Young Sydney lawyer, Vince Ripepi argues for the importance of parliamentarians swearing allegiance to the Monarch.
After almost a decade in storage the portraits of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were recently returned to the Strangers Dining Room at New South Wales Parliament House, following their removal by the previous Labor presiding officers. Following the election of the O’Farrell government in March 2011 the upper house member, Rev. Fred Nile successfully petitioned the new presiding officers to have the portraits rehung – in an effort to correct what he calls “sneaky republicanism.”
The Strangers Dining Room is one of the major places of assembly within the parliamentary complex and is used frequently for gatherings of parliamentarians and business and community organisations. The portraits, back in their original positions on either side of the State Coat of Arms, serve as a visual tribute to the head of state of New South Wales and her consort.
The much maligned Rev. Nile has now turned his attention to the wording of the official oath that members of parliament take upon entering office and in particular his desire to have MP’s return to the practice of swearing their allegiance to the Queen. When asked about his position on Rev. Nile’s plan the NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell, suggested that members be given a choice, that is, the choice between swearing (or affirming) to serve the Queen or the people of New South Wales.
This raises an interesting question. That is, is an allegiance to the Queen of Australia mutually exclusive or in competition with an allegiance to the people of New South Wales (or the people of Australia for that matter?)
…Queen of Australia…
First things’ first, Elizabeth Windsor is Queen of Australia separate from any other role or title which she holds. The throne which she occupies is the oldest institution in Australia and is as much a part of our national culture and tradition as cricket on Boxing Day. Moreover, the role of Monarch has evolved over time, and the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 marked not just an important milestone in the development of Australian legislative independence from its former coloniser but it also, for the first time, recognised the existence of the Australian Crown as a separate entity to that in the various other Commonwealth Realms – Realms which are equal in status.
The notion that there can be a choice to swear to serve the Queen of Australia or the people as if the two are diametrically opposed is simply nonsense and stems from the volumes of misinformation that is perpetuated by sections of the community and the media. It is long accepted by constitutional experts that the Crown is the personification of the State. This concept has been described as the doctrine of the King’s two bodies, and was set out in Calvin’s Case in 1608:
“The King has in him two Bodies, viz., a Body natural, and a Body politic. His Body natural (if it be considered in itself) is a Body mortal, subject to all infirmities that come by Nature or Accident, to the Imbecility of Infancy or old Age, and to the like Defects that happen to the natural Bodies of other People. But his Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People, and the Management of the public weal, and this Body is utterly void of Infancy, and old Age, and other natural Defects and Imbecilities, which the Body natural is subject to, and for this Cause, what the King does in his Body politic cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any Disability in his natural Body.”
Thus the Queen is both individual in her natural body and universal in her body politic (the Crown) and in her role as Queen of Australia she is also the personification of Australia. An allegiance to her as Queen does not and cannot in any way conflict with an allegiance to Australia or New South Wales. There cannot be any conflicting interests between the State and its personification. If we accept that the Queen is the personification of Australia, and of New South Wales and that her interests cannot be in competition with those of the people nor of the state then it follows that a politician cannot have an allegiance to one at the expense of the other nor can he or she serve one without serving the other. It is, as further expressed in Calvin’s Case that “The King’s Two Bodies thus form one unit indivisible, each being fully contained in the other.” The Crown is inextricably connected to the state and to the people and while ever we remain a constitutional monarchy, with the Crown at the apex of our system of government, our elected representatives should honour this principle.
In Australia it would seem from recent political history that the wording of the oaths taken by members of the executive change more frequently than the administration of the government itself.
When Kevin Rudd became prime minister in 2007 he swore that he would serve “the Commonwealth of Australia, her land and her people” and in so doing joined Paul Keating as only the second prime minister to not swear or affirm to serve the Queen as part of his official oath of office. When she disposed Mr Rudd in June 2010 the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, affirmed the same oath but keen watchers will have noted that by the time of her second swearing-in following the 2010 federal election that the oath of office had changed. On the second occasion, Ms Gillard affirmed that she would “well and truly serve the Commonwealth of Australia in the Office of Prime Minister”. One can only assume that “her land and her people” failed to survive all of the post election horse trading.
This penchant for change, frequent and without consultation, ought to be a matter of concern for Conservatives. On oath, whether it is of allegiance or of office is a solemn undertaking of service. The solemnity is removed however when we allow politicians to tinker with the wording of these oaths to suit their own political and ideological views. The oath of office taken by our elected leaders should be uniform and long standing and worthy of the important offices which they occupy. Its wording should not be part of the spoils of war as it seems to be in the present climate.
For an example of how things ought to be, we turn to the United States. The oath of office of the President of the United States is enshrined within the US Constitution and has been administered to all forty-three men to have entered upon that office. That oath, a simple and poignant statement, has not only stood the test of time but also, I would suggest, become a further symbol of the presidency alongside the White House and Air Force One. Similarly, the oaths administered to members and senators, departmental secretaries and ambassadors is constant and does not change depending on who occupies the White House or which party hold the majority in Congress – consistency which is so lacking in Australia.
The very fact that we are in 2012 discussing the wording of the oath of office of our elected representatives is symbolic of the much broader debate that remains, for some at least, unsettled. To clarify, Australia is not a republic. Supporters of constitutional change, predominately Left-wing ideologues, continue to attempt to rewrite history contrary to the will of the people in 1999. We should not allow our political and ideological opponents to continue to delude themselves, it just isn’t fair. Since the 1999 referendum proponents of the republic have busied themselves with three primary avenues of attack, firstly, that a republic is inevitable and secondly that it will naturally occur at the end of the reign of the current Monarch. With each passing year and each new opinion poll showing growing support for the House of Windsor these two theories seem increasingly less likely.
The third avenue is nothing short of sinister. The idea is that if we pretend that Australia is a republic then the public will buy it. This is the “sneaky republicanism” that Rev. Nile is fighting against. They remove portraits of the Queen from public spaces and label her a foreigner, amend oaths of office and wait in false hope that the Australian people will suddenly and passionately awake from their ignorant slumber and realise that they got it all wrong in 1999. This is of course unlikely to happen any time soon, support for the monarchy is on the increase and without a viable (and sensible) alternative the Australian people will undoubtedly continue to stick with the system that has served them well for more than 110 years.
So what of Mr O’Farrell’s choice? The solution has been spoken through the ages – “Queen and Country”, there is no need to choose between the two because they are one and the same but by ignoring the former we are neglecting one of the most important cultural and historical components of the later. This neglect does us all a great disservice.
[ Vince Ripepi is a Sydney based solicitor. This essay first appeared on the Menzies House website. ]