God save us from Privilege by Penelope Layland

Writing in The Canberra Times, 23 August 1999

I trust my fellow Australians. I trust in their common sense so utterly that if I wake up on the morning of 7 November and find that they have collectively voted to retain the monarchy, I will accept that I have been deluding myself.

I will do more than just acknowledge my wrong-headed republicanism. I will campaign to have a portrait of the Queen rehung in the assembly hall at my daughter’s school. I will start a petition to have God save the Queen reinstituted as the national anthem, and for those teeny little postage stamps bearing the monarch’s profile to be brought back into circulation. If we are to reaffirm our commitment to the monarchy, the least we can do is to be whole-hearted about it.

If the referendum fails on 6 November, I hereby pledge that I will learn to embrace concepts at which I have hitherto snorted in derision: power based on inheritance rather than merit; respect according to birthright or title rather than demonstrated worthiness; privilege apportioned according to blood line; the pre-eminence of male children over female; the notion that while freedom of religion might be enjoyed by commoners like you and me, the religion of the head of state should be prescribed. Give me half a chance and I will subscribe to Women’s Weekly and Country Life, and start acknowledging that there really is an ineluctable something which makes those dukes and duchesses and lords and ladies, a cut above the rest of us. When the Queen visits in March, I’ll be there, pressed against the cordons, perchance to catch a glimpse of Her Majesty’s waving glove. I’ll learn to curtsey, I promise.

In the meantime, however....

Misguided as I may yet be proved to be on the morning of 7 November, I cannot believe that modern Australia will chose to swear allegiance to a foreign monarch (she may be the Queen of Australia, but she’s still a foreigner), whose very sovereignty is an accident of genetics and gender. I can’t believe they will do this when an alternative model for an Australian head of state is there for the plucking, without the need to shed a single drop of blood, jail a single traitor or behead a single aristocrat.

Like most of you, I have heard the argument that the Governor General, not the Queen, is the real head of state in Australia. I don't buy it, but even if I did, I could not believe people like Sir David Smith, secretary to five governors general, who argued just days ago in a media interview that we already have an Australian head of state.

Now, I certainly haven’t been as intimately acquainted with real, live governors general as Sir David has, but I think I’m pretty right in saying that there is absolutely nothing which stipulates that the governor general of Australia must be an Australian.

It wasn’t until 1931 that Sir Isaac Issacs made history by becoming the first Australian-born governor general, but the appointment was controversial, and the country soon reverted to form. As recently as the mid 1960s, there was a Briton in the post - Viscount De L’Isle. And I can clearly remember in the 1970s, when the Queen’s rude good health and prospective longevity was causing people to wonder how on earth poor old Prince Charles could be helped to fritter away the decades before he could take over the family business, it was seriously suggested that he could become a future Australian governor general. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the notion could be revived again.

It may, in the past decade or two, have become a convention to have an Australian as governor general (on rare occasions, it has even been someone who sounds Australian) but it is by no means an automatic thing. In fact, earls, lords, viscounts, princes and others with plummy tones to their voices still easily have the numbers in the list of past Australian governors general. Even commercial television stations have stricter rules on Australian content.

I have to say that I have been mightily entertained in recent weeks by the arguments put forward by the monarchists (and I include in their number those people who say they are republicans but who apparently would rather vote to retain a system which gives them no choice at all, than vote for a system which gives them a small degree of choice but not as much choice as they would have liked).

Absurdities abound. Observe, for instance, the antics of our Minister for Workplace Relations, Peter Reith. Here is a man, who, with great relish and gusto, has done his utmost for the past three years to make it easier for Australian bosses to sack workers with impunity, only to turn around and argue that the model for the proposed republic is flawed because it makes it too easy for the prime minister to sack the president.

And have you noticed the peculiar tendency of the constitutional monarchists to spend most of their time attacking the minute detail of the proposed republican model (not even republicanism in general) and very little time making their case for retention of the monarchy? For people who presumably think so highly of the present system, they seem awfully reluctant to remind swinging voters of its virtues.

I have yet to hear any argument - I’m not looking for a convincing argument, mind you, any old argument will do - in support of a system which confers sovereignty over an entire nation upon somebody simply because they happened to emerge from one particular womb and not another, or because they happened to have a Y chromosome and their older siblings didn’t.

I have yet to hear an avowed monarchist present any defence of a model of governance which requires that the symbolic head of state be a foreign national, whose chief obligations and duties and allegiances must always belong somewhere else (let’s face it, you don’t see her described in the foreign press as the Queen of Australia) and who, moreover will never be a Catholic or a Jehovah’s Witness or a Muslim or an avowed atheist. Not until the next palace revolution anyway.

All I have heard is an ungrammatical chorus of "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it". Well, it is not only broken, it is a laughing stock. The values intrinsic to the monarchical system - rusted-on sexism, misplaced elitism, religious exclusivity and sheer silly-hatted banality - would not be tolerated on the meanest shop floor in the country, or upheld by a magistrate hearing a discrimination case in the lowest court in the land.

But I’m an open minded kind of person. I’m open to rational persuasion. The monarchists have three months in which to convince me that I should vote NO on November 6. And I have three months to try to remember the words to God Save the Queen.

Quick Info

For a brief but useful guide to republicanism in Australia, see the entry in Wikipedia

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Woman for an Australian Republic, Adelaide Ironside, republican poet and artist, 1831-1867

Self portrait 1855, Newcastle Region Art Gallery NSW

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Senate Inquiry

Report of Senate Inquiry into the Republic Plebiscite Bill released 15 June 2009

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