Australian Books

Aussie royals

1 October 2015

1:00 PM

1 October 2015

1:00 PM

If the issue of Australia becoming a republic is a marathon rather than a sprint, the republicans never had a chance. Enduring, after all, is what monarchies do. Republican sentiment has become rather marginal since the crushing defeat of the 1999 referendum, with the denizens of the Australian Republican Movement sounding more like sore losers than serious contenders.

Perhaps this is why Australia and the Monarchy seems to be searching for a point to make while being studiously inoffensive. There was a time when Hill, one of the founding members of the ARM and patron saint of a number of ABC-related causes (he was the head of the ABC for a period, back in the day), could be counted on to be feisty and controversial. That time seems to be past.

Presumably, the book’s release was timed to coincide with Elizabeth II passing the record for longest serving monarch, although there is not much of a reference to it in the book. A key problem for the republicans has been that Liz has always been popular with the Australian public, and attacks on the monarchy can easily turn into personal slander (think of Keating’s colostomy-bag remark – the republic debate was lost at that moment).

But attachment to the monarchy extends beyond the person; Hill acknowledges that the monarchical family has been popular since white settlement. Indeed, the first royal tour, by the young Prince Alfred in 1867, was an outstanding popular success. There was a fairly serious assassination attempt in Sydney, by a mentally-disturbed Irishman called Henry O’Farrell (who was hung for it); but the event actually cemented the royals as having a special relationship with Australia.

Given the difficulties of travel and communications, the number of visits by royals of various rank is astonishing. Even a hardened republican would have to admit that the Firm works hard. Most of them appear to have had a genuine affection for Australia. The mega-tours by the young queen in the 1950s and 1960s did much to embed the connection. It’s hard to think of now but at that time Elizabeth was a genuine celebrity, representing energy and glamour.

Hill does his best to hit some emotional buttons, such as Australia’s history of joining British wars. He touches on the Dismissal, apparently unaware of the irony that it ended with the party of the Left running off to the palace to get the Queen to intervene in a home-grown crisis. But there is a sense that he is going through the motions rather than maintaining rage. Ho-hum.

He notes that Charles is not particularly popular in Australia (although he was well-regarded when he did part of his education here). Part of this is due to the Diana mess, and part of it is because he can be a bit loopy. But this is hardly a reason to change Australia’s constitutional arrangements. One way or another, no-one is betting that the kingship of Charles, if it happens, will represent much of a window of opportunity. Australian opinion polls vary a bit depending on the question but overall it is difficult to see what has greatly changed since 1999.

If there is ambiguity about Charles, there is none about William and his astonishingly photogenic family. If he gets to the throne it’s Game Over for the ARM. And baby George is already a mini-celebrity.

There should be a lot of material for discussion here but somehow Hill misses it. He never quite gets round to discussing why the monarchy is so popular with the broad middle of Australian society, and never looks at the conflict between that bloc and the pro-republic chattering classes. Another area which is ripe for consideration is the interaction between the monarchy and celebrity culture. You wait for Hill to get to the point, and you keep waiting.

As for the 1999 referendum, he is content with the glib assertion that it was defeated by a combination of arch-conservatives and ‘in-principle’ republicans who had a problem with the proposed model. This interpretation has been disputed by other people who held senior positions in the ARM at the time, and in any case it does not explain the landslide numbers. One is entitled to ask: why isn’t this examined more by Hill? For a book about Australia and the monarchy, isn’t it important to understand the occasion when the relationship was actually put to the electorate?

If Hill is strangely vague about the purpose of the project, Juliet Rieden is happy to focus on the authenticity of the connection. As part of the research for her forthcoming book The Royals in Australia, Rieden – deputy editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly and the magazine’s royal correspondent – was granted access to the royal archives.

‘What you find there is a very deep and abiding interest in Australia, from Alfred’s visit onwards,’ she told The Spectator Australia. ‘And you find affection for the monarchy right across the Australian spectrum, including in indigenous communities and amongst young people. The royals represent steadfastness and history. And in many cases a sense of style as well, from the impact on fashion of the Queen’s early visits through to the present day.

‘There is also an appreciation that the royals work hard, supporting a huge number of good causes and going through gruelling social schedules. They all have a very strong sense of duty, and Australians like that. The royals aren’t really seen as British but as part of Australia.’

Rieden acknowledges that much of the affection is due to the Queen but does not believe that much will change, in terms of republican sentiment, when she leaves the role.’There is an intangible quality to the relationship between Australia and the royals,’ she says. ‘It might be hard to precisely define it, but you can’t deny it’s there.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments