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On the monarchy and the flag

By Chas Keys - posted Thursday, 14 November 2013

David Morris is wrong, I suspect, to say that progressives have 'neglected' the republic. They have merely recognised that the time is not ripe for a campaign. But the issue is alive and waiting to be re-energised. The same is true of the debate on the Australian flag.

The two issues should be taken together and the traditional arguments for change refined. These have been weighted too heavily towards symbolism. In general, the practical deficiencies of both the monarchy and the flag have been under-played.

Let's start with the monarchy. Those who want to keep it argue that it is ancient and venerable, reflects our history and has helped keep Australia stable. Some think we have all the important elements of a republic anyway, since we are entirely responsible for our government and no longer beholden to the machinations of British institutions like the Privy Council. The monarchy is largely ceremonial and has value in that context, they say.


One can understand most of these points, except perhaps the one about our stability. That comes from our phlegmatic national character and the fact that we have long been comfortable enough in our living standards that revolutionary or extremist movements have not taken root. The monarchy is ancient, certainly, but also outdated and outmoded, not to mention contradictory and even ludicrous in the modern age. How indicative is it that, when equality for women has been a significant field of struggle for decades, the rules of succession to the British throne have only just been modified to allow females equality with males?

And, in an era in which the separation of church and state is a central tenet of our governance and of the way we operate, how is it that the head of state is also the 'defender of the (Anglican) faith'? What would happen if he or she became a committed atheist or wished to embrace Islam? The monarch has no freedom of belief, something the Australian subjects of the Crown do not lack.

On a purely practical level, consider how Australia is marked overseas when the nature of our head of state is discussed. European, Middle Eastern and Asian acquaintances of mine often ask me to explain our arrangements, and they glaze over in confusion when I attempt the task. They simply do not believe that Australia's constitutional arrangements, in which the head of state must be a member of the British royal family, could be those of a modern, grown-up nation forging its own way confidently in the world. The Queen of England being our head of state ─ the Governor-General is only her representative ─ smacks to them of a colonial status, not of independence. They note that we have no say in the matter. A foreigner as head of state seems to them antithetical to national autonomy.

Our flag, Union Jack resplendent in the top left-hand corner, adds to their confusion (and indeed their mirth). It reflects our past, but it hardly captures our present and what we have become. Transformed by large-scale post-war migration from continental Europe and Asia, by trade links in which the UK is now but a small player and by the fact that our principal international alliance is with the USA, Australia no longer looks to Britain first and foremost.

And that's not all that's wrong with the flag. Years ago Gough Whitlam, arriving in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, was bemused to have his prime ministerial route decorated by an avenue bedecked with New Zealand flags! Our flag confuses people, and to many overseas it belittles our status. They cannot understand why we allow this state of affairs to exist.

But back to the monarch as head of the Australian state. The Queen is head of state of at least 16 nations, and she cannot represent them all effectively in the councils of the world. Moreover the royal family is British. It sits atop a British aristocracy we little respect and is steeped in a British culture from which Australia has long departed. The royals express delight when a Briton wins at sport over a Frenchman or an American. Is it not likely that they would feel similar elation at a British team beating an Australian one, even if protocol does not allow them to show it?


On a more substantive note, how would the monarchy resolve a serious dispute between Britain and Australia? Our head of state might have to oppose us and our national interest.

Peter Hamilton, a former New Zealand diplomat, made the point in the New Zealand Herald last week that the Queen cannot effectively represent or advocate New Zealand's interests on the world stage because she is recognised much more strongly as the head of state of the United Kingdom. He argues that New Zealand is missing out on vital international relations opportunities and trade and economic benefits by having a foreign head of state. The same holds for Australia.

And he points out that the monarchy survives only with a "panoply of offices, sinecures and perquisites" that we would find distasteful. At best the monarchy is quaint and impractical; at worst it is a symbol of class, exclusiveness, inequality, patronage and the privilege bestowed by high birth. It is out of step with egalitarian, democratic, meritocratic Australia. The label 'by royal appointment' does not fit here.

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About the Author

Chas Keys is a flood consultant, an Honorary Associate of Risk Frontiers at Macquarie University and a former Deputy Director-General of the NSW State Emergency Service.

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