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How The Queen Heard About Whitlam’s Dismissal

The Queen was told about Gough Whitlam’s dismissal when she woke at 8am on the morning of November 11 in Buckingham Palace.

At this stage it was 7pm in Australia, the Parliament had been dissolved and an election set in train.

The Queen’s assistant private secretary at the time, William Heseltine, heard the news in a telephone call from the Governor-General’s Official Secretary, David Smith, at about 2am London time. This suggests Smith rang the palace almost immediately after Kerr dismissed Whitlam.

Details of these events have been published in an article about now Sir William Heseltine in The West Australian.

Text of article that first appeared in The West Australian.

No wake-up call for Queen over dismissal


A former senior member of the Queen’s staff has provided a rare insight into how Buckingham Palace reacted when governor-general Sir John Kerr sacked prime minister Gough Whitlam.

WA-born Sir William Heseltine, who was a member of the Queen’s staff for 27 years, said the Queen had closely followed events during the constitutional crisis of November 1975 but Sir John had not told her of his intentions and had not sought her advice.

“The governor-general gave no clue to any of us at the palace what was in his mind, with the most honourable of motives, he didn’t want the Queen drawn into the row which he knew would almost inevitably follow,” Sir William said.

Sir William started as assistant press secretary before rising to become the Queen’s private secretary.

In an interview about royal matters in the lead-up to the April 29 royal wedding, Sir William said he was woken early on November 11, 1975 by a phone call to his apartment in St James’ Palace.

It was about 2am and on the line was Sir John’s former secretary, Sir David Smith, who said he had been unable to raise one of Sir William’s senior colleagues and then revealed why he was calling.

“He was ringing to tell me the governor-general had just dismissed the prime minister,” Sir William said.

“I said, ‘What did you say?’ He then told me and I had the rather delicate decision . . . whether I was going to wake the Queen and tell her.

“I thought, ‘Well, there is no possible advantage in doing that’.”

Sir William said that the Queen would usually listen to the news at 8am, so he decided to be in the office and ready to inform her of the sacking before she heard it on radio.

He reached the office and met his senior colleague, whom he had been unable to contact about developments.

“He said he had just had Mr Whitlam on the telephone and he had greeted him in his usual breezy way, saying, ‘Good morning, prime minister’, to which Mr Whitlam had replied, ‘I am no longer the prime minister’,” Sir William said.

“It was by this time about five to eight so we got the Queen on the telephone and said, ‘Can we come up and tell you about the dramatic events that have been happening overnight in Australia?’

“She was interested and concerned but, as I had felt, there wasn’t anything she could do about it.

“Powers to call and dismiss a parliament and a prime minister are quite clearly devolved exclusively on the governor-general,” Sir William said.

Sir William, 80, who has lived in WA since he retired in 1990, said he felt Sir John had acted a little too early to break the deadlock caused when the Senate refused to pass Supply Bills required by Mr Whitlam’s Labor government.

“I always thought if he could somehow have just held the line for a little bit longer, that a political solution would have emerged rather than the drastic step that he took,” he said.

Sir William said he had occasionally spoken to Mr Whitlam since. “He never fails to refer to the event,” he said.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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