Most of us have not known any British sovereign other than Queen Elizabeth II. The much-loved and admired 95-year-old rarely shows signs of vulnerability, but in recent days that has changed.
After an overnight stay in hospital for an unspecified disorder, the Queen canceled a trip to Northern Ireland and her appearance at the COP26 summit in Glasgow. Instead, doctors advised her to rest.
In her pre-recorded speech to the summit, she said quite poignantly that “none of us will leave forever”, in a call for arms on climate action. This raises the question of how life could be without the Queen, and especially what impact it could have on Australia.
Queen Elizabeth is the longest reigning British monarch, and the only one most Australians have known. Should she die, Prince Charles would automatically succeed as our head of state.
During the Queen’s visit to Australia in 2011, Prime Minister Julia Gillard described the Queen as “a vital constitutional part of Australian democracy”. She probably did not refer to the part of our constitution that allows the Queen to reject any legislation, even after it has been signed by the Governor-General.
No monarch has actually used this provision, and the most controversial use of monarchical power is the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975 by Sir John Kerr.
While Kerr acted in accordance with the Constitution, there is little doubt that he was encouraged by Buckingham Palace. Although the extent of the Queen’s own involvement remains unknown, there is clear evidence that Prince Charles has advised Kerr.
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The dismissal certainly gave new life to the Republican movement, but it did not weaken Australia’s emotional ties to the monarchy. It may in fact have strengthened them as Whitlam, Kerr and Fraser in turn disappeared from public life while the Queen remained as a symbol of continuity.
The events of 1975 remind us that the monarch may retain some political significance, but the symbolic weight of the queen’s position as head of state is more difficult to assess. Her head remains on our coins, her birthday is celebrated by a holiday – though never on her actual birthday – and her name is in our passports, which nonetheless gives us no special privilege when we land in the UK.
During her reign, she has been represented by 16 governors-general, all but one man. These were traditionally British, including the Queen’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. But since 1965, when Robert Menzies appointed his longtime rival Richard Casey, they have all been Australian.
While the Queen must approve the appointment, the Governor-General is essentially the election of a sitting Prime Minister. Under liberal governments, three of our former four governors-general have come from the military.
None of the 14 Australian Prime Ministers who have pledged Her Majesty allegiance have been indiscreet enough to suggest that her views have influenced their policies. The consensus is that she is well-informed and a good conversation partner. But her presence has been an important conservative factor in Australian political discourse, only partially broken during debates over a republic.
Our constitutional system favors politicians, even those who advocate republicanism. With the exception of Quentin Bryce, appointed by Kevin Rudd, recent governors-general have had a low profile, leaving prime ministers to fill many of the ceremonial roles typically associated with a head of state. A president, no matter how he is appointed, would change that balance.
The Queen has visited Australia at least 14 times, though she carefully avoided traveling during the Republican debates of the late 1990s. Her heir, Prince Charles, spent two periods on Geelong Grammar’s exclusive country campus. Royal tours no longer draw hundreds of thousands out into the streets, but they remain a tangible sign of the entrenched threads that still connect us to Britain.
The royals are continually hired to maintain a particular version of Australian history. It is one that honors British explorers and settlers, ignores the wars against the native owners of the land, and praises fight by the British side in two world wars.
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The continued presence of the royal family underscores the British origins of settler Australia, even as indigenous and migrant communities grow in self-confidence and self-confidence. Our political elites remain strongly Anglo-Irish in origin, our news coverage is still far more aware of Britain than its significance demands.
When I did interviews for my latest book on constitutional monarchies, I have been struck by the extent to which most of us are confused about the Queen’s actual role and the extent of enthusiasm left for the royals. In an age of autocrats and growing insecurities, there is something comforting in our ties to a family, no matter how remote they are, whose very fragility gives a sense of continuity and security.
Australian Republicans have assumed that the debate can resume after the Queen’s death, but it may underestimate the wave of emotion that her passing will trigger and the sympathy for Charles, who will succeed the throne well beyond retirement age.
For tactical reasons, mainstream Republicans argue that the necessary changes are minimal. But if Australia is to break with the monarchy, it requires a will to imagine a rather different constitutional order, one that reflects Australia as it is now, not one framed by white British men more than a century ago.