One of Paul Keating’s enduring frustrations with his successor as prime minister was that John Howard had put Australian history, as Keating saw it, on hold. Keating’s hope was that as soon as Howard was removed from office, the tide of history would burst forth on all the "unfinished business" of Australian nationhood.
On his first day in parliament as Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd addressed the unfinished business of the Stolen Generation. Today another Howard stop-gap against history is ushered out the door, as Australia’s first female governor general, Quentin Bryce, is sworn into office.
Bryce breaks the glass ceiling in the highest office in the land, after 107 years of continuous male viceroys at the Commonwealth level. John Howard refused to appoint a woman to the role on two occasions, appointing instead Archbishop Peter Hollingworth and Major-General Michael Jeffery. Old conservatives like Howard often justified their refusal to appoint women on the grounds that to do so would be tokenism. By the end however, Howard’s appointment of two men in a row only made the appointment of such men appear tokenistic in itself. Howard knew that progressive thought and practice both demanded that women be appointed at last, and so he appointed men, as if to do so was another blow in the cultural war he imagined himself fighting against progressive liberals.
In so doing however, Howard, like so many old conservatives, ended up undermining the very institution he claimed to love – in this case the monarchy. The Queen knows better than many of her most ardent supporters that institutions survive and prosper by going with history rather than against it. It is one of those strange ironies of Australian history that monarchists have tended to do more harm than good to the monarchy, just as republicans have tended to boost the monarchy’s fortunes in spite of themselves.
It was a Labor government after all that in 1972 declared Elizabeth II to be "Queen of Australia" in her official titles instead of "Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". The Queen herself said this had been long overdue. During the Whitlam era there were more royal visits than at any other time in Australian history, as Whitlam declared Australia to be "a kingdom" in its own right. Then a monarchist, Sir John Kerr, sacked the prime minister in controversial circumstances, alienating a generation and a whole side of politics from the institution of the Crown.
Keating may have been republican, but his appointment of William Deane as governor general proved enduringly popular. Deane, although selected from the traditional source as a former High Court judge, was empathetic and able to meet the many demands placed upon him to represent the emotional life of the nation. He also worked hard for reconciliation. For this he was sometimes maligned by conservatives, but his actions boosted the prestige of his office.
Once the republic referendum was defeated in 1999, John Howard had an opportunity to consolidate the prestige and relevance of the Australian monarchy. Instead, he set about usurping the role of the Queen’s representative. In 2000 he went so far as to suggest that he, rather than the governor general, should open the Olympic Games. Alhough he was defeated on this front, he nonetheless ensured that he, rather than the commander in chief, should take the lead in welcoming and farewelling Australian soldiers; and that he, rather than the monarch’s representative, should take the limelight in sacred moments of commemoration such as at ANZAC Day. Howard even started making Christmas messages. His office curtailed the activities and budget of the governor general in the quest to consolidate political and symbolic power into the one office of prime minister.
Now that Labor and republicans are back in power, the vice regency has begun to renew. As the former governor of Queensland, Bryce is experienced. As a longstanding advocate for the rights of women and children in a variety of public roles, she is also well connected to the community.
Media representations of Bryce as a mother and grandmother are also reminiscent of representations of the Queen and suggest that Australians may well warm to her as a symbolic representative as well as an administrator. Rudd’s choice is very fitting, and as such he could, like Labor leaders before him, enhance the prestige of the Australian monarchy by putting forward a governor general that represents "the spirit of modern Australia".
History is moving on once more. This time the monarchy is going with the flow rather than fighting against it, which is how the monarchy has always survived from age to age.
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