Stand up Australia, stop the royal naming cringe
Date: November 8 2012
Constitutional monarchies like Australia can't escape having their cultural landscape flooded with landmarks, large and small, named after their monarchs. Because our country is part of a formerly imperial monarchy rather than a national monarchy, local Australian culture and history is not given its due. Instead it is overshadowed by elements of empire. There is an over-abundance of such monarchical landmarks around Australia. As a consequence the republican cause for those who care about Australian history and culture is more about culture than it is about power.
This is the context for the mistaken decision by the federal government and the National Capital Authority to rename the lakeside part of Parkes Place as Queen Elizabeth Terrace. The official justification is that it is in honour of the Queen's diamond jubilee. The new terrace will be officially opened by Prince Charles and his wife Camilla during their visit to Canberra this Saturday.
Royal tours like the one that Charles and Camilla are currently engaged in across Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia don't particularly worry me as a republican. The Australian Republican Movement director, David Morris, has explained that whether members of the royal family are seen as celebrities or foreign dignitaries, their visits should have no bearing on the republican constitutional debate in Australia.
Such tours, remarkably frequent at the moment, come and go for Australians who can choose for themselves whether to take an interest and whether to attend one of the carefully crafted public functions.
There is, however, the question of cost and whether or not that should be borne by the Australian taxpayer. Community and political leaders, whether republican or not, may find these royal events either pleasurable or boring according to taste.
For most they are an unavoidable part of their civic responsibilities. Most of these functions are of a social and/or charitable nature.
But some events on royal tours go further than that and do impinge on our national identity in ways that should offend Australians. Royal tour programs that include the opening of significant Australian national institutions do diminish Australian national identity.
A disappointingly large number of Australian institutions, such as parliaments and courts, have been opened by royal persons in recent years, including the new Parliament House and the new High Court building in Canberra. These occasions should be proud celebrations of Australian democratic achievements but instead our leaders regularly defer to the British royal family.
The same is true of important celebrations such as the Australian bicentenary in 1988 and the prospective centenary of Canberra, the national capital, in 2013.
Our leaders often defend their choices by arguing that while Australia remains a constitutional monarchy with a British head of state, they actually have no choice. But that is not good enough and does nothing to stop the cultural damage being inflicted on Australia by such inappropriate decisions. It was the fact that Prince Charles was asked, inappropriately, to give the keynote speech in Sydney on Australia Day in the bicentennial year that ignited Malcolm Turnbull's republican determination even before the formation of the Australian Republican Movement.
It is also unfortunate that during this tour Charles and Camilla were so prominent at the Melbourne Cup. The Cup holds an iconic place in Australian history and culture and in recent years is showcasing Australia to the world in an unprecedented way. What do the organisers think they are doing in giving pride of place on this occasion to British royal family members rather than to an Australian dignitary or hero? What does the international television audience make of such a choice and what does it say about Australian self-confidence and identity?
But even royal openings and presentations are less of an affront to Australian national identity than the continued naming of Australian places after the British royal family. The practice continues unabated into the 21st century. It is natural for such things to occur in colonies, but surely not independent nations. Naming of such things and places is not just a bow to history but embeds colonial dependence in a fresh way for centuries to come.
The renaming of a part of Parkes Place, which generated the Save Parkes Place petition initiated by Benjamin Jones, is a prime example of such mistaken decisions. The national memory of Henry Parkes, a famous father of our Federation, is pushed aside.
It is especially inappropriate in the national capital, itself symbolic of our new nation rather than old colonial Australia. Canberra suburb names, including Parkes, in which the renamed Queen Elizabeth Terrace is situated, deliberately honour both our founding fathers and outstanding Australians since then, like Judith Wright and H. C. Coombs.
The outcome of this royal imprint is that in the heart of our national capital, which contains our great national institutional landmarks, rather than honouring our own heroes we are embedding the names of British monarchs. Our earlier status might possibly justify the naming of King Edward Terrace and King George Terrace nearby but there is no longer any persuasive reason for a new Queen Elizabeth Terrace.
Nor is this naming an isolated example. Last August the new Queensland government named the state's new courts complex the Queen Elizabeth II Courts of Law.
Premier Campbell Newman reminded the audience that Queensland was named after Queen Victoria so it was appropriate that the new complex, a major landmark, should be named after Australia's head of state in her diamond jubilee year.
This is evidence of a continuing cultural battle. To prevent these throwbacks continuing, Australians should choose to become a republic with an Australian head of state.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University and deputy chairman of the Australian Republican Movement.