11 November 2020
TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION AND TRAINING
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY
BOOK LAUNCH - THE TRUTH OF THE PALACE LETTERS BY PAUL KELLY AND TROY BRAMSTON
OLD PARLIAMENT HOUSE
WEDNESDAY, 11 NOVEMBER 2020
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I want to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders.
And thanks to Paul and Troy for asking me to launch the book today.
I know for both of you, but Paul in particular, this is the culmination of decades of research into the events of November ‘75.
All beginning in this building.
I’m trying to imagine what it was like to squeeze a whole parliament, staff and press gallery into these corridors.
And that’s before you take the egos into account.
It must have been cramped in here.
I also want to begin by expressing my deepest respect and admiration for Professor Jenny Hocking.
Professor Hocking and her legal team have done us an invaluable service in securing these letters.
Without her persistence over decades, without her refusal to ever take no for answer, we wouldn’t be having this discussion on these terms.
Frankly, it shouldn’t have been this difficult.
Our own National Archives should never have spent $1 million trying to prevent the release.
I have no doubt we’ll be debating these letters for decades to come; for as long as Australian democracy continues to exist.
It’s now part of the national myth – and it’s always going to involve an element of subjectivity.
Kerr considered himself an expert on the reserve powers, but we’re dealing with conventions here.
Having a power and deciding to use it are very different things.
For the most part, these rules aren’t written down.
Should the Palace have told Gough that John Kerr was seriously contemplating the dismissal?
Or would that itself have been an act of royal interference, as Paul and Troy argue?
Whether Charteris acted properly here is a legitimate topic for historical debate – and will continue to be so.
Personally though, I agree with Paul Keating’s assessment: that the Queen had no genuine role in initiating or encouraging Kerr’s decision.
Firstly, I’ve never been convinced on the Palace’s motives.
The Queen has not shown an inclination to meddle in Australian affairs.
In fact, the royal family knows that their survival depends on being above politics.
So why risk that careful image here – particularly with a British Labour government in office at the time?
I know that Gough, in all his years of maintaining the rage, never blamed the Queen for what occurred.
We’ve also got the evidence from Paul Keating’s meeting with the Queen at Balmoral Castle.
This was the meeting when Keating told her of his plans for an Australian head of state – something the Queen accepted calmly, as a decision of the Australian people.
That doesn’t seem like the behaviour of someone interested in toppling Australian governments.
I understand the attraction of palace politics and intrigue – but I think it can distract us from the true story here.
Because there was a conspiracy to unseat the Whitlam Government.
But it didn’t originate in Buckingham Palace; it didn’t originate in the mind of the Queen or her personal staff.
It originated in the office of Malcolm Fraser.
And we should never forget it.
Malcolm Fraser might have mellowed with age; he may have done things we admire in his later years.
But it was his choice to shred our most important political norms – simply because he couldn’t wait eighteen months for an election.
He blocked supply. He sewed the division.
In Keating’s words, it was Malcolm Fraser who injected the poison into our political bloodstream.
It was an act of bastardy – and it’s never really left us.
Our politics hangs together by shared norms. It’s the only way our system can work productively.
Fraser decided to abandon these conventions.
And the sad thing is, it worked – just as Tony Abbott’s abandonment of norms worked four decades later.
Fraser did have accomplices, of course. He was helped by other corners of the conservative establishment.
People who never accepted the legitimacy of a Labor government.
Who, after two decades in power, assumed the Liberals were born to rule forever.
The other major villain was obviously John Kerr.
Kerr was an extraordinarily vain man; obsessed with his status as Governor-General – and terrified that Gough would replace him if he didn’t get in first.
As the book shows, it’s hard to overstate how much this fear drove his decisions in ’75.
This was a man who, when Gough suggested he wear a lounge suit to his swearing in, sent a panicked letter to Buckingham Palace – seeking the Queen’s permission to wear ceremonial dress on his big day.
In the supply crisis, Kerr saw his chance to make history.
Well, he was right on that count at least.
Of course, Barwick and Mason also acted outrageously.
They must have known how inappropriate it was for sitting High Court justices to secretly counsel a Governor-General that he could sack a Prime Minister.
Whenever I go over this history, I get angry again … it’s happening right now.
I think there’s a risk here – of being driven by rage.
That we let our anger take over rational thinking.
Because, as republicans, I don’t think we should let this episode define our national story.
We can’t let the dismissal and its resentments shape our case for a truly independent nation.
I understand the temptation here – but we should resist it.
Our republican story should project confidence – not bitterness.
It should be forward looking – not tangled up in old battles.
Our republic should be born in hope and optimism.
Hope for a mature and inclusive democracy – worthy of walking in the footsteps of the world’s most successful continuous culture.
Our republican story should offer a path to healing our oldest national wound.
The fight for an Australian republic cannot be separated from the fight for Voice, Treaty and Truth Telling.
As republicans, we should celebrate the best of us as a country.
Mature, proud, egalitarian, multicultural.
We should recognise the beauty and fragility of our land – and we should accept our responsibility to conserve it for future generations.
A confident Australia, secure in its skin, where everyone has a stake in our national success – and where everyone shares in that success.
That’s what we’re all fighting for – and that’s what should drive our republicanism.
Because one thing is clear to me: any campaign that seeks to trash the Queen is destined to fail.
Even republicans respect the Queen – and will never accept her as a villain.
In the end, we need to make the case for an Australian republic; not the case against the British monarch.
Thank you again Paul and Troy for giving me the opportunity to launch this book today.