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Why Australia might be about to ditch the queen

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As we in Britain are beginning to discover, referendums have a habit of haunting their own consequences.

The last referendum in Australia on the monarchy was in 1999 when 55% of the population chose to keep Queen Elizabeth and her representative, the Governor-General, as head of state.

But the Australian Labour Party has recently vowed to hold another referendum on whether it should remain a constitutional monarchy. Australians may drink tea, use single quotation marks and speak English, but the rough canvas of their sun and soil has bred a unique, fierce, humorous, multicultural, and patriotic people. It’s high time they got what they really do deserve - not an Ashes defeat, but a Republic.

That it is the Labour Party calling for this referendum is unsurprising. Unlike the British (and original) Labour Party, the Aussie LP never revoked its socialist clauses, and the Party’s republicanism, therefore, flows from its constitution, but the philosophy imbues every level of the Australian government.

Its current Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is head of the Republican movement but calls himself an Elizabethan to express what many British Republicans do in fact feel: that Elizabeth Windsor ought to be allowed to expire, as it were, before dismissing the heredity principle.

That principle was nearly dismissed wholesale in 1975 when the Aussies underwent a constitutional crisis that has become known as ‘The Dismissal’. Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed from office Labour Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and commissioned Liberal leader of the opposition Malcolm Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister.

This did a good job of revealing the ambiguities of just who was in charge in Australia, an ambiguity that wasn’t fully (if at all) resolved until 1986 when Britain and Australia passed the Commonwealth Act. It was passed simultaneously because neither country could work out who had the authority to do so, and it officially ended the UK’s power to legislate at the federal or state level - unless, it seems, the Queen is ‘personally present’ in a State.

The Australian Republic would look and function much as it does now, but the head of state would be elected by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. However, it is constitutional exceptions and sub-clauses like the one above that give the issue its gravity.

It’s in the same vein as asking, ‘Can the Queen really disband the army, permanently dissolve parliament, and declare war?’ to which the answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ - ‘yes’ because she technically can, and ‘no’ because attempting any of them without parliamentary consent would immediately delegitimise the monarchy. This paradox alone reveals the absurdity of constitutional monarchy; the more it is relevant, in other words, the less it is welcome. But it also distracts attention from the very real powers that the monarchy routinely does exercise.

In the UK at least, the monarchy’s powers exercise a far greater hold on public life and imagination.

Its exemption from Freedom of Information requests, for example. Or the oath of allegiance that all MPs are still coerced into swearing just to keep their jobs. Or the Church of England’s 26 ‘Lords Spiritual’, that have the power to amend laws that apply to a now largely agnostic population. Or the monarch’s power to exercise the royal prerogative, without parliament’s consent, in times of emergency.

These are not issues about which one can reasonably remain agnostic. Either you’re for the existence of a constitutional monarchy with such latent powers, or you’re not. The chief tenet of Republicanism is that the citizenry is not the property of any Sovereign. The price of apathy her - the trade-off, if you will - is a life of comfort and servitude or a life of freedom and the accompanying anxiety. The latency of Her Majesty’s powers makes their very existence intolerable, much as a prisoner in Bentham’s Panopticon finds his life intolerable even if no one is watching him.

My Australian grandparents - atheists, socialists, republicans - may not speak for Australia, but their logic is impeccable: ‘Why the bloody hell should we listen to an old English lady twelve-thousand miles away?’ Why indeed. It’s just a quack across the pond, and the British will soon have to deal with a much larger, more fatuous quack when Prince Charles is hired for the job he’s been spent his life waiting for.

In the mean time, we can all, Aussies and Brits, console ourselves with one of those ironies of history that are too good not to be true. If, as the evidence suggests, Edward IV (1442-1483), First Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, was indeed illegitimate, then so is Elizabeth II. This was the premise of a 2004 Channel 4 documentary called ‘Britain’s Real Monarchy’, which claimed that Edward’s younger brother, George, Duke of Clarence, was the legitimate king.

As it happens, the rightful King of England was Michael Abney-Hastings - an Australian family man and committed Republican.

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