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Australia must let go of the Queen mother and the past she represented

By Greg Barns - posted Tuesday, 30 April 2002

In that marvellous British political drama series, House of Cards, the anti-hero, Francis Urquhart notes Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as Prime Minister with the words, ‘Nothing lasts forever.’ And so it is with the death of the Queen Mother. With her passing goes a style of monarchy that was held in great affection by many Australians. And with that passing comes the reality that the advance towards an Australian republic is more likely over the next five or six years.

One of the reasons why Australians voted against the proposition advocated by the republican cause in 1999 was because of an enduring admiration and affection for the Queen Mother and the current Australian Head of State – Elizabeth. Their style of monarchy is one of noblesse oblige and an unblemished personal life. In the case of the Queen Mother it is a style that was evident in the Second World War, particularly during the bombing of London.

It is a style of monarchy that many Australians, in particular those who lived through that War and in the 1950’s, respect. As an illustration let me recount this small vignette. Last year in the north-eastern Victorian town of Corryong a group of women in their 60s and 70s gathered in the main street for their morning ‘cuppa.’ I was introduced to them and we began to talk about the republic. All six of these women told me that they would vote for a republic once the Queen Mother had died and Elizabeth had also died or abdicated in favour of Charles.


The point about the Queen Mother’s death is that it removes from the monarchists a very powerful tool. As the noted British commentator Jonathan Freedland put it in The Observer two days ago, the Queen Mother’s death "deprives the monarchy of one of its unique selling points: it's link to the past. Royalists always cite ‘continuity’ as a defining strength of the institution and the Queen Mother was its embodiment."

And if Elizabeth felt that she could now step aside in favour of Charles, so that she could fill the shoes of her mother, then that linkage to the past would be further weakened. Polling in the UK in the last two years has shown support for a referendum on a republic after Elizabeth abdicates or dies at 25 percent, and at 36 per cent among 18-to-24 year olds. In other words, in the home of the monarchy itself, Charles’ accession to the Throne will further weaken the institution.

While the monarchist cause likes to believe that the personalities of the Royal Family do not matter when it comes to preserving the institution itself, the reticence of the British people about Charles serves to undermine that view. And the monarchists would do well to remember that it was the Queen Mother herself who was instrumental in restoring the fortunes of the monarchy after the turmoil created by Edward the Eighth. The British monarchy is no different to any other institution – its relevance to a constitutional system will only remain while it is seen to be in tune with the people it purports to represent.

But while there is no doubt that with the end of the older members of the Windsor family’s influence now in sight, the republican cause in Australia is assisted, a word of caution is necessary. Polling in this country has consistently shown that Australians as a whole want a republic, but they want it not so much because of antipathy towards the Royal Family but because they think that Australia has grown up.

That is why the republican cause in Australia can never define itself as an anti-monarchist cause and rely on the vagaries of the House of Windsor to get it across the line. The heart of the republican debate is about Australian constitutional symbols and values being contemporary and reflective of the society we have created. So it's not that the Queen Mother was a member of the Royal family that is important, but that she represented a living link to a time when Australia was very much an Anglo society and the monarchy was important to our culture. Her death reminds us that those days are long gone.

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This article was first published in The Australian Financial Review on 12 April 2002.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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