Opening up access to the “Palace letters” – access vital for political trust and research

11 June 2020

A momentous High Court decision handed down on 28 May has seen the National Archives of Australia directed to review access to letters between the Queen and Governor General Sir John Kerr in relation to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975. Professor Jenny Hocking, eminent historian and author of books on the Whitlam dismissal, has been fighting for access to these papers for decades.

Professor Paul Pickering, Director of the Research School of Humanities and the Arts and Chair of the Australian National University Library Advisory Committee, has welcomed the decision.  The University holds an extraordinary collection of trade union and business archives and has been digitising material to open up access. ANU also has the first university open access repository in Australia, with over 180,000 research resources freely accessible to all.

“We applaud the decision”, commented Professor Pickering. “We must stand up for access to records of our democratic processes. If we are to have public trust in the parliament there must be transparency and greater digital access to the documents that record our democratic heritage. Decisions must not be kept in secret records.”

The University has supported active debate on access to records. Professor Jenny Hocking, who gave the 2019 ANU Archives Lecture, ‘Archival Secrets and Hidden Histories: Reasserting the Right to Public Access’, spoke of the importance of access to archives in writing and re-writing history, and the reasons she had taken legal action to seek release of these records.

While the legal battle has now ended, with the High Court ruling in favour of the letters being ‘Commonwealth records’ and official documentation of communications between the Governor-General’s Office and the Palace, more digitisation is required to open up access to our heritage.

Digitisation of trade union, business, parliamentary and government archives must be the focus of programs and should be better funded and researched.

Professor Pickering noted that “the release of these records may shift our understanding of political events in 1975 and confirms the centrality of archives to our understanding of the past. Further digitisation is vital to support knowledge and research on all aspects of Australian political decision making, particularly the trade union records in the Noel Butlin Archives”.