following one particularly “unwanted and paternalistic” letter, Sir John Guise — Papua New Guinea’s governor-general at the time — decided to buck the trend.
A Tasmanian “supporter” of Sir John Kerr had written to this PNG counterpart, protesting his reported decision to cancel a visit to Australia.
And when it came time to respond, Sir John Guise didn’t mince words (it’s a ripper of a letter, so we’ve included it in full):
Kerr sent the response to Sir Martin on background, he wrote, because it “may be of psychological interest”.
We almost had ‘super-knights’
While knights and dames may have since been dropped from the Australian honours system, with former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull labelling them “anachronistic and out of date”, there was a time when “super-knights” could have become a reality.
A letter from Sir John, penned in 1976, reveals that then prime minister Malcom Fraser wanted to push ahead with the proposal, “which would be an extremely rare award and would recognise extraordinary and pre-eminent achievement and merit”.
Unfortunately for Mr Fraser, Sir Garfield Barwick — then the Chief Justice of Australia — poured cold water on the idea, expressing concerns that “such ‘super-knights’ would be very hard to find”.
“As Sir Garfield says it will be hard for the Council of the Order to find persons worth of this honour,” Sir John wrote.
“Knowing him and his Council, the prospect of there being two for each year would, I think, be very slim.”
And so, the plan never saw the “knight” of day.
Prince Charles wasn’t allowed to become Governor-General
“When are you getting married?” mum bellows across the dinner table.
It’s one of those awkward rites of passages that comes with entering your late 20s.
And while it may be the bane of every family Christmas, it’s probably never prevented you from getting a job.
Unless, of course, you’re Prince Charles.
A letter from Sir Martin, dated 1976 — when the Prince was about 28 years old — reveals she wasn’t too keen on the prospect of her son becoming Governor-General of Australia “until such time as he has a settled married life”.
As it turns out, Malcom Fraser saw the eventual appointment of Prince Charles as a “desirable end”. But according to Sir Martin, the proposal wasn’t so well received by everyone.
“I think the point we must all bear in mind is that I do not believe The Queen would look with favour on Prince Charles becoming Governor-General of Australia until such time as he has a settled married life,” he wrote to Sir John.
“No one will know better than you how important it is for a Governor-General to have a lady by his side for the performance of his duties.”
The prospect of Prince Charles receiving the top job, he wrote, therefore “must remain in the unforeseeable future”.
It’s probably not going to go down in the history books as the party to rival Corey Worthington’s, but the Queen’s 50th birthday bash wasn’t as tame as you may have thought.
In 1976 letter thanking Sir John for his “good wishes”, Sir Martin revealed the Monarch is actually a bit of a night owl.
“The Queen is most grateful to you both for your persona message of good wishes on her birthday,” he wrote, “which was celebrated at Windsor by a memorable dance on 20th April with the appropriate playing of ‘happy birthday’ as mid-night struck.”
Sir John didn’t work for the CIA
Who among us hasn’t been forced to write to our boss to reassure them we don’t work for the CIA?
It was a predicament Sir John found himself in following the dismissal of Gough Whitlam.
In a letter to Buckingham Palace dated February, 1976, the governor-general quashed reports he was operating as a CIA agent — and had CIA associations — as “nonsense of course”.
“Would you please assure Her Majesty of my continued loyalty and humble duty,” he wrote.
Tasmania is left out (again)
For reasons unknown, Sir Stanley Burbury, the former governor of Tasmania, really wanted to wear a uniform.
“I have had another letter from Sir Stanley,” Kerr wrote.
“He has asked me if I can do anything by writing to the Palace.”
It is not known if his dream ever eventuated.