[* This is an opinion piece published in a slightly edited version in The Australian on 11 January 2012 as " Being a monarchist can't buy you Royal favours " The piece, together with an amusing illustration may be seen here. ]
John Howard was not awarded the Order of Merit because of his defence of the monarchy. When one journalist asked me whether this was the reason, my light-hearted answer was: "Well then, where's mine?"
Defenders of the monarchy know that they will never get any royal reward or recognition for what they have done. And that's how it should be. The Queen made it very clear before the referendum that this was a matter for the Australian people. She would abide by the people’s decision and whatever it was she would remain as concerned as an interested as she always has in the Australian nation and the Australian people.
The reason is of course obvious. The Queen is a constitutional monarch. She takes her role seriously. She swore an oath before God to do this. She will do her duty while she is in this world. It's as simple – and as noble – as that.
John Howard was appointed to the Order not because of his defence of the monarchy but because of his public service to the nation, to the Commonwealth and to the world. Not only was he the longest serving prime minister, he turned the national accounts round so that years of debts were paid off and the country emerged with a large surplus and a fortune in the bank.
And not only did he head a sound government.
...generosity and propriety…
The Queen must have considered the way in which he behaved in public life. He was always generous to his opponents. When she came to Australia just after the referendum, there was a lunch at Darling Harbour to welcome her.
Not only did John Howard speak, so did the opposition leader, who even went on to talk about attaining “the” republic just rejected in a landslide.
Premier Bob Carr spoke too, but where was the state opposition leader? Bob Carr was not prepared to give Kerry Chikarovski any oxygen. She was in a corner in the room.
Her Majesty would have noticed.
No scandal surrounded John Howard's tenure. When the reforms proposed by the Hawke and Keating governments came before him as Opposition Leader, they were judged on their merits and not for the political advantage. The Howard government was not treated the same way.
When an activist High Court decided in the 1995 Teoh case that UN treaties would henceforth have internal application in Australia without legislation, an outraged Keating government introduced legislation to reverse this . John Howard supported this, but the bill lapsed on the 1996 election. When the Howard government reintroduced the same legislation, Labour refused to support it. Twice.
John Howard's role in the Commonwealth was strong, especially battling Mbeki’s appeasement of Zimbabwe. His leadership over East Timor alone would justify the OM. He and General Cosgrove would be probably be the only people alive who can be credited with the liberation of a country.
He would have probably been awarded the Nobel Prize by the Norweigan committee but but for the fact that the Norwegian ship the Tampa had just come up against his determination to protect our borders.
…decency to republicans..
If John Howard's role in the republican referendum were taken into account, it would have been in the propriety with which he conducted himself and not on the mild defence he put near the end of the campaign.
He allowed the issue to be referred to a constitutional convention- the first since federation for which there would be an election.
Of those delegates within his gift, all were chosen because either of their eminence, or to reflect the necessary balance, especially with the young and the indigenous. Of the 36, only 10 voted in the same way he did. The majority were republicans. John Howard behaved impeccably.
As he did in the choice of the chairmen of the Constitutional Convention. Both were appropriate appointments – Ian Sinclair and Parry Jones. The fact that both were republicans didn’t stop him.
Compare that with Paul Keating’s stacked Republic Advisory Committee and Kevin Rudd’s stacked 2020 summit. (Only one monarchist was appointed, Senator Brandis. Did they think he was a republican?)
When the Keating Turnbull model failed to command an absolute majority, he agreed to put it because most of the republican delegates wanted it.
For that he was lauded by the republicans – though when the referendum was defeated Malcolm Turnbull said if John Howard were remembered for anything, it would be breaking the heart of the nation.
And contrary to repeated claims, John Howard behaved properly in relation to the question. Both the republicans and the monarchists found their proposed amendments rejected.
The republicans, curiously, wanted the words “president” and “republic” removed. They were no doubt swayed by their focus groups and polling. The monarchists asked that the unprecedented way the president could be dismissed should be included.
Both the republican dominated cabinet and Parliament approved the question.
…Her Majesty would have been impressed by the decency of the man…
The Queen would have been impressed by the way John Howard behaved. It was almost as if he were a constitutional monarch. He only intervened in the debate in the last few weeks, gently pointing out why he was opposed to the model.
The point is that the appointment of the Order of Merit has nothing to do with his defence of the monarchy; it has everything to do with his long and notablet service and his basic decency.