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Edition 36

Contents
Essay

The lost option

 

MONARCHY IN AUSTRALIA is an idea whose time is past. For some time now the question has been how to convincingly Australianise the British monarchy. Conservatives argue that a monarch is essential to our system of government. Despite overseas precedents – and the shining role model of Quentin Bryce here – a Governor-General reconfigured as president won’t do, apparently. Yet conservat-ives rarely propose a king just of Australia.

Until the present sovereign, royal tours were special not least because of their rarity. Queen Elizabeth II has been here sixteen times, more than twice the number of previous royal visits, none of them by reigning monarchs. Even so, they were usually timed to mark milestones in the nation’s development, the royal visitors being the instrument connecting them to the wider imperial project. In 1901 the new king, Edward VII, questioned the need for his son to embark on a year-long royal tour. A future British Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, explained the necessity:

A great commonwealth is to be brought into existence… Its citizens know little and care little for British ministers and British party politics. But they know, and care for, the Empire of which they are members and for the Sovereign who rules it. Surely it is in the highest interests of the State that he should visually, at the opening of the first Federal parliament in Melbourne, associate his family with the final act which brings this new community into being, so that in the eyes of all who see it the chief actor in the ceremony, its central figure, should be the King’s heir, and that in the history of this great event the Monarchy of Britain and the Commonwealth of Australia should be inseparably united.

This lucid statement came a generation before the public declarations of the Imperial Conference of 1926 and the Statute of Westminster, five years later.[1] It was not simply a matter of royal puppets being manipulated by politicians: the royal family had their own perspective. Their understanding, as they considered the Empire, with its panoply of self-governing colonies, crown colonies, protectorates and a whole subordinate empire in India, was partly dynastic. Occasionally a more substantial royal presence was projected by governor-generalships in the dominions. Australia had one royal Governor-General; Canada could be said to have had three, if you include the husband of Princess Louise, who went with him. South Africa had two; New Zealand none.


THIS MIGHT HAVE
 gone further: there was the precedent of Brazil. In 1807, when Napoleon invaded the Iberian Peninsula, the Portuguese royal family fled – breathtakingly removing the court to Rio de Janeiro, a mere colonial capital. From there the king reigned, and soon promulgated Brazil as a realm equal to Portugal and the Algarve. When the Napoleonic Wars ended, the court eventually returned to Lisbon. But King João VI left his son, Pedro, to act as viceroy. Wars of independence raging in Spanish America, and a continuing crisis in Portugal, worked for a confused situation in Brazil. Suddenly, in 1822, the prince declared the country fully independent from Portugal, with himself as Emperor Dom Pedro I.

Pedro reigned until 1831, when he was succeeded by his son, the infant Dom Pedro II, who grew to be a modest man with the temperament of a scholar. He attended the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876 disguised as a Portuguese nobleman – staying at a grand hotel, he signed the register as Pedro, and when asked to add his occupation, put down ‘emperor’.

The monarchy in Brazil lasted from 1822 until a military coup in 1889: its memory has endured as a kind of Golden Age. In 1993, when Brazil was casting around for a more effective form of governance after a long period of dictatorship, there was a referendum to test whether people wanted the monarchy restored. It failed dismally, being seen as no solution to Brazil’s problems.[2]

The Braganza devolution was unplanned, but came to work well. It seems to have had no direct effect on thinking about the British Empire, although there were a number of parallel expressions of the need for some kind of British royal devolution. One of the most interesting occurred in 1867, as Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, was due to visit Australia. His earlier highly successful tour of the Cape was well-known here, so before he arrived a pamphlet appeared entitled A Proposal for the Confederation of the Australian Colonies with Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, As King of Australia. Written anonymously by ‘A Colonist’, it is less eccentric than might be thought. Even the argument that a court would improve patronage for the arts and sciences, and benefit the carriage trade generally, was not as silly as it sounds: within a few years of the Braganzas’ installation in Rio, its population increased by one-sixth.[3]

The pamphlet grapples with the central issues of the day. There was apprehension – which would become acute as Britain began withdrawing its troops from a New Zealand still fighting a Maori war – that the mother country intended to push the colonies towards independence. A statement in the Commons, that if Canada wanted separation it only had to ask for it, appears in the pamphlet with the comment: ‘sooner or later our severance from Imperial rule is inevitable.’ It was the common assumption of the day. ‘A Colonist’ feared this might occur before the Australian colonies attained unity. The idea of separate colonial nationalities was abhorrent, since serious difficulties could advance to the point where ‘they can only be solved by the sword’. The pamphlet was written two years after the American Civil War, which explains why half the document is a diatribe against the very idea of a republic. Given the need for some form of federation, the seeming inevitability of separation from Britain and the raw, negative example of the United States, the proposal to make Prince Alfred King of Australia became an elegant solution.[4] An editorial in The Advertiser welcoming Prince Alfred to Adelaide endorsed the idea,[5] but had little influence – the attempted assassination of the prince in Sydney smothered it in conventional loyalism.

A similar idea emerged in Canada,[6] centred on Prince Arthur, who had served with the military there. But the most curious case arose in South Africa in 1924, when the Earl of Athlone was appointed Governor-General. He was Queen Mary’s brother, and although brought up in England had been a German princeling. In preparation for his duties in South Africa he learned Afrikaans, then on the verge of being recognised as equal official language with English. Not long after the earl’s arrival the Afrikaner Nationalists came to power. Athlone attended the unveiling of a statue of Paul Kruger, the Boer War leader, and spoke in Afrikaans. Steering South Africa through a bitter flag controversy, he became increasingly popular. There was even talk in Nationalist circles that perhaps he could become king of South Africa. This was a clever idea: his wife was a royal princess, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, so the double royal connection might help to wean English-speaking South Africans from their excessive attachment to Britain. And, while the ultimate goal of the Nationalists remained a republic, the severance inherent in the idea would ultimately advance that ambition. But it was a political romance, and the proposal never achieved concrete form.[7]

 

AUSTRALIAN LABOR, BEFORE the trauma of 1975, was determined, in Gough Whitlam’s words, to ‘reinforce the Australian identity of the monarchy’.[8] As Prime Minister, Whitlam gave new prominence to the title Queen of Australia, by which Elizabeth II is officially designated alone in this country; everything else is covered by the honorific ‘Head of the Commonwealth’, without reference to Britain. He also increased the frequency of royal visits, which became shorter and more focused.

Australia’s only royal Governor-General, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, was appointed by Labor. This was partly by accident: a conservative government had planned to install his brother the Duke of Kent, but these plans were cut short by World War II. The duke was killed in an air crash, and so after the war Prime Minister Curtin substituted his brother. When Prince Henry’s term expired, Prime Minister Chifley tried to secure Lord Mountbatten as his successor. Mountbatten, a member of the royal family who had recently taken India and Pakistan to independence, was not interested. So the names of three royals in succession were associated with the governor-generalship.

The Duke of Gloucester’s postwar incumbency merits a closer look. Historians have claimed that the appointment was made to strengthen links with Britain, perhaps to counter-balance American influence. It pleased conservatives – Gloucester was the king’s brother – and aimed at creating a consensus when the government was consolidating and extending Commonwealth powers. Gloucester’s appointment seemed to give this program the highest seal of approval. The prince threw himself into the task, travelling more widely than any previous Governor-General; his two young children helped engender popularity. All this coalesced to produce something like a home-grown monarchy, as stamps issued in 1945 clearly show. Although stamps today are little more than suburban stickers, at the time they were official, engraved along with the banknotes, and issued sparingly. They were minor acts of policy. There the couple are, medallions side by side as if royal rulers, summoning Empire in their military uniforms. It was the only time a Governor-General appeared on a stamp anywhere.

In 1954 Queen Elizabeth II finally undertook the royal tour that had been mooted before the war, the first reigning sovereign to visit Australia. The country was delirious. Opposition to the tour was negligible; even the communists were quiet. The former cultural nationalist Rex Ingamells fawningly referred to ‘our colourful and partially roguish history [convicts]’ and how our devotion to freedom ‘qualified’ us for royal attention. There were republicans, but their position was largely grounded in the wrongs of Erin rather than a vision for Australia.[9]

If there was a vision, it was of an inclusive, decentered Commonwealth. The Secretary of State for the Commonwealth, Patrick Gordon Walker, predicted that the Queen would spend more time in the dominions. ‘I think we shall find that she not only visits the other countries, but resides in them for considerable parts of the year – playing in them the same role that she plays in the United Kingdom.’

It was an idea popularised by Nevil Shute, whose novel In the Wet appeared in 1953: Coronation year. Shute, an aeronautical engineer, became one of the most popular novelists of the day. He was an Englishman who settled in Australia but remained distinctly British. The novel suggests Shute had abandoned Britain because it was socialist in government, yet slow and conservative by instinct; Australia, on the other hand, was new and raw and agreeably right-wing. In an afterword he explained that In the Wet was a cautionary tale. He was trying to picture the relations between various parts of the Commonwealth in thirty years’ time, and the strains that might imperil the sovereign as the link holding it together. His purpose was serious, and in his view fiction the best means of expounding it.

In Shute’s vision Patrick Gordon Walker’s prophecy has become fact. By the 1980s the Queen spends two months in Canada and two in Australia, with slices of time elsewhere beyond Britain. But the existence of the Queen’s Flight, a Commonwealth air force squadron run independently of the British government, causes tension with the British socialist cabinet. Meanwhile there is a proposal (emanating from Australia) for multiple voting, with up to seven votes being awarded to one person on the basis of different concurrent qualifications. In the novel the defeat of the referendum precipitates a crisis, compounded by a threat to the peripatetic monarchy. Shy of the strain, none of the Queen’s children wants to succeed to the throne; her death would be followed by a string of abdications that could bring the monarchy to an end. So at the very time when the idea of rewarding merit comes to reformulate the franchise in England, it is also announced that the Governor-General of Canada (an Englishman) is to take office as Governor-General of Britain. This would free up the Queen to act as Head of the Commonwealth; [10]surprisingly, nobody seems to have thought of it before.

 


WHILE THE QUEEN'S
 tours increased in frequency, Prince Charles was being primed to take a greater part in Australian life. The decision to place him at Timbertop school for seven months in 1966 was greeted with general approval. The idea had been well thought out. While the prince would attend one of the most elite schools in Australia, Geelong Grammar, he would participate in the school’s bush campus program, becoming familiar with Australian ways and also the natural environment.

By the time of the Fraser government there was a strong push to appoint Charles Governor-General. But the action of Sir John Kerr on 11 November 1975 made this impossible: Kerr had drawn attention to the reserve powers of the office. As Gareth Evans put it at the time: ‘If the literal language of the Constitution were to be believed, the Governor-General had all the status and power of an Ottoman sultan.’ What would happen should there be a fresh crisis, requiring the adjudication of the Governor-General and thus direct royal intervention? Even if this prospect was unlikely, in the post-Dismissal context a royal appointment to the office did look very much like turning the clock back.[11]

In fact the monarchy had had no greater champion than Edward Gough Whitlam. ‘My government was not republican,’ he declared in retrospect, saying that it was only the ‘manipulation of the monarchy’ in the events surrounding his dismissal that led him to support a republic. We may believe him. The elaboration of an Australian monarchy has the authentic, too-clever-by-half characteristic of Whitlamism. He was concerned to establish Australia as an entirely separate realm, and proceeded to Australianise the honours system and the national anthem. He probably genuinely felt that that was as far as things should be taken.

The conservatising nature of Whitlam’s legalism should not be overlooked: he saw himself working within the tradition of HV Evatt, author of The King and His Dominion Governors. Balanced by a local person as her representative, the new emphasis on the title Queen of Australia could be taken as an invitation to bring the monarch closer to her people. Thus, a paradox: the greatest concentration of royal visits to Australia occurred during the Whitlam period. In 1973 Prince Philip came twice on his own, and again with the Queen to open the Opera House. That year Whitlam referred to Australia as a ‘kingdom’, but then he was given to exuberant legalisms. When the Shah of Iran visited, Whitlam addressed him at a banquet as ‘sire’. Perhaps he thought he was a racehorse; certainly his race was nearly run.

Whitlam’s attempt to Australianise the British monarchy was unrealistic. No country imagines itself more republican or democratic in manners; probably only the French consciously value egalitarianism more. Occasional royal swoops could achieve only so much, as Australia stumbled – and stumbles yet – towards its separate destiny. It has been said that no one damaged the monarchist cause in Australia so much as Sir John Kerr: his action reduced the Queen to a royal cipher, not even able to deal with any petition submitted to her. One of the two major political parties now instinctively adopted a position of hostility to the monarchy.[12]

While populist moves in England might bring monarch and people closer, here they come across as passing gestures from a visiting celebrity. The elevated position of the monarch has, in consequence, taken a greater tumble. In 1954, when the Queen made her first royal tour, a ball was being held in Melbourne by Dame Mabel Brookes. It was asked of Government House whether the Queen might be able to attend. No, she would not; Her Majesty did not attend balls given by commoners. Fast forward to 1977, when Prince Charles appeared on the ABC TV music program Countdown. The prince spoke of the Queen’s Jubilee Appeal, cutting the air with half-square hand movements and that chill in the royal voice; viewers could see the scarcely concealed scepticism of Molly Meldrum, with his yeahs and ums. At any moment, it seemed, he might burst the bubble with some wildly inappropriate remark.

Royal tours have lost much of their efficacy, and royal Governors-General are now politically impossible: John Howard recognised that in 2007.[13] A Braganza-style solution is beginning to look more and more like it would have been a good idea, for royalists. But events moved too quickly for this to be considered. Until the past twenty years or so, the British would have regarded such an idea as impertinent. The concept of the indivisibility of the crown lingered for a long time, even after its formal ending in a series of enactments across the Commonwealth in the 1950s.

Australians, too, were loath to weaken the link. Before World War II, Australia proudly boasted that it was ‘98 per cent British’. Even as late as 1965, the money raised here for the Churchill Memorial Trust compared quite favourably with the amount raised in England. When Charles came to Timbertop, in 1966, there was satisfaction all round – just the right degree of royal acknowledgement of new realities. But then things moved quickly: in came a reforming Labor government, the country became multicultural on the ground and in official policy, and the moment passed.

Alan Atkinson, at the conclusion of his book The Muddle-Headed Republic (Oxford University Press, 1993), outlined the four options Australia faced in the mid-1990s: continuation of the status quo, a republic, Shute-style recurrent residency or a Braganza-style monarchy. The former New South Wales Premier Nick Greiner said, ‘If there were an Australian monarchy, I’d be as happy as Larry.’ Even Donald Horne was prepared to acknowledge such a solution, although he thought it bizarre. But the candidate Atkinson mentions – Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester – is even less well-known today than he was then.

Apart from anything else – and the obstacles are many – the Braganza option has never been a contender in Australia for want of a suitable royal candidate.[14]

I shall pass over the Keating period, and the 1999 referendum on the republic. The focus of this essay is the monarchy, and the attempts to revitalise the monarchical idea by making it more Australian. The idea of kingship has always had a primitive appeal: the elevated aspects of nobility, grandeur and continuity are yoked to an archetypal version of the family. It is humanity writ large. The trappings of power, if not the substance, means the Windsors have admirers in the United States and even contemporary Russia. You don’t have to live in a monarchy to be a monarchist.

Australia seems to have gone one better. It has been claimed that of the two hundred imaginary ‘countries’ in the world, twenty are in Australia. First was the Hutt River Province, a wheat farm in Western Australia that ‘seceded’ in 1970. ‘You should remember,’ says its ruler, Prince Leonard (Casley), ‘it’s the second-largest country in this continent.’ But Prince Leonard was careful, even when designing stamps and banknotes, not to challenge the sovereignty of the Queen. None of his imitators has, although some have cheerfully declared war on Australia – which, since they were ignored, they claim to have won. Most are nutters who had a quarrel with local authorities. An exception might be made for the Gay Kingdom based on an (uninhabited) archipelago in the Coral Sea, founded by a group of gay businessmen protesting Australia’s refusal to recognise same-sex marriage. Why Australia has engendered so many of these pretenders is a mystery. Perhaps it’s the persistence of thinking of the place as having been an empty continent, and the pioneering mentality. But the rash of do-it-yourself principalities does indicate an etiolation or decadence of the monarchical ideal in Australia.[15]

Eclipse, rather than etiolation, was certainly evident in the rapturous response to Mary Donaldson’s fairytale marriage to Frederik, Crown Prince of Denmark, and to the visit to Australia which followed. One women’s magazine published a sixteen-page supplement called Royal Tour 2005. It was suggested that Mary could be a role model for Australian girls, as if crown princes were a dime a dozen and just waiting to be carried off by ardent Aussie valkyries. Mary was commended for ‘eagerly ditching palace protocol’. The tour took the royal couple to a reception at Parliament House, Canberra, while ticket sales for Mary’s charity functions in Sydney approached two million dollars. On television her ratings beat those of the Oscars.

Unfortunately for the Windsors, Prince Charles was touring Australia at the same time. The Age journalist Michael Shmith (whose mother married into the British royal family) found the comparison dismal. Going to Melbourne’s Federation Square for each visitor, he likened the welcome the couple received to a carnival. Charles’s felt like a garden fete. A week earlier, Shmith had already concluded:

If there could be a precise moment Australia’s move to a republic seemed assured rather than tentative, then let it be last Tuesday evening at 8.10 at the Government House Ballroom, Perth… [At] this curious caravanserai of Prince, security men, aides-de-camp, women in purple frocks that once fitted, men with florid faces in thick-weave suits that were once fashionable… I began to realise how poignant all this was… There was all the opulence and aristocracy, but also the same unmistakable sense of fading empire conveyed in The Leopard’s Sicilian setting: a world poised between its aristocratic past and independent future.

The popularity of Mary and Frederik owed much to giving royalty a fresh face – a touch of glamour, compared with the dysfunctional Windsors. And as another journalist, Christopher Scanlon, pointed out, Mary’s marriage ‘played well to a culture fascinated by the idea of the nobody plucked from obscurity and elevated, Australian Idol-style, to celebrity overnight.’ An Australian bride ‘gave implicit validation to the rest of us’. Bob Brown set up a poll on the Greens’ website, asking people whom they would prefer, should Australia not yet be a republic when the Queen dies: Camilla and Charles, the Japanese crown prince and princess, or Mary and Frederik? Within a few hours Mary and Frederik shot ahead, with more than two-thirds of the vote. The acclamation seems to have been prompted by a desire for an Australian head of state, or a royal of our own. In England The Guardian made the playful suggestion that perhaps Australia could join a Danish Commonwealth, along with Greenland. But Australia’s taking the Danish royal couple to its heart did have a downside. A family portrait, by James Brennan, won the Bald Archy portrait prize a few years later. All hands are busy in this repulsive group portrait, with the prince, in Brennan’s words, adjusting his ‘wedding tackle’ as Mary attends to her ‘popped-out boobs’. The artist aimed to ‘bring them down to our level a bit’.[16]

Their visit has further symbolic significance. ‘Scandinavianisation’ of the British monarchy is perhaps the only option. As it transforms itself, from an imperial past – the decommissioning of the royal yacht Britannia was the moment of truth – it will become akin to the ‘bicycle monarchies’ on the Continent. Consider how far already the Queen has adapted: from forbidding her sister Margaret marrying a divorced man, in 1955, to giving her blessing to the wedding of Wills and Kate – who had been ‘practising as a couple’, as Prince Charles put it, for eight years.[17] Kate Middleton is the first commoner to marry someone directly in line to the throne, or a king, since the time of Henry VIII.

While this instance owes little to Australia, their experience here probably helped the British royal family to perceive the monarchy in a different way. The relatively casual ‘walkabouts’, first ventured during the royal tour of 1970, are still called that in Britain. Australia may have given William more confidence to adopt a populist style as his default position.


THAT STYLE MAY
help save the monarchy in Britain, where there are considerable arguments for its retention. In the context of Americanisation trading as globalisation, and pressure from Brussels, the monarchy becomes the ultimate statement of British difference. Should Scotland become independent there just might be agreement, given the Stuart inheritance, to the Queen remaining a joint head of state. There’s not the faintest chance a president of England would be so regarded. In Ireland, too, the monarchy has its uses, as we saw in May 2011. At a state banquet the Queen appeared like a deus ex machina, and with a classic display of tact was able to convincingly express regret for past wrongs. As the embodiment of the continuity of British history, she implicitly apologised on behalf of her ancestors, which gave the occasion resonance. Imagine, by way of contrast, how shallow it would have been had the Queen delivered the 2008 apology to Australia’s Aborigines.

But to return to England itself: the old argument that the monarchy stood at the pinnacle of the English class system, endorsing its snobberies, is less persuasive now, given the access of new money and the creation of new social contours. Finally, the weekly conversation between the Queen and the Prime Minister is an admirable institution; Mrs Thatcher must have felt that she was going to confession. Unfortunately, we can’t really replicate that here, since the Governor-General has no independent standing – and, increasingly, not even a decent pair of capital letters to her name.

MONARCHIST SPOKESPEOPLE IN in Australia are inclined to trot out traditional arguments as though the contexts in Britain and Australia are identical. Tony Abbott, whose political career took off with his directorship of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, is a notable exception. Always a monarchist, Abbott shied away from approaching the Queen at an Oxford reception, in case he was disappointed. What he wanted, he explained in a book teasingly called The Minimal Monarchy (Wakefield, 1995), was a new intellectual basis for supporting the crown, ‘to replace the accident of Britishness which gave it to us’. Abbott conscripts an old term often applied to the more advanced eighteenth-century American colonies, describing Australia as a ‘crowned republic’. He builds unwittingly on Whitlam’s work, characterising the Australian monarchy as consisting not only of the Queen but of governors and the Governor-General. Abbott’s argument is that the Governor-General is our head of state already. The Queen becomes merely the instrument of appointment of these Australians. ‘If Australians were starting from scratch,’ Abbott concedes, ‘we would be unlikely to choose the monarch of another country represented here by a Governor-General appointed by the Prime Minister.’

Rather like Braganza Brazil, the argument rests on the happy circumstances that brought us to this position, rather than devolution or deliberate policy. A republic would change the existing system, which has served us well, in unpredictable ways that many would reject. And Abbott points to the legal difficulties, in particular those arising from the co-existing separate sovereignties of the states. So wedded is he to the status quo that he has come to describe the monarchy as ‘almost but not quite an indigenous crown’.[18] Certainly some conservatives seemed to feel that The Kings Speech was heaven: a stuttering monarch in a fustian court taught how to manage things better by applying a little Aussie know-how.

A NUMBER OF scenarios now present themselves. The monarchy will continue until the Queen dies, at least. Amanda Vanstone’s observation that the Queen is woman enough to have the issue discussed before she goes is probably correct, but popular opinion, even were it more in favour of a republic, would seem to oppose such a move.

There is always the possibility that Britain – or England, as it might become – changes to a republic first. Anti-monarchist sentiment could accelerate quickly under Charles – already the object, with Camilla, of a violent anti-royal demonstration in London. The ground is shifting under the royals. At the beginning of the Queen’s reign, everyone would have understood why, at the news of Diana’s death, the flagpole at Buckingham Palace remained empty – the Royal Standard is the Queen’s personal flag, flown only when she is in residence. But newspaper editors, who might be expected to know better, led the charge, demanding that a flag be flown at half-mast. So, in a concession to public opinion, up went the Union Jack. Then the persistent idea, supported in a number of influential quarters, that the succession should leapfrog Charles to William, would be a serious variation of the hereditary principle. The monarchy would be weakened further. It could eventually compromise itself out of existence.

Under such circumstances the monarchy might decide to transfer its location – not just having a residence in Tharwa, as Nevil Shute conjectured, but moving into Yarralumla.

Even many monarchists, for whom distance lends enchantment, would not be pleased by this development. As Nick Minchin said on Q&A in April 2011, the personality of the monarch was irrelevant: it was the system that mattered. John Howard found it easy enough to elbow out his Governor-General from some public occasions, but it would be much more difficult to displace a King. In short, it is too late for a Braganza rerun; while such a move might solve problems for the Windsors, it would create more for us. Canberra will never be the new Rio.[19]

It is ludicrous that monarchists, flushed with Prince William’s popularity, should speak as though the monarchy is safe in Australia for another century. True, support for the republic dropped to its lowest level for seventeen years after William’s post-flood tour and wedding in April 2011. But his appeal is essentially that of a celebrity: a pleasant personality and (fading) good looks. It does not generally spring from a commitment to the monarchy as a political concept, at least not among the young. The Constitution Education Fund Australia found half of young Australians do not know they live in a democracy, or what a democracy is. Enthusiasm, such as it is, is shallow. The Australian Monarchist League last year claimed fifteen thousand members. Social networking could lock them in, for a time. But dwindling membership is a characteristic of both major political parties.

The star quality of the monarchy seems to be expediting its trivialisation. A Sydney Daily Telegraph editorial said of the new royal couple: ‘both come across as extremely well-mannered, a little shy, and up for a laugh. In other words, they both seem very Australian. A little work on the accents and they’d be perfect.’ To be created in our own image is one thing; to be refracted from a cartoon quite another. Images posted on the net suggested their costumes were modelled on Cinderella’s. Preposterous, and quite wrong: in Cinderella, the colours differed substantially.[20]

The royal surprise of 2011 was the success of the Queen’s CHOGM visit, widely anticipated as her last. Crowds flocked to see her; in Melbourne’s Federation Square she drew a bigger crowd than Oprah Winfrey. The Occupy Melbourne protesters postponed a conflicting demonstration, an apparent mark of respect that underlined the retro flavour of the Queen’s day in the city. She opened the Royal Children’s Hospital, as in 1963 (a different building). But there was no soundtrack, not a single speech – she simply drew aside the curtain on a plaque. The Melbourne excursion was a trip down memory lane, bathed in sunshine. ‘I don’t know what all the fuss is about with her outfit,’ one girl was heard to remark. ‘She’s not Lady Gaga or anything.’ Not long afterwards the Danish royal couple made a return visit, no less successful than their first. People again responded to ‘Australia’s own royal, Crown Princess Mary’.[21]

The monarchy appears to be safe for now. Even Malcolm Turnbull says, ‘A lot of republicans are Elizabethans as well.’ A Newspoll in April 2011 found support for the republic was 10 per cent lower than it had been at the time of the failed referendum in 1999. Moreover, only 40 per cent of those between eighteen and thirty-four backed a republic, and only half of them unequivocally.[22] Such a dramatic shift might reflect the popularity of the royal family or a growing conservatism, but also deep disenchantment with Australia’s political leadership, quite apart from distrust of the ‘politicians’ republic’. Often the referendum is cited as though the republic’s defeat is carved in stone, but sooner or later the figures will swing back. People scoffed at Winifred Ewing, a solitary Scottish Nationalist, being elected to the House of Commons in 1967. Now there is a Scottish Nationalist government in Edinburgh, with independence a distinct possibility.

While there are more pressing issues than the republic, nothing shows more clearly the lack of vision that seems to have crept across our whole political system. Often the republicans seem to have been just waiting for the Windsors to fall into a hole. None will be big enough – not even for King Charles.

Questions such as changing the flag and the republic have become more complex, since they are affected by a new factor evident since the mid-1990s – when Pauline Hanson draped herself in the flag. They have come to serve as symbols, expressing hostility and resistance towards multicultural Australia, and what the country has become. Since there is little vision in our public discourse, it is not surprising that the concern about identity should take regressive forms. It is telling, given the tendency of peripheries to remain symbolically conservative, that the further away you moved from the centre of each state capital, the higher the vote in 1999 against the republic became.

The dramatic changes in Australia’s population in recent years will inexorably work against the monarchy. One of the striking things about the conservative case for its retention, even when argued most articulately, is the static view it seems to hold of Australian society, extending to its population groups. The day will come – a bit unexpectedly, perhaps – for the enactment of Donald Horne’s adage about the monarchy giving way to pressure like a lightly locked door.[23] Growing consciousness of Australia’s changing context, arising from the dramatic rise of China and India to major powers, might also give it a jolt.

 

THIS ESSAY HAS not considered the republican position, nor the way Australia gradually moved to full independence from Britain under the monarchy. It has sought to show that, while the monarchy hangs on, it has done so after a long period of attenuation. At the moment it is treating us to a full-throated swansong – by loyal ventriloquists.

Increasingly there are tensions arising from different perspectives. Two years ago the recent convention that the Governor-General was head of state, but the Queen our sovereign, was upset by an announcement from the Palace that casually assumed the Queen to be both. English understanding of colonial niceties is not great. This was evident in Clarence House’s banning The Chaser from commenting on the royal wedding.[24] The Brits don’t get it: humour in Australia is serious, perhaps the main way of exciting public interest in politics. (Don Watson began writing lines for Max Gillies and ended up writing speeches for Paul Keating.)

Then there was the Order of Merit awarded to John Howard. The order is the gift of the sovereign, and Howard’s elevation falls within the expected range – the former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien became a member in 2009. But, since the monarchy is supposed to be above politics, it is not a good look. John Howard still engages in political debate whenever he has the opportunity. Moreover, the honour looked like a reward for services to the monarchy. A generation ago the order rewarded achievement in the arts and science, and most of its twenty-four members are still drawn from those worlds. At a pinch, the award might have gone to Barry Humphries; not to Sandy Stone on speed.

 

THE MONARCHY was brilliantly used by the British as the cornerstone of the Empire in its late phase of devolution. Its existence, with the projection of a larger-than-life royal family at a time when the ties of kinship were still very real, enabled the dominions to be, as Keith Hancock put it, 'British with a small b'.[25] But once the dominions began to function fully as nation-states, and the blood ties of kinship became diluted, the assumptions on which a shared monarchy was predicated became less and less operative. Voltaire, in the eighteenth century, said of the Holy Roman Empire – the welter of states in Germany – that it was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor Empire. Today it is obvious that the onetime British Commonwealth is neither British, nor common, nor wealthy.

It is Australia we have to consider now, not the Empire or Commonwealth. The old-style monarchical solution no longer serves us so well. More and more its continuation seems to postpone the problem of recalibrating forms of government for this successor state of the British Empire.

Debate on an Australian republic has come fitfully, partly because the monarchist and republican cases stand almost independently of each other. They rarely engage. One is essentially traditionalist, while the other likes to align itself with what it perceives to be the future – if fairly minimally at the moment. Each is powerfully rooted in sentiment. The monarchists are primarily concerned, now, with the system of government; the republicans, beyond their democratic arguments, with having our own head of state. So desperate is Bob Carr to have a republic that his minimalist model retains the title Governor-General.[26] Blink and you’d scarcely notice the change.

The best way to reconcile the two positions might have been a separate Australian monarchy. A similar idea has been floated in Canada: Prince Harry for king.[27] But its realisation here would be absurd. Australians have no taste for Pom-posity. A local Australian monarchy would soon founder, a mere staging post on the road to a republic. It is a lost option.

No Australian monarchy, then, and no royal Governor-General – just royalty as visiting celebrities. The problem is essentially post-imperial. The monarchy grew out of the English society, and polity. When will the Australian society, and polity, grow out of the monarchy?

 

References

[1] Balfour to King Edward VII, 6 Feb 1901, quoted Kenneth Rose, King George V, (London: Phoenix, 2000) p. 44.

[2] Brazil: Patrick Wilcken, Empire Adrift: The Portuguese Court in Rio de Janeiro (London: Bloomsbury, 2004); Ernest Newman, The Life of Richard Wagner (London: Cassell, 4 vols, 1976) note, p. 490.

[3] Rio growth figures, Wilcken, Empire Adrift, p. 96.

[4] ‘Colonist’, A Proposal for the Confederation of the Australian Colonies with Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, as King of Australia, (Sydney: JJ Moore, 1867); quotes from pp. 4, 22-23.

[5] Advertiser, Brian Mackinlay, The First Royal Tour 1867-1868 (Adelaide: Rigby, 1970) p. 37.

[6] Prince Arthur, ‘Colonist’, A Proposal, p. 8.

[7] Athlone: Based on information from John Lambert, University of South Africa. See J Barnes and D Nicholson (eds), The Leo Amery Diaries, vol I 1896-1929 (London: Hutchinson, 1980), 30 Mar 1927, p 502.

[8] 'Australian identity of monarchy', Alan Atkinson, The Muddle-Headed Republic (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 88.

[9] Royal Tour, 1954: Communists, Peter Spearritt, ‘Royal Progress’, in S L Goldberg and F B Smith (eds), Australian Cultural History (Cambridge: CUP), p. 144; Rex Ingamells, Royalty and Australia (Melbourne: Hallcraft, 1954) p. 80.

[10] Peripatetic monarchy: Atkinson, Muddle-Headed Republic, pp 84-85; Nevil Shute, In the Wet (London: Heinemann (1955), esp. p 355.

[11] Governor-Generalship after Kerr: Gareth Evans, ‘Labor and the Constitution’, Meanjin vol 35 (1976) p. 16; Jim Davidson, ‘Prince Charles as Governor-General’, The Times, 28 April 1981.

[12] Whitlam and the monarchy: Gough Whitlam, The Whitlam Government 1972-1975 (Ringwood: Penguin Books) p. 130; Aron K Paul, ‘Royalty and the Australian Nation, 1867-1997’ (PhD thesis, Melbourne University), pp. 189, 191. Whitlam declined to contribute to Geoffrey Dutton’s 1977 symposium, Republican Australia, (South Melbourne: Sun Books) p vii.

[13] Howard on G-G: 'William for Governor-General not on: PM', SMH, 29 June 2007.

[14] Australia, Braganza-style: Atkinson, Muddle-Headed Republic, pp. 127-9; Nick Greiner, quoted in Tony Abbott, The Minimal Monarchy (Adelaide: Wakefield Press) p. 153; Donald Horne, ‘A Case for a Republic’, in Geoffrey Dutton (ed) Republican Australia, pp. 9-10.

[15] Australia’s pretenders: Mark Dapin, ‘If at first you don’t secede’, Good Weekend, Age, 12 Feb 2005, pp. 47-50.

[16] Mary and Frederik: Supplement, New Idea, 12 Mar 2005; tour details, Age, 3 Mar 2005; Michael Shmith in Age, 6 Mar and 11 Mar 2005; Christopher Scanlon in Age, 14 Mar 2005; Bob Brown’s polls, Age, 8 Mar 2005; ‘New South Denmark’, editorial, and Michael Hutchison, letter, both Guardian Weekly, 25-31 Mar 2005; Brennan portrait, Age, 11 Mar 2008.

[17] Prince Charles on royal couple: Age, 18 Nov 2010.

[18] Tony Abbott, The Minimal Monarchy (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1995), pp. 5, 28-30; Battlelines (Carlton: MUP, 2009) p. 63; see also ‘Almost an indigenous monarchy’, Spectator Australia, 4 Dec 2010, p. viii.

[19] Liberals for and against: Amanda Vanstone, ‘No need to whisper, the Queen isn’t offended by the R-word’, Age, 28 Mar 2011; Q&A, ABC-1, 28 April 2011.

[20] Trivialisation: CEPA, quoted by Morag Fraser in Age, 19 July 2011; Daily Telegraph quoted in Crikey, 29 April, 2011; Cinderella, ‘In Black and White’,Sun-Herald, 24 May 2011.

[21] The Queen's visit: Australian and Michael Shmith in the Age, both 27 Oct 2011; Lady Gaga, Melbourne Times Weekly, 2 Nov 2011, p. 6; Princess Mary, Australian, 21 Nov 2011, Herald-Sun, 10 Jan 2012.

[22] Turnbull, and Newspoll, Weekend Australian, 29-30 Oct 2011.

[23] Donald Horne, The Lucky Country (Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1964) p. 89.

[24] Different perspectives: titles, Australian, 12 Feb 2010; 'Monarchy's undemocratic war on The Chaser', eureka.street.com.au, 29 April 2011.

[25] 'British with a small b', Davidson, A Three-Cornered Life: The Historian WK Hancock (Sydney: UNSWP, 2010) p. 277.

[26] Carr, Q&A, ABC-1, 28 April 2011.

[27] ‘Give me King Harry, say Canada’s Royalists’, Age, 24 June 2011.


From Griffith Review Edition 36: What Is Australia For? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review