Critical archival encounters and the evolving historiography of the dismissal of the Whitlam government

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Abstract

Gough Whitlam was deeply committed to the preservation of history, and keenly attuned to the importance of the documentary record in the writing of it. For Whitlam, the written record — the contemporaneous documentary record of government activity — was central to the production of historical knowledge and the “verification” of history. As he reflected on the release of his government's 1975 Cabinet papers, “the publication of these records confirms my belief in the contemporary document as the primary source for writing and understanding history”. This paper takes us through the shifting historiography of the dismissal of the Whitlam government by Governor-General Sir John Kerr. In doing so, it is a reflection also on the role of archives in the writing of history, recognising as Peters does, that the construction of an archival record is “a deeply political act”. This is particularly so for contested, polarised, episodes — of which the dismissal is surely the exemplar — for which archival records have been transformative. In this process of historical correction, revelations from Kerr's papers in the National Archives of Australia have been pivotal. Kerr's papers were also central to my successful legal action against the Archives securing the release of the “Palace letters” between Kerr and the Queen regarding the dismissal. This paper explores some critical “archival encounters” during that research journey — revelations, obstructions, missing archives, and even burnt archives. From the destruction of Whitlam's security file, missing Government House guestbooks, the denial of access to records, to royal letters of support for Kerr's dismissal of Whitlam “accidentally burnt” in the Yarralumla incinerator, these encounters illuminate the critical relationship between archives, access, and history which continue to shape our understanding of the dismissal of the Whitlam government.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages19
JournalAustralian Journal of Politics and History
DOIs
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2024

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