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Historian asks Australian court to reveal Queen's letters on Whitlam sacking

A historian is going to court in an attempt to force the authorities to release secret letters that would reveal what the Queen knew of her representative's scheme to dismiss Australia's government more than 40 years ago.

The National Archives of Australia has categorised the correspondence between the Queen, who is also Australia's constitutional head of state, and her Australian representative, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, as "personal" and might therefore never be made public.

The letters would disclose what, if anything, the Queen knew of Sir John's plan to dismiss Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's government in 1975 to resolve a month-old deadlock in Parliament.

It remains the only time in Australia's history that a democratically elected government has been dismissed on the British monarch's authority.

Sir John's surprise intervention placed unprecedented strain on Australia's democracy and bolstered calls for the nation to split from its former colonial master by becoming a republic. Suspicions of a US Central Intelligence Agency conspiracy persist.

Jenny Hocking, a Monash University historian and Whitlam biographer, will argue in court in Sydney on July 31 - the only hearing day of the case - that the letters should be released regardless of the Queen's wishes because Australians have a right to know their own history.

"To me, it's a point of national humiliation that we have to be even considering asking the Queen whether we can look at these key records in our own history," she told The Associated Press.

She started the case in October last year, is represented by lawyers free of charge and has raised more than £22,000 through crowd funding in case she loses and is ordered to pay the Archives' legal costs.

The legal argument has been presented so far in written submissions.

While Ms Hocking is taking on the Archives alone, she has a powerful ally in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who agrees that the communication between two such key figures in Australia's constitution should not be secret.

The Archives, Buckingham Palace and the governor-general's official residence, Government House, have all declined AP's requests for comment.

The court is being asked to remove the letters from their "private" and "personal" classification, so that they could become public 30 years after they were written like other government documents held in the Archives.

Under an agreement struck between Buckingham Palace and Government House months before Sir John resigned in 1978, the letters covering three tumultuous years of Australian politics will remain secret until at least 2027.

The private secretaries of both the sovereign and the governor-general in 2027 would have the option of vetoing their release indefinitely.

Australia's governor-general is chosen by the prime minister and appointed by the monarch, and is a largely ceremonial role.

Few realised before 1975 that the role carried unwritten constitutional powers to sack a prime minister in a crisis. Lawyers still argue about whether the so-called reserve powers even exist.

The constitutional crisis came in 1975 when the opposition tried to force Mr Whitlam to call general elections by blocking in the Senate routine legislation that allowed the government to pay public servant salaries and deliver services.

Sir John fired Mr Whitlam during a brief meeting at Government House, called an election and appointed opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as prime minister.

Mr T urnbull believes an Australian president rather than a British monarch should be Australia's head of state.

Weeks after becoming prime minister in 2015, he said he would ask the Palace and the current Governor-General Peter Cosgrove to release the letters. But he has remained tight-lipped on progress since then.

Philip Benwell, a leading advocate for the British monarch remaining Australia's head of state, argues that the letters should remain private.

The political system would become untenable if the Queen's opinions were known to be at odds with her government, he said.

"It would cause a constitutional crisis if the Queen's personal opinions became known," he said.

AP

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