TODAY is the Queen’s Birthday holiday in all states and territories, except in Western Australia, where it will be observed on October 1.The day has been celebrated since 1788 when Governor Phillip declared a holiday to mark the birthday of King George III. Until 1936 it was held on the actual birthday of the monarch but after the death of King George V, in true Aussie fashion, it was decided to keep the convenient mid-year break.
The Queen’s Birthday holiday is a celebration of Australia’s oldest institution — the Australian Crown — which is now recognised by the High Court as a legal entity separate from the British and Canadian Crowns and is older than our state and federal parliaments, the public service, our court system, police and armed forces.
Some republicans question the appropriateness of a Queen’s Birthday holiday given that not all Australians support the constitutional monarchy. A nation’s public holidays exist to encourage all of us to take time out of our busy lives to acknowledge the values that hold our society together. For example, Easter and Christmas represent our Christian heritage, Anzac Day represents our appreciation of the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in war and Australia Day represents the birth of the Australian nation.
The modern Crown gives real-life meaning to the principle that the "state" and the politicians who are elected to run it every three or four years, are two separate creatures. Or put another way, that public officials carry out their duties and are loyal to the laws of the land rather than the political party in power at the time.In many countries, the things we tend to take for granted — like an apolitical public service, police that enforce the law rather than doing the work of the government, armed forces that are deployed to defend the state rather than overturn the government, independent judges that impartially interpret the law and governments that leave office when they lose an election — do not exist. In Australia, these principles are closely tied to the existence and integrity of the Australian Crown. Under a Crown, the vast powers of the state are restrained by the need to be politically neutral.
As Australian governors and governors-general are appointed, their only mandate is to ensure the law is followed. Getting rid of the Crown means that the decision about how and when to use these powers would fall to a president who, whether elected by either the Parliament or the people, would be more likely to use them.
The formal powers of the Australian Crown are vested exclusively in the hands of the Australian governor-general, an initiative at Federation in 1901 that was virtually unprecedented in the then British Empire. It is now 81 years since it was recognised that the governor-general enjoyed the same relationship with the Australian prime minister as the monarch with the British PM and 77 years that the appointment of the Australian governor-general was made on the advice of the Australian PM rather than British ministers.
Beyond the debate about the Australian constitution, monarchy represents the optimistic side of human values, such as tradition, family, respect for those who’ve gone before you, humility, charity and duty.
There is still a sense of magic about the monarchy. Recent visits of the Queen, Crown Princess Mary and Prince Charles to Melbourne attracted big crowds. A recent Australia Day Newspoll found that support for a republic was at a 13-year low.
Constitutional arrangements and how they work in practice are important. Just because we have had more than 100 years of constitutional stability doesn’t mean we should take things for granted. All the best intentions in the world matter little if a constitution doesn’t actually work in practice. Soviet Russia, for example, had a well-written constitution but the political system gave politicians the power to disregard it.
Our non-political governor-general would simply not be the same if the link to the monarch were broken. You can’t invent precedent. Moral guidance does not come from machines or rules. In the same way that the German-born and Rome-residing Pope’s spirituality guides the Catholic Church and the South Korean-born New York-residing UN Secretary-General guides the United Nations, Australia must retain this link to our shared Commonwealth Crowns to keep these traditions alive.
People used to say 10 or 15 years ago that Anzac Day and Test matches were on the way out, but, thankfully, the pendulum has now swung back. Monarchy, too, is an institution that has withstood the test of time.
While the republican debate will continue, I hope that today people will think about the contribution of the Queen, who, despite some difficult times over the past 55 years, continues to serve the Commonwealth as a shining example of humility, duty, respect, good humour and faith. All Australians should be proud that we are a part of this multi-nation, multi-faith, multi-race success story.
[This piece from Brett Hogan, the Convenor of ACM’s Victorian Division appeared in The Age, 11 June, 2007]