Speech by Sir David Smith at
a Royal Over-Seas League Dinner to Celebrate
the Eightieth Birthday of Her Majesty The Queen,
Alexandra Club, Melbourne
15 June 2006
We are gathered to celebrate the eightieth birthday of Her Majesty the Queen. The monarch’s birthday is our oldest public holiday – it honours our oldest institution, the Crown, and it has been celebrated for 218 years in Australia. But before I address the subject with which I have been charged by your President, I should like to acknowledge the presence of Dr. and Mrs. Hollingworth, whom I would have been honoured to serve as Official Secretary, had I not opted to take early retirement; and Sir Zelman and Lady Cowen, whom I did have the honour of serving as Official Secretary.
In 1997 I contributed a chapter to a book entitled Sir Zelman Cowen: a Life in the Law, and I described how Sir Zelman had brought a “touch of healing” to the office of Governor-General after the turmoil of 1975. In my own book I have acknowledged the approval that I received from Sir Zelman to speak to university students and senior school students about the role of the Governor-General whenever I was invited to do so, and the encouragement he gave me to delve into the origins and history of the office.
It is no secret that my research led me to conclusions about the nature of the office of Governor-General that differ from those of Sir Zelman, and have caused us to finish up on opposing sides in the monarchy/republic debate, but that is a matter for another time.
My own first glimpse of the Queen was over the foresight of my .303 army rifle. My view was obstructed by my fixed bayonet. I was then a national serviceman doing my military training at Puckapunyal, and our battalion had been included in the detachments from the three services that lined the streets of Melbourne for the Queen’s progress on the afternoon of 24 February 1954. As we stood presenting arms, eyes straight ahead, and the cavalcade of cars swept past, little did I know then just how much the Queen would feature in my work and my life in the years that lay ahead.
That 1954 royal visit was the first to Australia by a reigning monarch, and was part of a six-month tour by the young and new Queen to “her other realms and territories”. It had begun in London on 23 November 1953, and by the time the royal yacht Gothic sailed into Sydney Harbour on 3 February 1954, the royal party had already been to Bermuda, Jamaica, Panama, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand. The Australian tour took two months, and covered all states and the Australian Capital Territory. Most of you will no doubt remember the atmosphere and the fervour of that first visit. Streets were decorated with archways, flags and bunting; buildings were decorated and illuminated; homes were decorated; even our motor vehicles were decorated, as we all entered into the spirit of the visit. It was before the days of television, and we relied on newspapers and magazines, radio, and cinema newsreel film to bring us the scope and the detail and the colour of this first and last royal visit of its kind. Australians travelled long distances – in some cases hundreds of miles – just to catch a glimpse of the royal couple. It was estimated that 75 per cent of Australians saw the Queen at least once during the visit.
As the Queen became a more frequent visitor, the pattern of her visits changed, as did the relationship between her and us. After the lengthy, wide ranging and very formal first visit in 1954, subsequent visits tended to become shorter, were usually built around some specific main purpose, and were certainly less formal. For some, the familiarity has meant a loss of the essential mystique of monarchy. For others it has meant the development of a uniquely Australian attitude towards the monarchy – an attitude based on respect and affection rather than deference and awe. Whether we continue to see the monarchy as relevant, or whether we see it as dated and redundant, it still manages to sell a lot of newspapers, magazines and books, so it certainly has not lost all of its magical quality.
On 31 January 1952 the 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth, the King’s elder daughter, and her husband, Prince Philip, left London for Kenya and a journey that was to have taken them on to Ceylon, Australia and New Zealand. After a few days in Nairobi and at Sagana Lodge in the Aberdare Mountains, the Royal couple was taken to Treetops, an enchanting hut built in a huge fig tree, arriving there on the afternoon of 5 February. The Treetops Hotel overlooked a waterhole where at night a large variety of big game animals would come to drink. As the intention had been to provide the royal visitors with opportunities to view wild animals in their natural environment, they were to have been accompanied by Colonel Jim Corbett, a retired former hunter of tigers and leopards, and now an honorary game warden.
Jim Corbett later wrote in the Treetops visitors book: “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a princess and … climbed down from the tree next day a queen – God bless her.” For on the afternoon of the second day the young Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth, was on her way back to London, following the death early that morning of her father the King. The visit to Australia had to be cancelled.
Today, more than half a century later, both the monarchy and the monarch have undergone many changes. The Empire has become the Commonwealth. Former colonies are now independent nations – some of them still monarchical and many of them republics, yet all recognising the Queen as head of the Commonwealth. Where once there was just the one and indivisible sovereign over all parts of the Queen’s dominions, today each of the countries that recognise the Queen as their sovereign has a separate and distinct sovereignty from that of any of the others. In Australia, when we speak of the Queen, we mean the Queen of Australia, a title conferred on her by the Australian Parliament in 1953.
As the Queen reminded us at Darling Harbour on her first visit after the 1999 referendum on the Constitution, she has served Australia as its Queen for half of our life as a nation – half of the time since the people of the Australian colonies, already self-governing, agreed to unite in one indissoluble federal Commonwealth under the Crown.
Australia’s system of government is that of a constitutional monarchy. Queen Elizabeth II is our monarch or sovereign, and the crown she wears is the symbol of the Australian state. It appears on the buttons and badges of rank of the Australian Defence Force, and on the buttons and badges of uniformed Commonwealth and state police officers and public servants, or at least it still does in those places where it has not yet been removed in a rush of premature republicanism. The law courts are the Queen’s courts and they administer justice in the Queen’s name. Parliamentarians and judges take an oath of allegiance to the Queen, or at least they still do in those places where that, too, has not yet been altered in a rush of premature republicanism. Members of the Commonwealth Parliament and the Defence Force take an oath of allegiance to the Queen, as does the Governor-General. I did too, more than fifty years ago; first on entering the Commonwealth Public Service, and again, only weeks later, at the start of my military service. Our governments consists of the Queen’s ministers of state, and their parliamentary opponents are more formally described as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
In Australia today, although the republicans are agreed that they want to remove the Queen from our Constitution, and from our present system of government, the one thing on which they cannot agree is who or what would replace her. That is why they continue to argue over so many disparate and desperate republican models. They want to replace her but they are finding her irreplaceable. So instead of either accepting the verdict of the Australian people at the November 1999 referendum, or coming up with an alternative to the Constitution that they wish to discard, they come up with stunts that demean themselves more than they demean the monarchy.
Thus, in 1972 the Queen’s portraits in Australian Embassies around the world were quickly replaced by photographs of Prime Minister Whitlam. The honourable title of Queen’s Counsel has been replaced by the anodyne prefix of Senior Counsel. Oaths of allegiance have been changed to remove references to the Queen. Wherever they could do so, state and territory governments have fallen over themselves to remove traces of the monarchy and the Crown.
In New South Wales its Governors have been evicted from Government House. They are required to live in their own homes in the suburbs, and they work in a down-town government office building. According to the then Premier Bob Carr, this was to stop them getting any ideas about their own importance. In that state’s Parliament House, two portraits of the Queen have only recently been removed and placed into storage, after being on prominent display for many years. Heritage colonial buildings, still in use as government offices and court houses, are being vandalized in accordance with a recent state government edict that royal coats of arms carved into their stone facades and their timber interiors are to be chiselled away.
In this state, whose emblem is and remains the Southern Cross surmounted by the Crown, the Crown has been removed from government stationery and signs, and from motor vehicle number plates, leaving a somewhat naked Southern Cross. And only last week-end – the Queen’s birthday weekend no less – this state’s recently-appointed Governor disgraced himself and his office by giving a newspaper interview in which his remarks about the Queen were lacking in propriety, coming from a holder of a vice-regal office, and his remarks about the 1999 referendum were simply not true, showing an abysmal lack of knowledge of what actually happened that year.
Across all states and territories, these silly stunts, and others in similar vein, are so pathetic and childish, and an insult not only to the Queen but also to the democratically-expressed view of the Australian people at the last referendum. Should the republicans ever succeed, God forbid, in their efforts to alter our Constitution, they will expect us to respect their new one, yet they refuse to show any respect at all for our present Constitution or for the monarch herself.
At the time of the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977, an editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald told its readers something of the jubilee celebrations in Britain; described as plausible the arguments then being advanced by Australian republicans; and then went on to say: “Plausible or not, these arguments are assertions only. The weakness of the republican case is that it cannot demonstrate precisely how we would be more independent or unified without the Queen, how we would have better government, a better society. On the other hand, their case ignores the palpable advantages of a constitutional monarchy – advantages shining splendidly from the celebrations in Britain now. In a time of adversity, of political controversy and class bitterness, the British people are able to put aside their differences and celebrate their unity, precisely because their Monarch is outside politics and above class. The Monarchy … in the person of that hard-working, long-serving, uniquely experienced civil servant, the Queen, [is] a dynamic element in the British society, working for its continuity and stability … Though far away (yet quite often here) she confers these advantages on our society too. And she is, besides, a potent symbol of our origins and our heritage: mighty forces in the making of this nation, forces underpinning, not diminishing, our identity. What comparable advantages could an elected president bring?”
What comparable advantages indeed? In the twenty-nine years that have elapsed since then, nothing has occurred that would render that Sydney Morning Herald editorial any less appropriate today, other than that today’s editorial writers would lack the courage to write like that.
In stark contrast with its views in 1977, in 2002 The Sydney Morning Herald marked the golden jubilee with no editorial but with four pages over two issues devoted to a farrago of (mostly anonymous) gossip about the Queen and her family that had been gleaned from so-called friends and former courtiers. And even that was syndicated from a British newspaper. What a sad commentary on what our opinion-shapers today regard as important to our cultural and national identity, and to our system of constitutional parliamentary government under the Crown.
During the two visits by the Queen following the 1999 referendum – in 2000 and 2002 – Australian journalists who had longed for the republic, and who had predicted the end of the Australian monarchy, had to eat their words as they gazed in amazement and surprise at the crowds that greeted the Queen on her tours through the states and territories. Even in the Australian Capital Territory, the only part of Australia to vote for the republic, the size of the crowds and the warmth of their welcome confounded the members of Canberra’s Parliamentary Press Gallery.
And earlier this year, at the opening of the Commonwealth Games here in Melbourne, when Dame Kiri Te Kanawa sang “Happy Birthday”, the crowd of 80,000 people stood, faced the Queen, and joined in. When Dame Kiri went on to sing “God Save the Queen”, the crowd just boomed out the words. One eye-witness said that you could feel the affection for the Queen right across the stadium.
During the referendum campaign we were reminded by former Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Harry Gibbs, that most of the world’s monarchies are free and democratic, while most of the world’s republics are not. We are fond of describing ourselves as a young nation, but the fact is that we are the sixth oldest continuous democracy in the world, though our experience of parliamentary government is scarcely 150 years old, and our Constitution is just over 100 years old. Only Britain, the United States, Canada, Switzerland and Sweden are able to look back on longer periods of democratic rule, uninterrupted by dictatorship of the left or right, or by foreign conquest and occupation, than we are. It is interesting to note that four of the world’s six oldest continuous democracies are of British origin and four are monarchies. While Australia has been a free and stable society continuously since 1901, there are only two republics, Switzerland and the United States of America, of which the same can be said.
For more than a hundred years the monarchy has provided Australia with a simple and non-controversial method of appointing our governors-general. The convention of prime ministers recommending only Australians for appointment is now well-established, and no prime minister would dream of breaking it. It has given us Australians of eminence and distinction, none of whom, not even the most popular among them, would have come to office had they been required to face a process of election, whether by the Parliament or the people or a committee appointed for that purpose.
The sticking point for republicans is that each of their several models proposes a method of electing a president that is unacceptable to other republicans. Under whatever model, their president would inherit all of the powers of the governor-general, including the reserve powers of the crown, without alteration. Given the powers which such a president would have, the last thing we need is an elected president with a mandate to implement, with policies to pursue, with supporters to be rewarded, and with opponents to be punished. Under the present system of appointment by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister, the Governor-General’s sense of duty to the Queen, and as the representative of the Crown in Australia, ensures that his loyalty and his total responsibility is to the nation as a whole. Each Prime Minister is also aware that he must first discuss his proposed recommendation with the Queen, and that his nominee will be her representative in Australia, as well as Australia’s head of state.
Thus, the personal role of the Queen and the symbolic role of the Crown in the appointment process put restraints on prime ministers and governors-general to ensure that they act in the interests of the nation as a whole, and not to serve their personal or partisan interests.
On her twenty-first birthday on 21 April 1947, in a broadcast to the Commonwealth, the young Princess Elizabeth said: “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, but I shall not have the strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in with me, as I now invite you to do. I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”
Five years later, in February 1952, just a few days after the King’s death, in her accession speech to the Privy Council, the Queen renewed her pledge of service when she said: “By the sudden death of my dear father I am called to assume the duties and responsibilities of sovereignty. … My heart is too full for me to say more to you today than that I shall always work, as my father did throughout his reign, to uphold the constitutional government and to advance the happiness and prosperity of my peoples, spread as they are all the world over. I know that in my resolve to follow his shining example of service and devotion I shall be inspired by the loyalty and affection of those whose Queen I have been called to be and by the counsel of their elected parliaments. I pray God will help me to discharge worthily this happy task that has been laid upon me so early in my life.”
At her Coronation in 1953, the Queen made four commitments – to God, to the service of others, to responsibility, and to showing respect for her people. At nine o’clock that evening the Queen made a radio broadcast in which she thanked her people for their support that day and declared: “I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine. Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.”
Against that background of commitment to duty and service to her people, it should have come as no surprise when, in 2002, in her golden jubilee address to both houses of the British Parliament, in Westminster Hall, the Queen again pledged to continue to serve in the years to come. The media, both here and in Britain, tried to make a story out of it, as if this was something new, but there was nothing new in the renewal of the pledge to continue to serve. The Queen has a strong sense of duty, and those who know her have said that the word “abdication” is not in her vocabulary.
As we celebrate the eightieth birthday of the Queen, it is good to remind ourselves that the monarchy has provided strength and stability to our system of government, and a sense of unity to our nation. For several generations of Australians, the Queen is more than just a word in our Constitution, important though that is for good and sound practical reasons. There are also strong ties of emotion, loyalty and tradition that are not unimportant in a free and open society such as ours. For many of us, the monarchy was an important symbol during the war, and we associated it then, as we associate it today, with the embodiment of a sense of duty and political neutrality, and with the acceptance of responsibility, as well as with democratic parliamentary government under the Crown.
We wish the Queen a happy eightieth birthday, and many more to come.