Here we go again, another royal visit and all the nonsense that goes with it. It’s where the monarchy is personalised and applauded in ways politicians can only dream of. It’s where the old habits associated with colonialism are tolerated, for fear that their opposite will cause offence to a visitor. Politics becomes celebrity and celebrity becomes political.
Of course the British media love it. Australians bowing to their royal family and confirming their view that despite appearances the sun never really sets on the British Empire.
Wouldn't it be so much better if the royals came as invited guests of our own head of state, as friends and also colleagues, just as they do in republics like India and South Africa. There too they are warmly welcomed by the people but as representatives of Great Britain and supporters of the Commonwealth of Nations.
It all boils down to: because Australia is a constitutional monarchy, the monarchists need a story to tell. It can’t be about “Australia and its people” because that takes you down the path to national independence and Australian governors-general and governors, the replacement of God Save the Queen with Advance Australia Fair as our national anthem, an Australian system of honours for distinguished service to the nation and a distinctively Australian oath of allegiance for new citizens, parliamentarians and ministers.
Why did we go this way? We didn’t want the monarch interfering with our choices of governor-general and governor. We wanted our own national anthem, our own system of honours and we wanted our citizens to swear allegiance to our nation, its people and the rights and liberties they enjoy. It was all about self-respect and pride in our own democracy, with its mix of elements: British, American and Swiss.
The logic of this argument is powerfully republican — if we run our own affairs why shouldn’t one of us be head-of-state with powers and responsibilities based on our democratically derived views of what is needed?
There are, of course, those who agree with this narrative, describing Australia as a “crowned republic”, the only role of the monarch being to tick off on who shall be the vice-regal representative in Canberra and the states. This means putting off the agenda any consideration of an alternative system which would see a fusing of the roles currently played by the Queen and her vice-regal representatives, or even perhaps a new conception of what that new role would be.
In other words these pragmatic monarchists say we have gone far enough along the journey to national independence, the Australia Act of 1986 being the end point. Going further, they say, is not worth the effort.
For others in the monarchist camp it’s not pragmatism but ideology that governs their thinking. They agree with Tony Abbott on the need for knights and dames over and above our own honours and on a Prime Ministerial oath of allegiance to the Queen and her successors rather than to Australia and its people.
They believe the royal family are somehow “special” and crucially important to our system of democracy. Indeed, they see the monarch as some sort of “check and balance” in our political system whose reserve powers are handed across to the governor-general and governors.
The truth is, of course, that liberty and democracy were won in Great Britain despite the monarchy, not because of it. In Australia’s case, the national independence we enjoy today was also won despite the monarchy, not because of it.
The monarchy has learned to live with democracy at home and with a good dose of republicanism in former colonies like Australia. However, there is one thing they can never do, despite their best efforts, and that is to represent Australia.
The British monarchy is just that — a British institution occupied by Britons and run from Buckingham Palace. More to the point in a democratic and egalitarian nation (no aristocracy here, despite the best efforts of William Wentworth in 19th century New South Wales) the position is not open to all, as former governor-general Quentin Bryce reminded us last year.
It’s British-based and it’s hereditary. How can that inspire and unite the Australian people? This takes us to the heart of the matter. Do we have faith in our own capacity to develop a new institution that is an Australian head of state or are the pragmatic monarchist’s right in thinking that it isn’t worth it?
Will we continue to believe as the ideological monarchists do that the British royal family is best placed to do the job — and even more — despite their home and their allegiance being elsewhere? I’d say we can’t change a past that is partly British but we can build a future that is authentically Australian.
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