The Queen has been a steadfast monarch, says senior correspondent Barry Everingham, but the respect given her is unlikely to be transferred to her successor.
Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Australia will certainly be the 85-year-old monarch’s dual curtain call — her last visit to her antipodean outpost and certainly her last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. A lesser woman wouldn’t have agreed to undertake either appointment; her well-known affection for Australia and her devotion to ”her” Commonwealth put paid to any doubts that the visit would go ahead. Cancellation is not a word in the Queen’s vocabulary and this visit, like her first in 1954, must be free of any incidents that may mar the importance of both occasions.
Princess Elizabeth, as she was when she became Queen on the death of her father King George VI in 1952, inherited a monarchy almost destroyed by her uncle King Edward VIII and only saved by Winston Churchill and World War II. At her Coronation in 1953 she became Britain’s 41st monarch since William the Conqueror and she was Queen of 32 countries. Since then that number has shrunk by revolution, referendum or common sense to 16 and when she eventually hands over to the Prince of Wales it’s anyone’s guess what will happen to those monarchies, including Australia and the Commonwealth.
One thing is certain — the respect given the Queen won’t automatically be transferred to Charles or his duchess.
What really matters to the majority of member countries is the level of aid distributed and the urgency of help in time of natural disasters. In Australia’s case, Commonwealth countries are an important part of our AusAID program and $10 million is provided annually to the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. In addition, we have paid the annual fees to CHOGM and the UN of some smaller states, including Nauru, when their budgets have been under strain.
Morally, Australia has taken stands as well. Prime ministers Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser played a major role in the expulsion of Ian Smith’s Rhodesian regime from the Commonwealth and the subsequent inclusion of Zimbabwe. However, along with Nigeria, Pakistan and Fiji, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe has since been accorded rogue status and expelled from the Commonwealth family.
Hawke’s and Fraser’s Rhodesian stance would have outraged Sir Robert Menzies, who in an extraordinary comment said he did not take seriously ”worldwide hysteria” about the Sharpeville shootings and the denunciation of South African racial policy.
Menzies sincerely believed that apartheid was a domestic matter and that
”we in other countries should not interfere”.
Incredibly, he was moderately supported by the then leaders of Pakistan, Ghana and Malaysia.
Menzies was quick to point out at Commonwealth conferences that, although Australia had a strict immigration policy, he did tell his colleagues
”…we don’t wish to see created in our country the tremendous racial concerns which you have to encounter”.
He then disingenuously remarked that
”…we have found no difficulty in receiving diplomats from Asian countries or on meeting them socially and otherwise on equal and friendly terms”.
What Queen Elizabeth, as head of the Commonwealth, thought about that statement is not known. What is known, however, is her utter revulsion of anything smacking of racism in any form. The Commonwealth may change and has changed since the days of Menzies, Ian Smith and the major players of the time, but Elizabeth’s views – as far as they are known – have remained as steadfast as ever.
When the inevitable happens and the Prince of Wales becomes king it is obvious that the fabric of Britain’s royal family as we now know it will change. Queen Elizabeth may be head of the world’s most unusual group of nations outside the UN itself, but she is also the matriarch of the world’s most extraordinary family, whose roots go back to Charlemagne and even George Washington and whose influence resides in not being seen to exercise it.
Its members symbolise the British nation, yet only three of its contemporary women whose children have succeeded or will succeed to the throne have been or are totally British – the late Queen Mother, Princess Diana and now Kate Middleton. Of the 54 members of the Commonwealth that the British monarch heads, only 16 are not able to select their own head of state — including Australia.
To many, the notion of an inherited monarch in the 21st century doesn’t fit well, yet in this country the population, as well as the current government, doesn’t seem to have the will to change the constitution to make us totally free from what many see as a foreign yoke.
As Churchill and WWII saved the monarchy, Tony Blair’s demands on the Queen saved it following the death of Princess Diana in 1997. The British public then was at war with Buckingham Palace over the Queen’s and her family’s indifference to the importance of a state farewell for the princess.
That pair of statesmen had the strength to act in what they saw as their nation’s interest. We have yet to find one of our own to act in our interest and perhaps to become the 55th truly self-governing member of the Commonwealth of Nations — while it still exists.
(This story was originally published in The Age on 19 October 2011 and has been republished with the author’s permission.)