Britain’s monarchial transition

The ABC’s extraordinary attention to an event in a distant land

While the Australian Republican Movement confined itself to a rather anodyne statement about the death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, it was left to Pauline Hanson to explain the weirdness of our constitutional situation, when, in her charming and gracious way, she invited fellow Senator Mehreen Faruqi “to piss off back to Pakistan”.

Farqui’s offence: because she had expressed criticism of a foreign head of state, she was being disloyal to Australia.

That’s a hard one to comprehend.

Senator Farqui may not be going anywhere, but with an enthusiasm matched only by Bazza McKenzie, Prime Minister Albanese is off to London, where he will be lucky if he can get a sofa bed in Australia House, because the city seems to be overwhelmed with sentimental royalists and ABC journalists who have abandoned their posts in other countries.

From the instant of Queen Elizabeth’s death, for the next two days the ABC was absorbed with Britain’s monarchical transition. Nothing else in the world – war in Ukraine, starvation in Ethiopia, floods in Pakistan, the far-right’s threats to American democracy – was of any consequence.

Regular television news gave way to hagiographies and to reports about a carefully-choreographed series of events that had about much news content as the cycle of tides and the rotation of planets. Britain’s monarchical transition is a dignified and colourful event, with all the predictability and precision of a military tattoo. Excellent theatre, but newsworthy?

Perhaps if it had been revealed that Elizabeth II had left instructions that her funeral service was to be in London’s Catholic Westminster Cathedral rather than in the Anglican Westminster Abbey, that would have been newsworthy. Perhaps if a streaker had upset the solemnity of the occasion there would have been something unexpected to report. But about all that wasn’t fully predictable was the fate of the corgis: dog lovers will be relieved to learn that they have been allocated a new royal home.

We can get some hint about the thinking that drove the ABC to an over-the-top coverage of the British monarchical transition from a 6 -minute video clip in which ABC Chair, Ita Buttrose (holder of the Order of the British Empire), seemed to revert to her earlier role as editor of the Women’s Weekly. She admitted openly that the Women’s Weekly in the 1950s had built up fairy-tale stories about the young Queen Elizabeth, almost to the extent of suggesting that her celebrity status was a media construction. Explaining the large crowds that turned up for the 1954 royal visit, Buttrose said “there was a lot of British in all of us”.

“All of us” – really? The hundreds and thousands of Dutch, German, Italian and Greek immigrants who had come in the postwar years? The descendants of Irish immigrants who had come 100 years earlier to escape a brutal British occupation? The people who had been on this land for 60 000 years?

She went on to talk about the idea that Australia should become a republic, asserting that “no one would entertain that while the Queen was still alive”.

“No one”? The 45 percent of the population who voted for a republic in 1999, even though many disliked the model, and the prime minister of the time, an open Anglophile, was opposed to the idea?

Were Buttrose just another Australian citizen, or a spokesperson for a body such as the Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, such misrepresentations would be understandable, but she is not just another Australian citizen: she is head of Australia’s most trusted media organization, which is one of the most valuable institutions in our democracy. If her thinking has permeated the ABC, there is little hope that it will give serious cover to the inevitable and necessary public debates around our governance and constitutional arrangements.

What the transition means for the world outside Britain

Prime Minister Albanese has said now is not the time to discuss a republic, but writers of The Economist must have ignored his advice, for they report on republican moves among the 15 nations where the British monarch still serves as head of state. (When Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth in 1952 there were 32 such nations.) The present monarchical transition may accelerate a process that’s been bubbling along for some time, particularly in the Caribbean.

The Economist article mentions Jenny Hocking’s revelations about the events surrounding Whitlam’s dismissal in 1975. The Queen’s private secretary, Martin Charteris, told Governor-General Kerr in advance that he had the power to dismiss Whitlam, and Prince Charles, now King Charles III, is quoted as saying to Kerr “What you did last year was right and the courageous thing to do”.

In an interview on ABC radio Hocking refers to the Palace’s involvement in the Whitlam dismissal in the general context of Charles’s strongly-expressed public views. (9 minutes, the first 6 minutes of which are a recollection of the discreet political behaviour of Queen Elizabeth.)

On the ABC Law Report constitutional expert Anne Twomey is interviewed about the extent of Queen Elizabeth’s political involvement in Britain and in other countries. Twomey seems to agree with Hocking that the Palace was certainly involved in that it was informed about Kerr’s moves, but she does not believe that its involvement contributed to the dismissal. (First 16 minutes of the podcast.)

No matter how much affection we may have for Queen Elizabeth and King Charles, the British monarchy retains its position as a symbol of the British Empire, a matter taken up in a Late Night Live session on Monday night – Mourning the Queen and reckoning with empire. Ellen Fanning, standing in for Phillip Adams, interviews Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff, author of an editorial in the New York Times Mourn the Queen, not her empire, an editorial that attracted scathing criticism from the Republican right in America, who have re-cast the British Empire as an empire of benign humanity. (Pity about that minor misunderstanding in 1776.)

Introducing the session, Fanning says “It helped that Professor Maya Jasanoff genuinely acknowledged what she called the Queen’s ‘profound and sincere commitment to her duties’, because it sort of gave her the room to go on and say very plainly that the Queen’s presence helped obscure the bloody history and ugliness of empire”.

The 15-minute session goes on to a discussion of how, in many countries, in Africa and the Caribbean, the Empire is associated with slavery, other forms of exploitation and racism.

For most Australians, other than the original owners of the land, the legacy of empire is more positive. It’s about the founding of Australia. But it’s also about an assumption held by many Australians that we somehow have a special relationship with the UK and that our interests are closely aligned with those of the UK. That assumption led us into a war in 1914-18 that had nothing to do with our interests and cost the lives of 60 000 young Australians. It led to the Menzies government, in 1952, inviting the British to drop atomic bombs on our country. We have often concluded trade deals with the UK that are detrimental to our interests (such as British preferential tariffs), and may have lain behind the Morrison government’s dumping a French submarine contract in favour of AUKUS. We shouldn’t blame Britain for looking after its interests: rather the fault lies in Australians who let sentimentality and a cultural cringe distract them from our national interests.

Why we have to sever constitutional links with the British monarchy

More pressing than these dysfunctional sentimental attachments to Britain, we have the serious problem of unsatisfactory constitutional arrangements.

Thomas Keneally, first chair of the Australian Republican Movement, is another to have ignored Albanese’s “now is not the time” gag. He has an article in The GuardianHollow, cloying veneration greeted the Queen’s death. Now history calls on us to get an Australian head of state – and has a 13 minute interview on ABC Breakfast.

Some may say that because the governor-general is de facto head of state we have a clear separation of powers. But it isn’t really a separation of powers, because the choice of who becomes governor-general is made by the prime minister. Imagine being in a position to dismiss the person who appointed you to that position, or even the difficulty of putting your foot down if he or she is acting out of order – the situation we have seen in the case of Morrison’s multiple secret appointments.

In any event, as we have learned, the British monarch or her agents have been prepared to become involved in our governance, as was the case in 1975. The right to appoint a prime minister is the most significant of imperial powers.

A related issue is that over the years the prime minister has tended to displace the governor-general in functions that normally belong to the head-of-state. We are becoming more similar to the US, where the functions of head of state and head of government are combined in one position. While some monarchists assert that the US provides a reason why we should not become a republic, they are missing the fact that it’s because we do not have a clear head of state that we now share some of America’s dysfunctional governance. Monarchists and republicans alike should be able to agree that the USA presents a poor governance model.

My prime minister shall declare a holiday

It is understandable that Prime Minister Albanese wants to kick this problem down the road for a while: the newly-elected government has a huge political agenda and is committed to a referendum on a First Nations Voice to Parliament, that will put big demands on our energy for constitutional change.

But Albanese’s argument that in suspending parliament and declaring a public holiday he is following convention is unconvincing. When Queen Elizabeth was crowned, “God Save the Queen” was our national anthem, Australian passports described their bearers as “British subjects”, appeals could be made to Britain’s Privy Council overriding our High Court and it was still possible for the UK government to make laws for Australia. Whatever happened in 1952 was in a very different country, and can hardly be considered as a precedent for 2022.

If Albanese wants to follow precedent he could recall that the Whitlam government abolished appeals to the privy council, and it was the Hawke government that finally saw to the removal of the right of the British to make laws for our country.

But Albanese has even resisted a simple symbolic opportunity to remove the image of a foreign monarch from our coins, although Andrew Leigh did concede that the image on our $5 note may be up for consideration. (Does anyone other than a dedicated numismatist handle physical currency these days?) The only plausible explanation for Albanese’s behaviour is that he’s trying to burnish his conservative credentials.

Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham provides a cool head in his comments on Australia’s response to Britain’s monarchical transition, and on their King’s likely public statements, particularly on climate change. The republican debate will come again, he says. But for now, Birmingham says, our constitutional priority is the Voice to Parliament which is where political effort should be directed. (9 minutes)

First Nation Australians and the British monarchy

It is not possible to generalize about the way First Nations Australians see the British monarchy, other than to note that their perspectives, conditioned by history, differ from those of most other Australians.

SBS News, in an article Not everyone is mourning the death of the Queen. Here's why, quotes Wiradjuri Professor of Indigenous Studies Sandy O’Sullivan who says of Queen Elizabeth that she was not a “bystander to the effects of colonialization and colonialism” and that “she had a job for decades that oversaw actions that made Indigenous people’s lives worse”.

A more balanced and nuanced picture is provided by NITV – What First Nations people are saying following Queen Elizabeth’s death. Most of the stories are about affection for Queen Elizabeth, including instances where she showed respect and affection that contrasted with the patronising and racist attitudes expressed by the “white” Australians with whom Aboriginal people had contact. Some express a degree of indifference and a questioning of the place of the British monarch in Australian lives, essentially a mainstream republican view, but O’Sullivan’s is the only strongly negative comment.

The ABC has a 10-minute interview with Peter Yu, a Yawuru man and Vice President First Nations at the ANU, who speaks about his experience as part of a 1999 delegation that met with Queen Elizabeth to discuss Britain’s historic responsibility to the indigenous people of Australia. He was struck by her depth of understanding of the history and the present situation of indigenous Australians, and the respect she showed to their culture. He notes that this was in contrast to the hostile attitude shown by the Howard government.

Ever since the first Irish came off the convict transports there has been a lively republican movement in Australia. There was also a tough “settler” attitude among many Australians who had no respect at all for the country’s original owners. It is notable that UK Secretary of State for the Colonies, Earl Grey, was deeply concerned about the fate of Aborigines under settler-controlled governments, and warned that Governor FitzRoy “must be instructed to take care that they are not driven off all that country which is divided into grazing”.

That settler perspective, described by Yu and others, goes back a long way, and unfortunately our colonial governments didn’t seem to have heeded Grey’s exhortation. Even so, until 1901 what happened in the Australian colonies was the responsibility of the British government, and they bear some historical responsibility. The ABC’s Dana Morse reminds us that “the Queen's third-great grandfather claimed the lands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, leading to the violent takeover by British invaders”: Queen Elizabeth II's death shows we're still uncomfortable with Australia's colonial truth.

Understandably most Australians have never wanted a foreign government to dictate our laws but as we all should know, our colonial governments had a poor record, and it was been entirely appropriate for the imperial government to check our rough settler culture wherever they could.