No need for change – every reason to celebrate our heritage

Speech to the Australian Monarchist League National Conference, Sydney

Thank you very much and it's a great honour to be with you this morning.

By instinct I am a republican. If I was to set up from scratch the governance arrangements of a brand new country, I would not have a monarchy.

But of course, Australia was never set up from scratch. We were established by the United Kingdom under the Crown.

We have been largely influenced by her institutions and arrangements – which has given us a lifestyle and freedom unparalleled – arrangements which are genuinely the envy of the world – surely all those boat people can't be wrong…

…and for the record I was a boat person along with my family to this great country – but hasten to add we were invited and – much to the chagrin of Labor – subsidised by a State Labor Government.

Some would assert that in my current role I am still a burden on the taxpayer.

The evolution rather than revolution of the United Kingdom's constitutional arrangements over the years has seen a stable democracy flourish with checks and balances to protect the people from a despotic monarch or for that matter a power drunk Prime Minister.

Australia though its institutions whilst being distinctly Australian has the same safeguards and therefore the same freedoms and liberties. Freedoms and liberties, I hasten to add, that do not need a Bill of Rights.

Enduring, constant, stable, reliable are all apt descriptions not only for Her majesty Queen Elizabeth II but also for that great institution that Her Majesty represents.

Throughout my life time there has only ever been one Queen of Australia. But as the Leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition has noted there have been a dozen Prime Ministers and fourteen Governors-General…

…and it was only last week that this truly remarkable monarch departed our shores after her 16th and hopefully NOT last royal tour of Australia.

The presumption this may be her last visit made by some in the media is regrettable. It reminds me of the journalist who interviewed Archbishop Mannix on his 96th birthday. The journalist at the conclusion of the interview said that he hoped he could do a similar interview the following year.

His Grace looked bemusingly at the journalist and said "I can't see why not, you look perfectly healthy to me my son."

Since 1867 there have been 50 royal tours – with only 6 of these visits occurring before 1954, air travel presumably has facilitated visits. Her Majesty is responsible for 16 of these visits, with the biggest gap between visits between the first and second visits.

Apart from our monarch being a warm human being that bears the responsibility of her duties with absolute dignity and grace, she represents an institution which is worthy of awe and respect in its own right.

It is the institution and the temporal holder of that office from time to time that is a unifying force for the Commonwealth of Nations – of which Australia is an integral part as witnessed by our hosting of CHOGM last week.

The monarch is the stable, enduring, unifying part of our democratic arrangements – a part of our arrangements above the rough and tumble of the issues of the day. And in that role the monarchy as an institution has been exemplary – sharing our highs and lows.

The Australian arrangements which reserves a place for the Monarch as our distinctly Australian Monarch highlights the adaptability of our monarchy. An adaptability of which many a Republican despairs.

Now, I recall serving on a Committee charged with writing the "No" case for the 1999 referendum. I recall sitting on the joint Parliamentary Committee inquiring into the Republic proposal.

I recall being intimately involved in the "No" campaign in my home state of Tasmania.

I look back at that time – concerned because I can't believe it was so long ago but with affection for the success of the "No" campaign.

I recall the satisfaction because when I embarked on a State wide tour to campaign against the proposal I had a well meaning fellow Liberal ask me, "Why are you bothering? The polls make it clear, 60% of Tasmanians will be voting 'Yes'."

As you may imagine it was not exactly a morale boosting observation but it did make me more determined.

Part of the campaign was a letter co-signed by the whole of the Tasmanian Liberal Senate Team urging a "No" vote which was delivered to every household in Tasmania. The feedback was overwhelming. It was universally – "By instinct I knew I should vote No – I just didn't know what the arguments were. Thanks for putting the No case."

Can I say as an aside, Leadership is not about following the polls – but making them. Long story short – it was rewarding on referendum night to garner a 60% vote against the republican proposal.

And it was achieved with the involvement of many people including a directly elected delegate who will be submitting later today against the local government referendum proposal – Dr David Mitchell. His paper which I have had the privilege of reading is very persuasive.

Whilst recognising distinguished people I acknowledge your National Chairman and his Committee who do an excellent job together with my friends Kilner and Lesley, and Kilner was actively involved in the No case. Also, somewhere in the room a former distinguished Member of the House of Representatives and President of the Society of Modist Members, Len Bosman. So, you've done me a great honour in inviting me to open your conference.

As a nation, while our loyalty to or interest in the Crown may have waxed and waned over the years, her Majesty has always been unwaveringly loyal to and interested in our Nation.

Thus, despite the Australia Act 1986 and the Referendum on the Republic in 1999, the Queen and her family have continued to come to our country in both good times and in bad times.  

These visits have often been to help celebrate events of national significance, such as our bicentenary.  

They have also been to help rally our nation in times of calamity, such as this year’s floods in Queensland and Victoria, when we received visits from Prince William and Princess Anne.

I think that many of the baby boomer generation, who came of age in the 60s and 70s, and who were influenced by the social movements of their generation – of which republicanism was one - have now come to appreciate that the Constitutional Monarchy in Australia does have positives – many of them.

I will develop just three positives of Australia’s Constitutional Monarchy which have of late dawned on this generation.

Firstly, in our national experience the Queen has provided continuity.

Secondly, the Queen has been a truly remarkable and steady figure on the world scene -independent and impartial.

Thirdly, the Queen and Royal Family – despite their ups and downs – have demonstrated extraordinary durability.

I shall deal with each of these in turn.

Continuity:

Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1952.  In the 59 years since, she has been a constant in Australia’s Constitutional architecture and social fabric.

While attitudes to the monarchy have fluctuated over this period, Elizabeth II’s long reign has represented a constant in the face of domestic political change – having seen on and off the stage a dozen Prime Ministers (7 Coalition and 5 Labor) and fourteen Governors - General.

While monarchs do not usually reign as long as Elizabeth II has, it seems to me that Australians have come to appreciate the advantages which come from having a monarch whose tenure reposes outside the political cycle.

Queen Elizabeth has provided a national and cultural reference point for our nation’s journey through the last half of the 20th century and into the first decades of the 21st century.

I believe this gives meaning and provides a sense of identity and comfort to many of our countrymen and women, including those who have been immigrants to our nation. As an immigrant myself can I dispute the false notion that the Queen is irrelevant to us. She and the institution are overwhelmingly loved and supported by the majority of the population.

And as we approach Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee, this sense of loyalty will become increasingly evident.

The refrain, “Long may she reign over us” highlights that a monarch’s longevity has advantages for us. We have been truly blessed by her long reign. May she be granted many more years.

I turn to Independence and impartiality:

The Queen is represented in the federal sphere by the Governor-General.

I believe Australians are increasingly appreciative of the independence afforded by an impartial and non-resident Queen of Australia. 

Australian Governors General have not always been appointed from a non-political background.  

During Queen Elizabeth’s reign, four have been former politicians, a couple more have had known political allegiances, while two have been subjected to vicious political attack while in office, one choosing to resign.

Eight have been more or less not associated with partisan politics. All of them have conducted themselves in a non-partisan way.

I ask you.  Would elected or appointed Presidents of an Australian republic have been more above politics?

Imagine a Presidential candidate running for office promising to not assent to the GST reform or the carbon tax whilst the Prime Minister has a mandate to implement. Both with mandates, both, one imagines, with egos – surely a recipe for Constitutional instability and disaster.

And without an impartial monarch above them, think of the turmoil which could have ensued in the Constitutional Crisis of 1975, or in 2003, when Peter Hollingworth resigned – particularly if the post was elected.

The monarch’s independence at these critical times has given our nation great stability.

Thirdly – let me turn to Durability:

As an institution, the Royal Family has also proven to be remarkably durable.  

Queen Elizabeth herself has been the most durable of monarchs.  She represents an institution which itself stretches back centuries and, via the line of succession, is not subject to the vagaries of political campaigns.   

And because of the succession protocols Australians have also had the opportunity to grow accustomed to the Queen's eventual successors.

And while members of the Royal Family have over the years sometimes proved to be remarkably human - though no less so than our elected leaders – they have as individuals and as representatives of the institution provided unparalleled stability.

I believe that the greater recognition of these characteristics of continuity, impartiality and durability – embodied in the current Queen – are combining to give the monarchy a new lease of life.

It is no surprise that recent polling conducted by the Roy Morgan Company, shows support for a republic is at its lowest since the push for a republic grew in the first half of the nineties.

Only 34 per cent of Australians support a republic, the lowest level since 1991, while 55 per cent favour keeping the monarchy, the highest level since the same year.

The figures represent a reversal of the strong support received by a republic in the lead up to the 1999 referendum, when polling put backing for the monarchy at just 38 per cent and support for a republic at 54 per cent.

The Roy Morgan figures also indicate an interesting and encouraging trend in that the monarchy is also popular among young Australians, with 55 per cent of 14-17 year olds backing the monarchy, as opposed to only 31 per cent who are republicans – a figure of 3% less than for the general community.

Fascinatingly, the monarchy and royal family appear even to be popular among Greens supporters, 38 per cent who want to keep the monarchy and 68 per cent of whom admit to having watched at least some of the recent wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

More proof of the ability of an independent monarch to unite our country is that I don’t think I can ever recall a time when there was disrespect for our current Queen, even during the rising republican tide during the nineties.

This year’s royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton introduced a future king and his consort to a new generation.

The future looks bright for the monarchy.

I now turn to one aspect of the recent royal tour – namely the debate whether our female leaders, and in particular Prime Minister Gillard, would or should curtsy to the Queen.

I believe this was more than of idle import.

I believe that the media and the public invested it with significance because it is emblematic.

Whether or not our first female Prime Minister, or Governor General for that matter, curtsies to the monarch is an insight into that individual’s character and their perception of their role.

They were not meeting the Queen in a personal capacity but in their representative role on behalf of all Australians. Their personal view was irrelevant. Their representative responsibility was the only thing that mattered. The Governor-General got it right. The Prime Minister did not.

Another story to emerge during this royal tour was former Prime Minister, Paul Keating’s account of his audience at Balmoral 18 years ago, when he told the Queen that most Australians regarded the monarchy as “an anachronism” which had “drifted into obsolescence”.

Needless to say, 18 years on Paul Keating has long departed into obsolescence while the Queen is still standing.

I think one could confidently suggest that the Queen may also outlast the current republican Prime Minister.

In attending your conference today I would be derelict if I did not point out that there is only one political Leader who is committed to the Constitutional Monarchy. 

That of course is Tony Abbott.

As a Tasmanian it would be remiss of me if I failed to observe that Australia's interest in matters monarchical has been strengthened by the marriage of Tasmanian Mary Donaldson to Frederik, Crown Prince of Denmark.

Australia can now lay claim to its own princess in one of Europe's oldest monarchies.

Like Queen Elizabeth, Crown Princess Mary is the patron of numerous worthy Danish, International and Australian charities and causes.

Indeed Mary is now the most popular member of the Danish royal family, famous for her charity work including the Mary Foundation, which she established in 2007 to help disadvantaged people living in Denmark.

Before concluding I want to touch on the subject of next year’s Diamond Jubilee of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II – marking the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne.

On the occasion of Her Majesty’s 85th birthday, the Governor-General stated that, “we are also looking forward to celebrating The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee next year with a host of national and community events throughout the Commonwealth.”

This is now only a few months away, and yet there is no sign of the current Government taking up this celebration with any vigour.

In Canada there are already extensive preparations under way, with the formation of a Diamond Jubilee Committee to oversee extensive celebrations.

Prime Minister Gillard has said that the Queen's diamond jubilee next year will be celebrated with "sincere joy" in Australia.

So far the preparations have not been shared with the Australian people. It is high time they were.

Allow me to touch briefly on another quality of the monarchy, which may not be immediately appreciated, and that is its adaptability.

While the British Monarchy has stood firm to tradition amid the social changes of the last 60 years, over the last 1,000 or so years it has also shown its remarkable ability to adapt to changed circumstances.

Anyone who has read the history of English Kings and Queens will know this.  The Monarchy has withstood all manner of crises - civil war, the Break with Rome, foreign invasion, the Glorious Revolution and the abdication crisis.

During this time it has changed from an autocracy to a Constitutional monarchy, and it is still evolving.

And so it is CHOGM also discussed British Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to reform the rules of royal succession, to favour the oldest child, irrespective of their gender - a change requiring the approval of all Commonwealth realms – a proposal the Queen is said to support.[1]

Let me finish – where I began: If one were to start from the ground up, is a republic naturally to be preferred to a monarchy?   Personally I think so.

But I also unhesitatingly admit the monarchy in no way encumbers Australia’s economic, social or political development. Indeed it actively enhances them.

Moreover in change there is risk. Why would you seek to change a system that has been integral to our Nation  - being the envy of the world?

Further there is no need for change.  The Australian Republican Movement is now virtually moribund. 

There is simply no genuine interest by Australians in severing ties with the Monarchy.

In summary I think Australia has long matured beyond the cultural cringe. We are now moving beyond having a chip on our shoulder about the monarchy. We are now maturely embracing the very real advantages of this arrangement.

In this climate of growing favourable sentiment to the Monarchy I congratulate the Australian Monarchist League on its success in shifting our national sentiment from “No need for change” as it was in 1999 to “every reason to celebrate our heritage” in 2011 and declare your conference open.

Thank you.


[1] Prime Minister David Cameron, Doorstop Interview, Perth 28 October 2011

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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136 Davey Street
Hobart  TAS  7001

(03) 6224 3707

Senator.Abetz@aph.gov.au

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