THERE NO mention is made of Australia in the various coronation oaths of Charles III; the only one of its 15 realms to be specifically named is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The other 14 are swept up in an omnibus reference to “your other realms and the territories that belong to or belong to”, all of which Charles will promise to rule “according to their respective laws and customs”.
This is not surprising. In 1953, just before the coronation of Charles’s late mother, Robert Menzies, the Prime Minister of Australia, said she “is not enthroned by law of Australia, but by law of the United Kingdom”.
Indeed, the Australian Constitution of 1901, which united six British colonies into a federation, gave enormous power to the monarch – Victoria at the time, but extended to “Her Majesty’s heirs and successors”.
By 1901, the British monarch was very much a constitutional monarch, bound to act on the advice of her ministers. But in Australia it was a different story. The new Commonwealth of Australia was not and did not want to be an independent nation. The extensive powers granted to the Queen in the Australian Constitution were designed to be exercised by the government in London.
So it was on the advice of the British government that the Governor-General of Australia was appointed. The constitution provided that he or she could send a bill passed by the Australian legislature to London for the Queen (i.e. the British government) to obtain royal assent. The monarch would have the power within 12 months to annul an Australian law passed by parliament and signed by the governor-general. This gave the British government the power to expunge any Australian law that offended British interests.
In the following years, Australia gained more autonomy. By the time Elizabeth became Queen in 1952, Australia had become an independent nation. Governors-General were appointed by the monarch only on the advice of the Australian Government, and so today King Charles, in exercising his authority under our Constitution, acts solely on the advice of the Australian Government.
But while the Crown no longer represented imperial authority over a subordinate lordship, it was precisely its very British nature that gave it meaning to Australians. A year after her accession, Menzies said of the young Queen: “She is the permanent monarch, the monarch who dies as an individual but who passes on a crown that will always be the sign and proof that wherever we are in the world we are a nation.”
A ‘British’ people, that is – a point emphasized by the then Labor Opposition Leader, HV Evatt, who noted that ‘the word ‘British’ means as much to us as it does to the people of the United Kingdom itself and of New -Zealand. Zealand and Canada. For all of us it signifies the British government tradition of every member of this Parliament pledging their faith and allegiance to the monarch.”
While Menzies was castigated even in his own day for his love of all things royal, Evatt was considered assertively Australian. But neither saw any conflict in being both Australian and British. Evatt even boasted that Winston Churchill had told him, “The better an Australian a man, the better a Briton.”
In 1954, when Queen Elizabeth made her first, enthusiastically received visit to Australia, the Australian Government’s yearbook noted: “Australia’s non-Aboriginal people are fundamentally British in race and nationality.”
No longer. Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world. Nearly 30% of all residents are foreign born, of which only 14% are from the UK. The fastest growing migrant communities come from India, China and elsewhere in Asia. Australians generally regard Britain with fondness, but no one considers it “home” in the way Menzies’ generation did, or, as Prince Charles apparently told young Australians to Jonathan Aitken in 1970.
Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Australians did not see her as a symbol of a shared British identity. In a changing world, however, she was the epitome of continuity, and in that sense a reassuring stability. There were always more Elizabethans than monarchists.
Australia’s only referendum on becoming a republic, held in 1999, was lost because Republicans disagreed on the nomination of the new president. The proposed model would have had him or her chosen by a bipartisan majority of parliament – suitable for someone whose role, such as the king or governor-general, was intended to be ceremonial.
However, many Republicans argued that the president should be directly elected; making the perfect the enemy of the good, they voted no. And so the monarchy survived: 55% to 45%.
Later this year, Australians will vote in a referendum to establish an “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice” – an assembly elected and composed of Indigenous Australians, which would advise parliament and government on matters affecting them. And then we come back to the question of the republic. There is consensus that an Australian president should have the same role and limited powers as the governor-general. So, if we learn the lesson of 1999, we should hold a consultative plebiscite to resolve the method of election first, and then include that decision in the formal referendum on amending the constitution. In 1999, the No case argued very effectively that the model presented was “a politicians’ republic”. This time it is vital that the public is directly involved in the design of the change.
Over the years, polls pointed to a slim majority for a republic. There was a drop in support after the Queen’s death, but the latest polls put the republic ahead again. However, success is not guaranteed. Australians are conservative when it comes to their constitution: only 8 of the 44 proposed amendments have been approved. Australia’s compulsory voting system reinforces this conservatism because the uninterested or uninformed people – who are more likely to reject change – have no option to stay home.
If the nomination issue is resolved in advance and Republicans are united, the No camp will have to argue that the system works well enough and that change involves risks. But now that the Elizabethan era is history, what can Charles III mean for Australians today? Most Australians who know the King love and respect him. His ongoing commitment to the environment and sustainability touches young people and his wry self-deprecation is equally endearing.
But being a good guy isn’t enough. Australia’s head of state should be one of us.■
Malcolm Turnbull served as Prime Minister of Australia from 2015 to 2018.