Put me down as a supporter of the Prime Minister on this one. Julia Gillard has been criticised by some for failing to join in the singing of God Save the Queen during a Diamond Jubilee beacon-lighting ceremony in Canberra last week. The Prime Minister was filmed and photographed in mute mode standing next to the boisterously vocal Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.
Gillard had a point. Why should Australia’s elected head of government sing the British national anthem in a ceremony honouring Australia’s unelected head of state? That was the problem with the diamond jubilee celebrations from an Australian point of view.
It’s understandable why the British revere their constitutional monarchy and the House of Windsor. Queen Elizabeth II is, after all, a British woman who heads a British institution. This was manifestly evident during the four-day diamond jubilee celebrations.
Take the sail-past, for example. The occasion was marked by the singing of the very English Land of Hope and Glory and the very British Rule Britannia along with God Save the Queen, Britain’s national anthem. There was scant reference to realms (like Australia) where the Queen is sovereign and head of state, or to the republican members (such as India) of the Commonwealth of Nations, which is headed by the Queen.
The royal family is primarily a British entity, which primarily works for Britain. So it should come as no surprise that the Queen supports British business, sport and cultural institutions when they compete against the rest of the world, including Australia.
It was always likely that the royal family would regain its status after what the Queen described about a decade ago as her “annus horribilis”. The behaviour of many members of the royal family, including Prince Charles, damaged the monarchy, as did Buckingham Palace’s initial mismanagement of Diana’s death in August 1997.
Elizabeth II presides over the British class system and its glittering symbols. It was always likely that a majority of her British subjects would again fully embrace the monarchy – particularly as Prince William and Prince Harry grew to manhood.
What has been surprising, however, is the extent to which the young Royals – particularly after William’s wedding to the Kate Middleton – restored the popularity of the House of Windsor outside Britain. The Windsors have become something quite unusual – a high-rating reality show that is essentially real.
According to last week’s Roy Morgan poll, 58 per cent of Australians believe Australia should remain a constitutional monarchy and 35 per cent don’t. There was a noticeable swing to the monarchy in the lead-up to the diamond jubilee.
There is anecdotal evidence to support the scientific polling. In recent times, ABC presenter Andrew West and The Australian journalist Christian Kerr have stepped forward to make a commitment to the monarchy. Both were once republicans.
And there is a growing sense of indifference to the palace and all that among republicans who favour Australians having an Australian head of state. Quite a few republicans were happy to be honoured in the Queen’s Birthday list yesterday. No doubt the surge in support for the monarch as Australia’s head of state partly reflects the longstanding popularity of the Queen and the rock-star-like appeal of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. However, according to the Roy Morgan Poll, 48 per cent of Australians would still want a constitutional monarchy with Charles as king, compared with 43 per cent opposed.
The latter eventuality could be a long way off. The “long to reign over us” part of the British national anthem has become a truism. The Queen could live for another two decades. This could mean that Charles will be over 80 when he becomes king. If he also tops a century, it is possible that William and Kate will not become king and queen until they are in their seventies.
The terrorist attacks in the United States, Britain and on Australians overseas of recent memory seem to have played a role in increasing support in Australia for the Australian-American alliance and the House of Windsor. The former helps provide security and intelligence. The latter offers an attractive symbolism at a time when there is a decline of religious belief and practice in many Western nations.
John Howard played a significant role in preserving the constitutional monarchy during the referendum of 1999. He clearly outflanked Malcolm Turnbull, the leader of the “yes” campaign, by obtaining the latter’s support for a constitutional referendum rather than initially testing support for a republic by a non-binding plebiscite. The monarchist cause was very much assisted by the divisions within the republican ranks, which saw the likes of Phil Cleary voting “no”.
The Labor Party remains united in supporting a republic and the Liberals remain divided on this issue. Abbott played a key role in defeating the “yes” campaign in 1999 but Julie Bishop was one of several republicans within the Coalition ranks at the time.
Labor can point to divisions within the Coalition on this issue at the next election. But, thanks to the current popularity of the Windsor reality show, it is unlikely that the republic will be a wedge issue for Labor any time soon.
Which suggests that God Save the Queen (or King) will still be heard on occasions in Canberra for some time to come.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.