EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Elizabeth and the future of the monarchy
, April 1, 2006
Does Australia's constitutional monarchy have a future beyond the reign of the current monarch?Comments by both the Prime Minister and Queen Elizabeth II, during the Queen's visit to Australia to open the Commonwealth Games, have reopened the debate on the monarch's role in the Australian Constitution.
Asked by BBC Television how long he thought the monarchy would survive in Australia, John Howard said, "I don't believe Australia will become a republic while the Queen is on the throne - beyond that, I don't know."
Later, when asked by ITV News, a British TV program, whether Prince Charles would ever be seen as King of Australia, Mr Howard said, "That is a matter for the Australian people."
The Queen herself was also said to have given a "coded message", as one English paper put it, in favour of our becoming a republic. Yet a careful reading of her comments showed no such thing. She said:
"I hope you will allow me, with a certain sense of perspective as I approach my 80th birthday and on my 15th visit here, to express my conviction that Australia in the course of my lifetime has firmly established itself amongst the most respected nations of the world.
"I thank you above all for this opportunity to reaffirm my confidence in the future of this great country."A "loose cannon"
The Prime Minister's comment about Prince Charles undoubtedly reflects the widely-held view that he is a "loose cannon", whose determination to push his political views runs the risk of endangering the future of the institution itself.
However unlikely this may seem in this context, history shows how easily hereditary monarchies can be overthrown because of the eccentricities of those who hold the office.
In recent months, Prince Charles has taken legal action against a British tabloid newspaper for publishing extracts from his diary, which includes criticism of China. Former staff members have disclosed that he sent politicians letters of protest on the Iraq war, opposes genetic modification of foods and nanotechnology, and has warned of both the threat of "global warming" and the threat to society posed by "ugly" buildings.
It does not matter whether Prince Charles is right on these matters or not. He has no authority to speak out on them, and, to the extent to which he does, he discredits the institution he is obliged to uphold. Queen Elizabeth has adopted a far more enlightened approach, but clearly has no influence over her eldest son.
There is a danger that Prince Charles could so completely discredit the Crown, that Australians would vote for any alternative arrangement.
Up to the present time, Australia's republicans - who on the whole probably support the political sentiments of Prince Charles - have yet to come up with a credible alternative constitutional arrangement for Australia.
In November 1999, Australians rejected a proposal, which had been adopted by a Constitutional Convention, to create a republic with a head of state appointed by Parliament. The vote reflected a deep-seated distrust of politicians, and opposition to the politicisation of the role of the Governor-General.
People understand that Australia is a free and independent nation, and that the Crown represents the institutional structures of government which are independent of any political party or leader.
One argument raised is that we must get rid of the British monarch as Australia's Head of State. But the position of Head of State is not defined in the Australian Constitution.
Sir David Smith, official secretary to five governors-general and later visiting scholar in the faculty of law at the Australian National University, has cogently argued that the Governor-General, not the Queen, is Australia's head of state.
"The Governor-General does in fact have significant constitutional powers and functions, including the definitive head of state power to appoint and remove Prime Ministers. Furthermore, he does not exercise these powers and function as a delegate or surrogate of the Queen, but in his own right as Governor-General, a fact which was acknowledged in 1988 by the Hawke Government's Constitutional Commission," Sir David wrote. (Quadrant
, November 2003).
A similar point was made by David Flint, a professor of law and former head of the Australian Broadcasting Authority. Professor Flint said, "A Governor-General should have no other agenda than fulfilling his duty, which is in itself a sufficiently onerous burden. Matters of policy are for the government of the day which is responsible to the Parliament, in the first instance, and ultimately to the people."
He added, "The Westminster system provides the political and judicial arms of the state, but requires at its heart an institution above politics and beyond political capture. That is its strength, which has been tested over time. It should not be changed by politicising our viceroys." (Malice in Media Land
Australia's constitutional arrangements have served the nation well for over 100 years. They should not be abandoned in a quest for novelty.
- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.