Throughout history, the British monarchy has been an integral part of that nation’s culture and history. As England’s oldest secular institution, it is intertwined with the nation’s identity and political culture. The monarchy embodies the best of British society. If abolished or radically changed, the nation would lose this essential element that solidifies its political system.
By virtue that Australia was claimed for Britain by James Cook in 1772, Australia became a British colony and thus it fell under the blanket of the British monarchy from that time. Although Australia became a self-governing country and member of the British Empire and later the Commonwealth of Nations, Australia remained a constitutional monarchy.
So what is the value of the monarchy? What do they do? The monarchy is a secular institution whereby one finds themselves in a position of “power”, influence and luxury by birth, rather than by “earning” that role through political ascension, or by the will of the people. From an Australian (or Canadian) point of view, what is the value of having the head of state being a resident of another country, represented in this country by a Governor-General? And in real terms, who is the Head of State, the Governor-General or the Prime Minister?
It has been suggested that the monarchy is:
- A symbolic position, delicately balanced between governmental representation and participation.
- An English institution, inspiring loyalty among the people. In this capacity, the monarchy functions as an “effective barrier” against non-democratic government.
- Maintains a nonpartisan stance in its dealing with parliament offering a tempered view to insure its survival, as any active participation in governmental affairs could render the monarch vulnerable to criticism from Parliament. The Crown also acts as an “advisor” to parliament and the providing of “Royal Assent” for legislation. In real terms however, Royal Assent has not been withheld since 1705.
- Performs duties as head of state, making overseas visits and entertaining foreign dignitaries. To be able to do so, the monarch received an income under the Civil List. The Civil List was the name given to the annual grant that covered expenses associated with the Sovereign performing their official duties, including those for staff salaries, State Visits, public engagements, ceremonial functions and the upkeep of the Royal Households. The cost of transport and security for the Royal Family, together with property maintenance and other sundry expenses, were covered by separate grants from individual Government Departments. The Civil List was abolished under the Sovereign Grant Act 2011.
- Acts as a ceremonial head and tourist attraction, but these benefits alone do not justify the monarchy’s existence. However, when they acquit themselves correctly, the Royal family embodies the English historical concept of all that is noble and good, providing the people with a virtuous ideal.
And this is all well and good for the English, but is it right for Australia?
To many younger Australians, the monarchy has become increasingly out-dated and irrelevant, while those over 65 years of age are more likely to support it. At the last referendum in 1999 on the question of Australia becoming a Republic, was narrowly defeated 45% to 55% to retain the monarchy. One will note that the recent referendum on Scottish independence was also defeated by a similar margin. This question was asked of the Australian people:
To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament
It has been suggested that many Australians voted No because they disagreed with the selection of the president by the Australian Parliament, in favour of selection by the people. Election of the President by popular vote was not an option. Had it been so, then it has been suggested that the yes campaign would have won significantly.
However, from a historical point of view most constitutional matters sent to referendum fail. Since 1906, only eight of 44 proposals put to a referendum have been approved by the constitutionally required double majority. What this means is a majority in each of the six States, and a majority nationally.
If Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy are to be believed, support for a republic has fallen to 40%. It has been suggested that while young Australian may dislike the idea of the monarchy, they are mesmerised by the star power of the younger royals, in particular the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate, and Prince Harry.
So what is the future for a republic in Australia? That is a difficult question to answer. There are staunch supporters on both sides of the question. Recently, the Governor-General, Ms Quentin Brice, came out in the support of the Republican cause, which raised criticism from the monarchist camp. While the republican cause maintains interest and support a further referendum is unlikely, especially as the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott remains a firm monarchist and is unlikely facilitate change.
An Australian republic? Not in my lifetime!