Queen Elizabeth II was secretly warned about rising tensions in a northern Australian town levelled by a cyclone in 1974, newly released letters to Buckingham Palace have revealed.
- Newly released letters show Queen Elizabeth’s “close interest” in Darwin’s destruction
- Sir John Kerr told Queen of growing tensions between the NT and Commonwealth governments
- Historian Jenny Hocking says Cyclone Tracy letter was evidence of Sir John overstepping his reach
The Palace Letters made shockwaves for their revelations about the sacking of Gough Whitlam’s government in 1975 when they were released by the National Archives of Australia this week.
But they also detail the correspondence between the Queen’s private secretary and then-governor-general Sir John Kerr about a different, deadlier storm which happened less than a year earlier — the devastation of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve in 1974.
“It is impossible to imagine the destruction relying simply on film and report,” Sir John wrote to the Palace on January 4, 1975, a day after his first visit to the scene of the catastrophe.
“The city is flattened.
“I took the liberty of telling the citizens in Darwin that Her Majesty has been deeply moved and is very concerned about their plight.”
Queen briefed on tensions, challenges
Sir John’s “personal and confidential” letter goes into detail about the nature of Australia’s emergency response to Tracy, which he wrote was “handled both speedily and efficiently”.
But he also briefs the Queen on the growing “difficulties” of keeping peace in the shattered town.
“The handling of the Darwin problem did not depend on the existence of any special kind of legal powers nor upon the declaration of any legal state of emergency,” he wrote.
“From now on, however, it is expected that more and more people will tend to wish to stand upon their legal rights, with the result that it may be difficult to move people physically out of Darwin who do not wish to leave.
“If too many former residents seek to return to protect their business or other interests, there may be difficulties.”
He also tells her of the rising tensions between the NT’s conservative local administrators and Whitlam’s progressive Labor government in Canberra.
The Queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, responded on February 4 and said the Queen read the letter “with close interest” and voiced concerns about social issues in Tracy’s aftermath.
“A crisis of this nature brings the best out of everybody for the time being,” Sir Martin wrote.
“But as the crisis recedes, the less agreeable side of human nature reasserts itself and things get more complicated.”
Kerr’s Cyclone Tracy letter ‘extraordinary’
Historian Jenny Hocking, who took her battle to the High Court to access the Palace Letters, said Sir John’s Cyclone Tracy letter was evidence of the governor-general overstepping his reach.
“It’s one of the concerns I have about Kerr’s approach to his job as governor-general and the manner in which he was conducting himself in these secret letters to the Queen,” Prof Hocking said.
“It seems to me Kerr is doing [in the Tracy letter] what he does frequently throughout [the Palace Letters], which is to make himself the centre of a power structure, which a governor-general simply isn’t, in reality.
“I think in that very long letter that Kerr sends to the Queen after the Darwin cyclone, Kerr is really presenting himself in an almost unreal way, as though the people of Darwin were waiting for a vice-regal visit to get back on track again.
Prof Hocking’s view on the Tracy letter comes just days after the bombshell revelation Sir John had not approached the Queen before announcing the sacking of Gough Whitlam in November, 1975.
She also said Cyclone Tracy was a great test of Mr Whitlam’s prime-ministership.
“It was certainly a marker of a period of instability in the government, and of a sense of crisis that was being felt at that time, even with natural forces,” she said.
“And the fact the prime minister was overseas at the time when it struck certainly didn’t help with the look of the way that was dealt with.”
Kerr, Whitlam no strangers to Territory
Both prime minister Whitlam and Sir John were no strangers to the NT during their times in power.
Mr Whitlam visited numerous times during his prime ministership, most notably to Darwin in the aftermath of Tracy and to Wave Hill (Kalkarindji), where he enacted the Gurindji land hand-back.
Whitlam also spent time stationed in remote East Arnhem Land during his service in World War II.
As well as visiting Darwin post-Tracy, in 1975 Sir John travelled to the mining town of Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula, where he attended the newly opened Arnhem Club.
Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip have made the journey to the Territory multiple times, firstly in 1963, then to Darwin just months prior to Tracy in 1974, and again in 1977 and 1982.
The Queen took her last trip to the NT in 2000, when she strolled through the Todd Mall in the Red Centre town of Alice Springs.