If you are an Australian in London and seeking to hang out with a group of expatriate republicans, it would be worth checking out the guests’ entrance to Buckingham Palace. Especially if a member of the royal family is about to make a visit Down Under.
This tactic would have worked last Friday when the Queen hosted a reception for about 300 Australians based in Britain before her visit to Australia. Elizabeth II arrives in Canberra tomorrow for a tour that culminates in the opening of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth on October 28.
The palace reception was attended by the famous and near-famous, including Elle Macpherson, Jason Donovan and Hugh Jackman. The celebrity couple Geoffrey Robertson, QC, and Kathy Lette were also there. Lette obtained the Queen’s attention by turning up in a corgi-covered dress.
It was one of those don’t-talk-about-the-republic occasions. Writing in The Sunday Age on April 17, Lette commented: “Mention ‘the Queen’ to most Australians and they presume you’re talking about Elton John.” She concluded by declaring, “it’s time Australia had a Windsor-ectomy.” Get it?
In The Canberra Times on April 27, Robertson referred to “the absurdity of the constitutional arrangements which require Britain to be reigned over by a White Anglo-German Protestant monarch” – whom he described as belonging to “this German family”. He also wrote that “the bedrock of Britain’s constitution is the Act of Settlement of 1701, a blood-curdling anti-Catholic rant, which enshrines the genes and Protestant religious beliefs of Princess Sophia of Hanover in the succession to the throne”.
Needless to say, there were no reports of any republican-inspired references to Windsor-ectomies or to German families when Lette and Robertson rocked up to the palace on Friday. Rather it was a case of “How frightfully pleased to meet you” and “Yes ma’am”. The reception served as a reminder that the royal family is a hereditary celebrity institution at a time when celebrity is more important than ever.
There is little doubt that the republican cause is in retreat in Australia. This may be a temporary phenomenon. However, it is likely to prevail for as long as Elizabeth II presides on the throne. There are a number of possible reasons for the growth of monarchist sentiment.
First, the Islamist terrorist attacks on the West and Westerners over the past decade have tended to unite the citizens of Western democracies, including the Commonwealth nations. Second, the growth to adulthood of Prince William and his marriage to an attractive commoner, Kate Middleton, has given the monarchy greater relevance. And, third, the royal family is a bastion of stability in an increasingly changing world.
The relative popularity of the monarchy underlines the foolishness of the direct-election republicans who voted “no” in the 1999 constitutional referendum because they opposed the model on offer, whereby Australia’s head of state would be chosen by elected politicians.
The photographs of radical leftists such as Phil Cleary linking up with such avowed monarchists as Kerry Jones provide a permanent record of how the search for ideal outcomes can often be counterproductive. It is unlikely that there will be another referendum on Australia becoming a republic in the short term.
Without question, the Queen has been a popular and dutiful monarch over almost six decades. Yet Australia’s head of state remains quintessentially a British figure.
On Sunday, Professor David Flint argued that Australia is “already a republic . . . we’re a crowned republic”. This is quite misleading – as Flint’s very own position indicates. He is national convener of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy. He does not claim to represent such an entity as “Australians for a Crowned Republic”. Britain is a constitutional monarchy. So is Australia. And so are other members of the Commonwealth of Nations such as Canada and New Zealand.
David Cameron’s government is considering changing the rules of succession to make it possible for the first-born, rather than the first-born male, to inherit the throne. This proposal will be discussed by the heads of government of the constitutional monarchies – or realms – who attend the CHOGM.
However, the ban on Catholics becoming king or queen – or even marrying into the royal family – is likely to remain for a while at least. On her visit, the Queen is scheduled to attend an Anglican service at St John’s Church in Canberra. In her previous 15 visits to Australia, the Queen of Australia has never attended a service in a Catholic church or a synagogue or a mosque.
The 1701 Act of Settlement is very much extant. The likes of Robertson rail against this but they attend receptions at the palace, which suggests that celebrity matters above all.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.