Royals welcome, as guests, not masters

“A HALF-CENTURY can make a difference. And, with each royal visit down under by the Queen, contrasts are made of the crowds that flocked to her first visit and the much tinier crowds that greet her today.

In 1954, the eight-week tour of the Queen and Prince Philip to Australia attracted three-quarters of the nation to roadsides, sporting ovals, civic functions and the like.

In Melbourne with my parents I stood, aged four, to wave at her passing by – despite, on my father’s side at least, our Catholic family’s Irish republican traditions.

With cities lit up by thousands of light bulbs and decorative crowns and emblems, there was a little touch of royalist in most of us as the monarchy attracted the stardom of celebrities, a young English Queen and her good-looking husband.

It was interesting to note that, as she opened the Sydney Opera House colonnade yesterday, she acknowledged how Australia is not the place it was when she made her first visit as Queen. She went on to praise Australia’s growth, economically and as a nation, as well as its immigration program that “was to change the face of Australian society”.

Ironically, the sentiments the Queen expressed (unintentionally) raised the question – why is it that such a modern and developed nation, after 200 years of non-indigenous settlement, does not have an Australian head of state?

Respect and admiration for the Queen is still strong. That does not mean, however, that Australians feel comfortable as a whole with the contradiction at the heart of their identity. Opinion polls continue to register that most Australians want an Australian head of state, the first symbol of any nation.

While Australia’s head of state remains a hereditary English monarch, bound by a sectarian law not to marry a Catholic under a system that gives preference to male heirs, that contradiction will continue to confuse and debilitate any sense of national pride.

It is pointless to argue the sophistry that Australia’s Governor-General, Michael Jeffery, is the country’s head of state. The Governor-General’s office admitted in January that Jeffery agreed with Attorney-General Philip Ruddock’s opinion that the Queen is head of state and the Governor-General is her representative.

However, the pedantry in the debate has disturbed many at Clarence House in London. As Australians debate the republic, it is often said that no constitutional change to a republic will happen until the Queen dies. Such is the respect people have for her and the role she so admirably carries out.

This argument, given voice by Treasurer Peter Costello and former prime minister Bob Hawke, may well be correct.

But it does nothing for the image of the present heir to the British throne.

Insiders say that Prince Charles is concerned he will appear to have “lost the colonies” if his accession to the throne at the death of his mother sparks republican change in places such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The Prince would much prefer a carefully managed transition well before that.

As the Queen walked side by side with NSW Governor Marie Bashir at the Sydney Opera House on Monday, a new image of Australia was on display. No longer the young English Queen in sweeping skirts surrounded by admiring male leaders ready to bob and bow, but a much older woman accompanied by the state’s first female Governor, born in country NSW and of Lebanese descent; a Governor who is also a professor, who is much admired and respected, and whose claim to represent her state is one of merit for the job.

The Queen has been an outstanding monarch. But in a half-century her relevance to Australia is less and less. This is something Prince Charles, more interested in French farmers than Australian ones, knows well.

The monarchy has no interest in being part of a political tussle here. The palace well recognises that Australia must eventually find a way to face up to the anomaly of a head of state who is a foreigner. It understands that while historical traditions are important, they won’t be tolerated when they become an anachronism.

Australia’s constitutional monarchists will no doubt continue to try to convince their audiences that Australia already has an Australian head of state. They are in denial.

Meanwhile, with every royal visit, more and more Australians wonder what relevance words such as “born to reign over us” have to a country such as Australia.”

Article published in The Australian

'2012