Next week in Westminster Abbey, Charles Philip Arthur George will be crowned King Charles III of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of His other Realms and Territories. But not everyone is happy at this renewal of the monarchy and would prefer in place of it a republic. Of course each to his own; in a democracy always there will be different views. However, to those who support constitutional change, I would say, “please shut up until you have a model that works at least as good as, if not better than, the system we have”.
“Shutting up” is not something that republicans seem able to do, model or no model. Consequently, republican “noise” is no more than attention-seeking, which may work a little around the edges when occasions of moment such as a coronation or a royal marriage occur. But murmurings about cost or reminders of the character inadequacies of one or two previous incumbents of the job are simply low grade grumblings and in no way a serious argument for change.
The character of the monarch may carry a modicum of standing in an argument for change, but this is only at the margins and diminishes once this lifetime of constitutional responsibility is taken up. And always there will be another reign that may burn the brighter still. That is the special nature of constitutional monarchy.
So in the absence of an argument worthy of the name, the usual default position republicans take tends to personal attack, and so it was this last week. Reported in The Australian (April, 25), the chief executive of the republic.org.uk group, Graham Smith, decided to knock Australia for retaining our constitutional arrangements.
‘My message to Australia specifically is get on with it. You know, there’s no time like the present and there’s no reason why you would hold onto it (the monarchy).‘
Two points strike me about Mr Smith’s opinion of the Australian constitutional model. First, in the absence of any serious discussion for constitutional change in the UK, British republicans are expecting, nay goading, “the colonies” to fight their battle for them. Suggested, in that admonishment, is that were Australia to become a republic, our “moving on” to “better” climes may give succour for change in Blighty: the argument being, if the monarchy is obsolete in the antipodes, it too can be obsolete at home.
What Smith’s urging shows is that the British republicans have nothing in their constitutional larder to tempt their own people to remove the monarchical system. Additionally, the whole idea is akin to a reverse transportation mindset. Smith is saying, “can you convicts help us out?; how about you throw out your system of government so that we may do the same here!”
Second, Smith is charging us with a type of “cultural cringe”, which he bases on Australian egalitarianism vis-à-vis British deference. For him, our egalitarian spirit, which he became aware of while residing in Australia in the 1990s – and which was the reason for his conversion to republicanism upon his return to the UK – is the antithesis of monarchy.
But Smith well and truly misses the mark in this claim. Egalitarianism – that frame of mind that says we are all equal under the law – gives most Australians pause when discussions of constitutional change arise. Always, even from the most innocuous constitutional amendments, the possibility of eroding what few rights we have is a risk. With a change of the extent and breadth of republican government then those risks are multiplied.
Since the 1990s, the only republican model the political class will countenance – a joint sitting of the House and the Senate to confirm by two-thirds majority vote a candidate of their selection for president, is in no way egalitarian. Such an election is a mockery of the democratic process and antithetical to our egalitarianism. So much for Smith’s understanding of how Aussies think.
But knowing full well that his appeals and admonishments are without hope of achievement – both there and here – Smith resorts to insults and mudslinging, much like a child in a playground. Thus King Charles is:
“… not the king of Australia, he’s the king of this country (the United Kingdom). And Charles sees himself as the king of this country. And everybody in this country sees him as the king of this country and the the idea that he’s the king of Australia, or New Zealand or Canada or wherever, it’s very much an afterthought...Many, many days go by without him giving a second thought to these other countries.”
Legally, and whether it suits Smith or not, Charles III is King of Australia; though it is the Governor General who maintains responsibility for the constitutional duties of the monarch. This is no “afterthought” and nor is the esteem felt by this nation when royal visits occur. In fact, it is insulting that Smith can presume to understand the extent and breadth of the relationship we have with the monarchy, and expect that his dislike of that relationship should encourage us in such momentous a change.
But as in all illusions when reality comes knocking at the door, Smith realises he has little hope of convincing us that under a republic it will be a brighter, better future. So in his final churlish remarks he makes the claim that we should partly pay for the monarch’s upkeep in the UK. Despite the position of Governor General.
“… you know, get your own head of state. And also if you don’t get your own head of state pay for ours, because at the moment, we’re paying for the whole lot.”
In his range of complaint and absence of any generosity of spirit to a fellow Member of the Commonwealth, I am compelled to reciprocate his lack of a sense of humour and say in response, “mate, you’re a bit late to the party; we settled these terms way back in 1901; sorry, it’s not up for renegotiation”.