Holding an office in the nation for a decade – or even two – and performing it with distinction would be thought momentous and would be the subject of much favourable comment in parliament and across the media. To be in office for 55 years, to have performed faultlessly, with no intention of retiring and never to have been paid is extraordinary. And yet, the 6th of February, 2007 is likely to pass without much comment, or even any formal recognition of the service rendered. We know that standards of courtesy and civility have declined, but that surely cannot excuse such a lamentable omission.
Fifty five years ago, on 6 February, 1952, King George VI, aged 56, passed away. He was much loved and respected across the Commonwealth and throughout the world, and above all, because he did his duty. This sense of duty was captured best when Queen Elizabeth, subsequently the Queen Mother, was asked whether their young daughters would be sent to Canada during the London blitz, she replied:
“They would never leave without me, I would never leave without their father, and he will never leave.”
When her father died, the young Princess Elizabeth was at the Treetops Hotel near Nairobi in Kenya, on her way to Australia to represent her ailing father. It was Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who had to break the sad news to her of her father’s death, and that as a consequence, she had ascended the Throne as Queen.
Australians, in the second most remote of the King’s “dominions beyond the seas”, received the news of the death of their beloved Sovereign with the restraint expected of the time, but with great sadness. Newspapers were published with black borders, and many people wore black or black armbands.
The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, the greatest orator of his day, and probably the greatest the nation has ever had, addressed a hushed House of Representatives, and by radio, the nation, in these solemn words:
“His Gracious Majesty King George VI, whose sudden death we mourn today, reigned over us with singular distinction, unfailing courage, and the most constant devotion. He was a constitutional monarch in the grand tradition of his father, King George V, of happy memory. Possessed of great force of character, a most royal sense of duty, a keen perception of the movements and issues of his day, our late beloved King was in the vast and bitter crisis of the war, in which he served us all so well, ruler, and leader, and friend. His was no distant throne, for he sought no security and shared cheerfully every danger and every trial. All those who saw England under daily and nightly attack in the great battle of 1940 and 1941 were stirred by the spectacle of an embattled nation, normally not unacquainted with internal divisions and hostilities, in which there was unity, cheerfulness, courage, and a common resolution which ran through factory and farm, and which made the King and his humblest subject feel a deep and human brotherhood. It was that superb fusing of the common will which defeated the enemy, and did so much to save the world. King George VI and his Queen Elizabeth were among the great architects of that brotherhood”
On 6 February, 1952, the Royal Party flew from Kenya to London. Through blurred radio photographs and black and white news reels screened weekly in cinemas across the land, Australians saw those gloomy scenes in London where Sir Winston Churchill and the whole cabinet waited in line, dressed in mourning, as their new young Queen came down the gangway. Later Australians watched in sadness as the great gun carriage bearing their late King was drawn slowly by sailors through the silent streets of the imperial capital, followed by their new Queen, and other members of the Royal Family including the Queen Mother and the Dowager Queen Mary, all heavily veiled in black.
Before this they had seen the ritual assuring them that the Crown continues and there can be no interregnum, applying the ancient affirmation that “The King is dead: Long live The King.” This was asserted formally in the Proclamation of the Accession of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II which was read from St James’s Palace on the following day. In the meantime, conscious that the Statute of Westminster had separated the Canadian Crown from the British, another proclamation was issued by The Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, and read in Ottawa on the same day.
It was not thought necessary to do that in Australia, but soon afterwards, the title of Queen of Australia was confirmed by an Act of Parliament, a formal recognition of the emergence of a separate Australian Crown as Australia had become independent . (Because the states so mistrusted federal governments of all parties, the role of the British Crown lingered here in this independent country until as late as 1986, never as some act of latter-day imperialism, but because the states preferred it. The Queen was to play a more significant role than most have realized in terminating that role and enhancing the full emergence of the Australian Crown. The solution is something which was thought, and Her Majesty was no doubt advised, to be undesirable, unmanageable and perhaps impossible. Unknown to Canada, and unique to Australia – under this solution, The Queen may be advised in the exercise of her Australian constitutional functions not only by the Prime Minister, but also, in relation to state matters, by each of the six Premiers. The Queen was also active in ending inappropriate aspects of the role which survived the 1986 Australia Acts.)
In reflecting on the 55th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the conclusion must be that Her Majesty is very much her father’s daughter. On her 21st birthday, The Queen indicated how she intended to fulfil her role in life:
“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
This is the essence of her character, a sense of duty. This is complemented by a strong faith. As she more recently affirmed:
“For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example. I believe that the Christian message, in the words of a familiar blessing, remains profoundly important to us all: "Go forth into the world in peace, be of good courage, hold fast that which is good, render to no man evil for evil, strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak, help the afflicted, honour all men… It is a simple message of compassion… and yet as powerful as ever today, two thousand years after Christ’s birth.”
The Queen, who has reigned over us for more than one half of the life of the Commonwealth of Australia, attracts, and rightly attracts, the admiration of the people of Australia. The reaction in Melbourne at the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games , when the 80,000 or so present joined with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in singing not only Happy Birthday, but in standing to sing the few bars of the Royal Anthem the censorious organizers permitted, is testimony to that.
The fact is that we have been blessed with a Sovereign who has never put a foot wrong, who has never embarrassed us, who does her duty, and for whom we do not pay and never will pay. She will not retire from this position to which was anointed and Crowned and to which she has dedicated her life. Her service to Australia and the Commonwealth has been impeccable. The Queen is today as revered as she was when she first came to Australia.
Although the script writer of the film “The Queen’ is on record as saying he intended it to be a ‘ hatchet job”, Dame Helen Mirren has managed to capture the essence of The Queen’s character – duty supported by strong faith. People who did not realize this are finding an unknown side to their Sovereign – and increasing their admiration for her.
In the meantime the Australian Crown curiously remains the “elephant in the room.” It is at the very centre of the constitutional system, it is our oldest institution in the nation, and, the High Court perhaps excepted, it is the only one which transcends the federal-state divide . And yet, its history, role and function are little taught or even understood in our schools and academies, while our republican politicians are intent on hiding all references to it notwithstanding the landslide decision of the people to keep it.
Australia’s republicans cannot, and the more sensible ones do not criticize the Queen for the failure of their campaign, which has lost ground at all levels particularly among the youth. Neither Her Majesty nor any member of the Royal Family campaigned in the referendum, and soon afterwards The Queen made her position absolutely clear:
"My family and I would, of course, have retained our deep affection for Australia and Australians everywhere, whatever the outcome. For some while it has been clear that many Australians have wanted constitutional change. You can understand, therefore, that it was with the closest interest that I followed the debate leading up to the referendum held last year on the proposal to amend the Constitution. I have always made it clear that the future of the Monarchy in Australia is an issue for you, the Australian people, and you alone to decide by democratic and constitutional means. It should not be otherwise. As I said at the time, I respect and accept the outcome of the referendum. In the light of the result last November I shall continue faithfully to serve as Queen of Australia under the Constitution to the very best of my ability, as I have tried to do for the last 48 years."
Australians should count their blessings that we have had such a Sovereign to reign over us for more than half the life of our nation. Well may we say and affirm, “God Save The Queen.”