Federal Politics


Royals are too far removed

The British diamond jubilee celebrations reinforce the positive republican arguments about Australian national identity by contrast with the hollowed-out British monarchy offered to Australians by monarchists.

The Diamond Jubilee celebrations of the Queen have been very much a British event. But they are not just British because they have an international audience, too, including many Australians.

The quintessential Britishness of the celebrations shows itself in both obvious and deeper ways. The obvious ways are to be found in the London location, the British anthems and the triumphalist English songs that have permeated the whole event.

Much more deeply and importantly, however, the British people, especially the English, can celebrate the event as an extension of themselves and of their own qualities and achievements. The British see themselves in the Queen and can react with pride in being British. These are exactly the words many British onlookers have used when interviewed. They feel better about themselves and their country as a consequence.

An international audience, on the other hand, can celebrate certain personal qualities exhibited by the Queen and from a distance they can admire her as a person; perhaps even as an exemplar of public life. They can also be attracted by the history and the pageantry. They can do this whether or not they live in a monarchy or a republic and regardless of their own nationality or political views. Many viewers have followed the events in this way.

Where does that leave Australians? The Australian view of the Jubilee is now more like that of an international audience than a British one. A majority view the Queen primarily as the British Queen.

The constitutional niceties mean the Queen is actually Queen of Australia, too, of course. Some Australians see her that way but most do not. Those that do may indeed be British Australians themselves or feel like a British Australian because of their heritage. Some have been interviewed enjoying themselves on the banks of the Thames. But the great majority of Australians cannot link the British Queen to their Australian national identity in the way that many British do to their British identity.


Australian monarchists consequently celebrate a diminished form of monarchy. They defend the status quo by various negative judgments about the republican alternative or about our own Australian politicians who they contrast with the calibre of the British Queen. Yet the real comparison, which they fear to make, should be with non-political figures in Australian public life such as the present governor-general. There are many Australians of similar high calibre. Two things follow. What is the correct response of the Australian government to the Diamond Jubilee? The low-key, formally correct response of the Gillard government got it about right. Their priorities correctly reflected a wider lack of excitement in the Australian community.

What, if anything, does this have to do with the monarchy-republic debate in Australia? The attraction of pageantry and concentration on personalities can certainly cloud the discussion, but ultimately the British celebrations reinforce the positive republican arguments about Australian national identity by contrast with the hollowed-out British monarchy offered to Australians by monarchists.

There is nothing inconsistent in Australian republicans joining in offering congratulations to the Queen on her achievements as the Australian Republican Movement has done. But such congratulations are offered in an appropriately uncritical spirit consistent with the occasion. They are like major birthday greetings, wedding anniversary congratulations, or even obituaries, which emphasise the positive. They neglect for the moment a rounded picture of the whole person in the interests of respect.

The ARM notes that ''The Queen represents British values, British spirit and represents the UK to the world''. By contrast, ''We need someone who represents Australia's values, our national character and our identity''. In short, we need someone who makes us proud to be Australian. The Queen does not do that for us, but our head of state should.

Nevertheless, the Diamond Jubilee Queen offers one model for a future republican head of state of Australia when change comes. Republicans shouldn't shy away from such an examination because greater thought ought to be given to the desirable characteristics of a head of state.

There are different ways, personal and institutional, to examine the Queen as an exemplar. The personal ones include the way in which the Queen has carried herself. In some ways she is a good model. She has stuck to her job through thick and thin. And some of her personal characteristics, like her gritty determination to carry out her duties, have been admirable even if they have been exaggerated.

In other ways she is not a useful model at all. She occupies an inherited, undemocratic position and she has done so for 60 years. While we can always appreciate personal endurance, such long service is at best a mixed blessing. Longevity is not a good thing in itself. It prevents reasonable transitions to the next generation. Furthermore any monarch encumbers the nation with a royal family that in turn sustains an aristocracy and a class system. A republican president does not.

Finally, as Professor Anne Twomey has pointed out recently in an article titled Her Majesty's Secret in the Australian Financial Review, we just don't know much about how the Queen operates, though she is apparently an activist, because she is so protected by a veil of secrecy. There is absolutely no transparency about the Queen's constitutional role as head of state.

In a constitutional democracy that is just not good enough. Twomey, a widely respected professor of constitutional law at the University of Sydney, concludes that ''The Queen may be the person on this planet about whom most is written but least is known''. Yet democracy demands accountability, transparency and scrutiny of all its office-holders.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University and deputy chairman of the Australian Republican Movement John.Warhurst@anu.edu.au