As a monarchist, I ought to be excited at the Queen’s visit to our corner of her dominion. At the very least, I could indulge in Schadenfreude listening to republicans whinge. But the listless debate — dusting off the same old talking points, replaying the same old discussions, regurgitating the same old rhetorical flourishes — isn’t exciting anymore. The debate is stale and neither side have come up with a new idea since 1999.
Briefly, I’m a monarchist because the "monarchy" part of "constitutional monarchy" is working well enough and doesn’t cause too many problems. I’m not so sure about the "constitutional" part. There are fundamental, structural problems in Australian democracy (the Senate being the party’s house rather than the states’ house; Simpson’s Paradox throwing election results; states bogging down the economy with inefficient taxes) and there is no reason to exacerbate them by creating a new, political head of power. Why change something that works when there are so many things that need fixing?
No argument or reason could soothe the rage of the rabid republicans; we monarchists have got our smug, self-satisfied chortling rehearsed and aren’t likely to change the hymn sheet any time soon. We are doomed to dwell in this depressing Groundhog Day debate.
The pictures of Her Majesty’s daily doings about the colony don’t rouse me from my monarchist-ennui. Instead, they haunt me, taunting me with a deep, troubling puzzle: who is the Queen?
It is difficult to imagine what an interesting person she must be. She was born into fabulous wealth and privilege, given the best tutors and sent to the best schools, introduced into the social circles of the influential and powerful. She even trained as a mechanic. Despite this fantastic investment into her as a person, she remains at arm’s length from public debates.
While she was in the UK, I never expected to hear her discuss anything. Now that she’s here, it is more obvious that we demote her to a celebrity known by her appearance and not by her opinions, views, or beliefs. By placing a crown upon her head, we objectified her and reduced her to little more than a title.
A friend of mine works at a primary school where the pupils begged to jump on the royal visit bandwagon. They wrote letters, they drew pictures, and they made a crown to present to her. When I asked why the students were so excited about the royal visit, my friend thought it had something to do with the fairytale aspect of the Queen. Royalty is a dominant theme in most of our children’s literature. Kingdoms are put under spells by wicked witches. Kings give orders to kill dragons who threaten agricultural prosperity. Princesses sleep in castles waiting for dashing young men to come along and claim them like property. The best Disney films either have a monarch or Stitch. For the students, the Queen became the embodiment of mythology and folklore.
I find it difficult to believe that the rest of the population is much different. As the Queen tours, we don’t see her as a person but as an avatar of tradition and heritage. What a waste of a person who, by all accounts of her younger years, was a sharp and keen intellect. What a travesty that we squander the cultural and educational resources that we’ve invested in her. What a loss.
The real problem with the monarchy isn’t that it’s "un-Australian" or medieval; the problem is that our sovereign could be so much more than a tourist attraction. Here is a person who does not rely on the goodwill of political allies or business moguls for her livelihood. She doesn’t have an employer who could fire her or a backbencher to appease. The Queen is the most non-partial person we can achieve in society.
Meanwhile, most of the Anglophone world is suffering an impoverished public debate. Businesses have somehow convinced us all that keeping them rich is in our best interests. Megaphones in the echo chamber of our media landscape confuse controversy for insight. Most of us are now incapable of believing that rational people can disagree with our opinions without being trolls, mendacious, or mentally insufficient.
So who better to rejuvenate and cultivate a civilised public discourse than the Queen? If she’s to be our head of state, why can’t she also be a leader? It’s time to bring back the Philosopher Queen.
Imagine it. A genuine controversy arises regarding a piece of public policy. Politicians, fearful of voters’ hatred for spines, evade and resort to the vacuity that has made our democracy what it is today. Suddenly, a challenger approaches: the head of state drops the outdated pretence of royal etiquette to provide some insight into the controversy, nurturing a public discussion that’s rational, thoughtful, and calm. Nobody could accuse her of being a paid shill, a front group for an organisation, or an attention-seeker: she’s the Queen. Instead of being a sentient ornament, she could improve debate by being a public intellectual.
No doubt, many of you will be already headed to the comments section to tell me that allowing the Queen to express an opinion on anything is a terrible suggestion. We expect the Queen to be apolitical. Expressing a strong opinion or participating in public debate gives her — a person elevated to greatness by virtue of being born to the correct family in the correct order — more influence than she should have.
We have a habit of confusing "apolitical" with "vacant automaton". Apolitical should refer only to party partiality. Public servants should give policy advice to their government masters. Ombudspersons, Auditors-General, and other statutory positions should frankly and fearlessly critique government performance. When public servants or watchdogs collude with politicians, when they campaign for parties rather than analyse policies, when they deceive in order to achieve some political result, they cease being apolitical. The media, for some reason, cries havoc and lets slip the dogs of war when public servants use Twitter, write blogs, or in some way express an opinion on any issue. The classic example was Dr Ken Henry, former Secretary to the Treasury, who provided excellent, impartial advice and was then attacked for not being apolitical.
The Queen should be able to fit into a similar intellectual space in our public discourse, expressing apolitical opinions and crafting impartial arguments on matters of public interest. Cultivating that intellectual space creates room for other, apolitical voices in the debate. She could lend her voice to views that would otherwise be overlooked by a media addicted to triviality and sound bites. If we must have a monarch — and we must — we deserve one who does more than just appear on our currency. It’s time for Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth to be more than a title.
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