The remarkable 60-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II is being celebrated in Britain this week. But behind the pomp and ceremony lie some big questions: is this the high watermark for the House of Windsor, and what does the future hold when the Queen finally departs the stage?
For Australians, it’s time to ask ourselves whether it is still appropriate to have a foreign monarch as our head of state.
The enduring support for the monarchy in Britain is understandable in many ways. After all, the Queen is a cultural icon – a link to centuries’ old tradition and a boon for tourism. However, the acceptance of the monarchy in Australia is not so easy to comprehend. It’s ironic that a nation like as ours, with such a healthy cynicism of authority, continues to embrace unelected royalty.
The most likely explanation for this is the affection many Australians feel for the Queen herself. The second-longest serving monarch of all time, Elizabeth has been Queen for more than half a century. She has endured as a force for stability and continuity, in times of peace and war.
Indeed, Elizabeth has been on the throne for all of my lifetime and that of my parents. This symbol of stability is powerful and crosses the generational divide.
But let us also consider what else the Queen represents. The ultimate emblem of wealth and privilege, she was elevated to her position not through hard work or ability, but birthright. That is not to imply that the Queen hasn’t worked hard; but for her position, DNA is the only relevant selection criteria.
The head that wears the crown may be weary, but it is also extraordinarily lucky. In the lottery of life, being born into royalty is surely the ultimate golden ticket.
Australians make much of our belief in egalitarianism and the notion of the fair go. We celebrate the idea that any Australian has the right to strive for success and to pursue their dreams. Despite these lofty ideals, no Australian can ever aspire to hold our nation’s highest office – that of head of state. That role is the exclusive birthright of an unelected individual who lives overseas.
The Queen also explicitly links Australia to our British colonial past. It is an association that sits uncomfortably with our Aboriginal heritage and the modern multicultural nation we have become.
In reality, the rituals and traditions of the monarchy are totally removed from the lives of Australians. In fact, most of us reject the anachronistic class system with which royalty is associated.
Queen Elizabeth is much more popular than the institution she represents. She remains the royal family’s greatest trump card. This is something that Australian monarchists like former prime minister John Howard recognise. It’s for this reason that they seek to frame monarchism around personal support for the Queen as an individual, rather than support for the monarchy itself.
But this strategy only works for as long as Elizabeth is on the throne. Whether Australians will hold the same affection for her heir, Charles, once he finally becomes king remains to be seen.
Like his mother, Charles appears to be a good and decent person who does a lot for charitable causes, but the question our nation must confront is not about personality; it is about the relevance of this institution as a whole.
Some institutions evolve and change over time. Others are incapable of change because the values they represent are simply obsolete. The monarchy is such an institution. The notion that wealth and entitlement should triumph over equality and merit offends so many of the principles of modern democracy.
While the republic may be off the political agenda for the moment, once the Queen departs many Australians will surely question the relevance and legitimacy of the institution she leaves behind. When that time comes, ‘God save the Queen’ because nothing will save the monarchy.
This piece was first published on The Drum Opinion on the 4th of June 2012.