Yesterday, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, celebrated 60 years on the throne and her Diamond Jubilee as the constitutional monarch of 16 countries including Australia; her reign has been remarkable, and is second only to Queen Victoria in length.
I would like of course, firstly, to minute my warmest and fondest congratulations to Her Majesty on reaching this milestone; the present Queen is the only monarch I have ever known, being just shy of 40 years of age, and it says much about the constant she has been that even people my parents’ age in their early to mid-60s have little or no memory of her father, King George VI.
As an ardent and lifelong constitutional monarchist I am delighted to be able to see the Queen celebrate this anniversary; common sense dictates that it is unlikely she will be with us long enough to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee in ten years’ time, and so as much as this is a time for festivity and celebration, it is also a time for some reflection. I do wonder in passing if she will live long enough to surpass the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901) to become the longest-serving monarch of the realm of all time.
Much has been made — in the United Kingdom, in Australia and elsewhere — of the prospect of one day replacing the present arrangement of a constitutional monarchy with a republic and a President, however so derived. The details vary from place to place but the sentiments are the same; even in Canada, where separatism, not republicanism, is the order of the day in Quebec, and the motivation for those French-Canadians to cut their ties with the hated British and strike out alone in their own, localised version of a Gallic republic.
I believe, and I always have believed, that the best interests of our own country at least lie with the present constitutional arrangements remaining in place, and with Australia eschewing republicanism on an indefinite basis.
Australia, along with New Zealand and Canada, are arguably the most successful of the former British dominions now thriving as modern, vibrant, successful first-world countries; all are free, fair and tolerant, are democratic and stable, and each boasts its own rigorous identity in the world.
And all retain a system of constitutional monarchy, with the present Queen as Head of State.
Whilst Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, she is also Queen of Canada, Queen of New Zealand, Queen of Australia and so forth in the countries that retain the monarchical system. (Courtesy of one Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his antics in 1973, she is also recognised as “Queen of Queensland,” but that is another matter altogether).
When we look across the puddle to our neighbours in New Zealand, do we accuse those we see of tugging the forelock to Britain? When we consider our friends and allies in the splendid country of Canada, do we regard them as kowtowing to a foreign power? If we look around the world at other nations in the Commonwealth — many of which are of less fortunate circumstance than we in Australia — do we dismiss them as being subservient lickspittle?
Of course we don’t.
Yet this is the vituperative atmospheric of the so-called republican debate that went on in this country during the 1990s; its colourful invective — colourfully prosecuted by Paul Keating — may very well have animated many people, but in the end it was based on a false premise.
As was the entire republican case, based as it was on intellectual untruths, sloppy and misleading legalities, a typical attempt at brainwashing from those to the Left of the political spectrum, and an appeal to the subjective vanities rather than the considered sensibilities of the people republicans sought to coerce away from a constitutional monarchy.
And — shamefully — the republican campaign in Australia only ever organised itself in earnest when the opportunity presented to take advantage of problems within the House of Windsor: prior to 1992, and increasingly since the defeat of the referendum on the subject in 1999, the prevailing mood in Australia has not been typically conducive to serious consideration of abandoning the monarchy.
I remember as a very young boy — perhaps of 6 or 7 — being of the opinion that people called “Sir” had been given something by the Queen because they had done very well and she wanted to reward them; I, too, therefore aspired at that delicate age to what I soon enough learnt was a knighthood.
I remember, too, being mightily pissed off as a 14-year-old with Bob Hawke and his government for rescinding the awarding of knighthoods as part of the so-called reforms enacted in the Australia Act 1986 — and Hawke didn’t just rescind knighthoods for Australians under the British and Commonwealth honours system; he rescinded the provisions in the Order of Australia that allowed the granting of knighthoods under a purely Australian honours system, too.
(The Australia Act 1986 also extinguished the right of Australian citizens to exercise a final legal right of appeal beyond the High Court to the Privy Council: this, too, is something I have always viewed as a legal and moral travesty, but more on that — and the flip side — later).
For so many people, the question of monarchy versus republicanism is one based on affection or otherwise for the House of Windsor and the current monarchy, or on dislike for the British, or on half-baked notions of Australian nationalism behind which there is little or no substance and certainly nothing by way of corroboration except a lot of hot air and noise about an Australian-born Head of State. And about a confused concept of “cutting ties with Britain.”
It isn’t a subject I intend to cover at great length tonight: for one, we’d be here long enough for the Platinum Jubilee to roll around; two, I want to turn my comments back to the Queen; and three, the points I do intend to put on the table here are quite sufficient in terms of backing any republican into a corner with no way out. There are others, but these will do quite nicely for starters.
The first — and most obvious — of these is that we do, very simply, have an Australian Head of State: her name is Quentin Bryce and she is the Governor-General, and vice-regal representative, of Australia.
It seems lost on many that whilst the Queen is indeed the nominal Head of State in Australia, she remains so in a ceremonial capacity only; whilst Sections of the Constitution do certainly confer authority on the Queen to act in certain situations (such as the disallowance of a Bill, which we looked at some months ago in relation to the carbon tax), by convention, the Queen would almost certainly refuse to exercise such authority — even on the advice of her ministers.
If anyone doubts this, they should do some research on the former Governor of Queensland, Sir Colin Hannah — another Bjelke-Petersen stooge — including the circumstances in which she refused Bjelke-Petersen’s request to extend the tenure of Hannah’s commission, and the background and events leading to her refusal to do so.
If you’re a republican, it might be quite illuminating (or disheartening, depending on how one looks at it).
Even the “Labor bastard” who turned on Whitlam — Governor-General Sir John Kerr — did more to legitimise the role of Governor-General as the independent Head of State in Australia (as a link in the chain of a system of constitutional monarchy) than he ever did to legitimise republicanism; his actions set a modern precedent in which the Queen learnt of Kerr’s actions only after his termination of the Whitlam commission took effect, and did not subsequently intervene.
The events of 1975 are often held up by republicans as “evidence” and “conclusive proof” that the monarchy must be abandoned. I’ve never really understood why; no British people, and certainly not the Queen herself, were involved. Kerr’s actions represented a legitimate course within his legal responsibilities; were constitutionally sound and valid; and did exactly as was needed: to break a deadlock between the Houses of Parliament that existed at the time.
The constitution, and the monarchy, were not faulty; and to the extent the constitution may have been perceived as defective, it bears remembering that many Labor heroes at the turn of the century were instrumentally involved in its drafting alongside many conservative figures; if it contained or contains fault, those founding fathers share the responsibility.
The numbers in the Senate had certainly been modified in 1975 — by state Premiers in NSW and in Queensland. Of course, those numbers were used by Malcolm Fraser as he worked to smash the Whitlam government from office. But those actions, also, bear no reflection at all on the monarchy.
If the Labor Party and its acolytes did not like the outcome of 1975 and the Dismissal, that’s another matter altogether. But it is not one of constitutional monarchy.
Perhaps most instructive of all, though, are the lessons that lie in the aftermath of the passage of the Australia Act 1986; cursory they may be, but they offer the greatest pointer of all to the dangers of implementing a republic in this country.
What this Act did — according to its packet directions — was to remove forever the power of the UK Parliament to legislate with effect in Australia; never mind the end of knighthoods, and never mind (for now) about the abolition of access to the Privy Council.
The Australia Act 1986 in short achieved everything the republicans who followed some years later said (and say) they wish to achieve; clearly it is a nonsense to achieve the same thing twice, and so it is necessary to dig a little deeper to see what they really want. It is not necessary to dig very far.
The only real argument remaining open to republicans in any practical sense is the “Australian Head of State” one, with the references to “cutting ties to Britain.”
We’ll come back to ties with Britain later.
As I have already pointed out, we already have an Australian Head of State — the Governor-General — who acts independently of the Queen as a cog in the well-oiled machine that is our system of government within a constitutional monarchy.
Starting with the appointment of Sir Paul Hasluck to the role in the late 1960s by then Prime Minister John Gorton, the Governor-Generalship has been held by an Australian ever since. It is true Malcolm Fraser wanted to appoint Prince Charles to the post in 1982, but for obvious reasons that do not warrant the expenditure of space here, he was very quickly disabused of the idea.
The most obvious symbol of what republicans want — an “Australian President” — may in itself be impossible to realise; as the referendum in 1999 showed, those favouring a directly elected President flatly refused to accommodate those favouring a President chosen by Parliament. So trenchant were the two camps, and so strident their opposition to the other, that this conflict alone is likely irreconcilable.
But even if it were to be resolved, the Australia Act 1986 bequeathed this country a gift on account of its inherent abolition of the right of appeal to the Privy Council.
You see, readers, the highest Court in the land now is the High Court of Australia; and whilst its role is to interpret and adjudicate questions of law, its composition is based solely on the discretion of politicians.
For there to be a vacancy on the High Court, somebody has to die or retire; then, it is a simple question of the government of the day nominating a replacement whose appointment is rubber-stamped by Parliament.
Needless to say, the High Court has — at various times — been levelled with accusations of bias, and usually in favour of whoever has most recently spent an extended period in office at the federal level.
And for those readers who think directly elected judges are a good idea as an alternative, there are certain states in America which do precisely that, and are worldwide advertisements to others not to do anything of the kind.
So what if this system — a “President” elected by Parliament, or directly elected — were to be adopted in place of the Governor-General and a ceremonial monarch?
In short, Australia would be headed by either a political puppet or another politician respectively; the very nature of the role is such that it must be, and be seen to be, apolitical.
True, former politicians have held the post, Hasluck being one, and former ALP leader Bill Hayden another; yet neither discharged their duties in a manner inconsistent with the requirements of the office.
And if you look at the High Court, the record of its rulings and its case history, and analyse these in any detail, then you may be in a position to make a valid call on whether or not you think Australia ought to become a republic.
Because if you don’t like what the High Court has done over the past thirty years, the chances are that you won’t like what becomes of this country if it becomes a republic.
I believe everyone is entitled to their view; I am equally entitled to my opinion — which is the whole point this column exists, and those opinions, if they spark debates as they have done to date, have proven to be of value even to those who may disagree.
I do think republicans are wrong at the most basic and fundamental levels; and for as long as this country’s present arrangements continue, with Parliament operating in a constitutional monarchy, then the better off Australia will be.
This brings me back to the Queen.
This remarkable woman has been a distinguished world leader for decades; modest, dignified, strictly apolitical, she has been a source of advice and counsel for many of her Prime Ministers and other Heads of Government (including Australia), and has been a symbol of stability in a world which has, especially in recent years, changed so very much.
She and her family retain great affection for, and great links to, Australia; indeed, the Queen has visited here many times during her reign; the future King Charles even lived in Australia for a time, attending boarding school near Geelong in the 1960s.
And this in turn brings me to that other sacred pillar of republican faith: the “need” to cut ties with Britain.
Why should we ever do that? Modern Australia and modern Britain are very similar in many respects; we share similar societies based on similar systems and traditions, and those societies share the same similar problems that go with them.
Indeed, Britain and the British people are the most like us of anyone else in the world; we share similar cultures and ways of life; we are among each other’s most important trading partners; we share common interests, opportunities and threats.
I’m very much in favour of building ties and relationships in Asia, and especially in maintaining and expanding those we enjoy with the United States; but not at the cost of the existing ties and friendships we already have, and never at the expense of those we share with the United Kingdom, and the history and tradition that accompany them.
As for the Queen herself, once the pomp and pageantry and celebration of the Jubilee has subsided, this splendid lady with her well-known preference for simplicity will no doubt enjoy some time privately with those around her, and reflect too on all she has seen in 60 years on the throne; from the young princess thrust into the role after the death of her father when the free world was struggling to recover from its war effort, to the better yet more dangerously complicated place that world is today.
My hat is off to you, ma’am, and I salute you: many, many congratulations on the achievement of your Diamond Jubilee, and long may you reign over us for many years to come.
God Save The Queen!