Tony Abbott

Neville Bonner Memorial Lecture, Australians for Constitutional Monarchy 11th National Conference

Saturday, 27 November 2010


The engagement of Prince William to Kate Middleton has produced more than the usual excitement associated with celebrity nuptials. There’s the reflection on our own personal experiences and on the way things are more generally that’s always prompted by publicly celebrated rites of passage.

There’s the natural interest in what happens to someone who’s been in the public eye since birth. In this case, though, as well as being a kind of modern morality play, there’s the further sense that the monarchy itself is evolving and renewing: not as other institutions might through legislation, vote, or upheaval but through something as natural and as fitting as the marriage of an appealing man to an attractive woman.

For most Australians, the predominant reaction seems to have been pleasure at a young couple’s happiness mixed, perhaps, with the hope that William’s marriage might be less troubled than that of his parents. The Daily Telegraph’s 10 page royal wedding special last weekend reflected great warmth towards the couple as well as concern about the pressures that they would inevitably face.

For some Australians, though, the reaction has been more complicated. The editorial of the Sydney Morning Herald, for instance, was worried that the celebrations for William and Kate might be a distraction from the need for a republic.

The subtext of much commentary has been bewilderment at the monarchy’s continued hold over the public’s imagination and annoyance at the way a wedding can trump argument. Its authors have usually managed to sound resentful and superior at the same time.

As is clear from his speech to the constitutional convention, Bonner had been inculturated into modern Australia without losing the strong sense that he was an Aboriginal.

On display was the perennial gap between the mainstream and a commentariat that can’t quite “get” an institution with its roots in an earlier time and a different way of thinking.

There are good arguments for the monarchy but they’re often beside the point. The wellsprings of its appeal are instinctual as much as rational: more akin to loyalty to a team, solidarity within a family or faith in a church than they are to support for a policy. Deep down, they are the heart’s reasons that reason doesn’t know. The inevitable counterpoint to public interest in wedding planning, the day itself and in the family to come will be a sour chorus of intellectual protest.

Republicans have a tendency to focus on form over substance. They are unlikely to be argued into thinking that the monarchy is not discriminatory because in a sense it is.

They might, though, come to understand that such an objection is a trivial one because the prohibition on marrying a Catholic, for instance, would instantly be changed if it ever needed to be. Beyond the opinion page quarrels, this latest royal wedding is likely again to demonstrate people’s response to ritual and tradition and their tendency to delight in princes and princesses

If republicans could bring themselves to suspend hostilities, they might come to appreciate that what they currently find inexplicable or even offensive is not so for others and perhaps need not always be for them either.

The Spectator’s Rod Liddle has just confessed that he had actually grown to like the Royals because they “annoy so many awful people” and because, without them, “we would have some over-promoted, time-serving, humourless bore as president”. What he now feared was that the wedding might make him a republican again because there would be months of “vapid, pointless” stuff before musing that “maybe this bad mood will pass”. Thirty years ago, I recall joking with friends about women’s magazines’ over-the-top royal enthusiasms, the “crochet your own Queen Mum” headlines, without ever wanting people to lose their capacity for enchantment. The point, which earnest commentary usually misses, is that the monarchy engages our feelings. A living monarchy need not be an artifact of one place and time but can strike surprising chords in unlikely people.

To many observers, the late Senator Neville Bonner’s was the most powerful speech at the 1998 convention on becoming a republic. Bonner was not aggrieved that the monarchy was “foreign”. To an Aboriginal, almost everything about modern Australia is in some sense foreign. He wasn’t upset that the monarchy offended anti-discrimination principles which, after all, were utterly unknown to traditional Aboriginal society. If anything, its rituals and mysteries made the monarchy easier for a traditional man to identify with. What he found offensive was not the monarchy but its abandonment.

“We believed you”, he said, “when you said that a democracy must have checks and balances. We believed you when you said that not all positions in society should be put out for election….We believed you when you taught us that integral to the Westminster system is a head of state who is above politics. We believed you when you said that, as with the judiciary, Government House must also be a politics-free zone….You told my people that your system was best. We have come to accept that….The dispossessed, despised adapted to your system. Now you say that you were wrong and that we were wrong to believe you. ….What is most hurtful,” he declared, “is that after all we have learned together, after subjugating us and then freeing us, once again you are telling us that you know better. How dare you?” he said. “How dare you?”

Neville Bonner’s origins were about as far removed as possible from any Anglo-Australian establishment. He’d grown up in a camp on the banks of the Tweed River, had just three years of formal schooling, been refused enlistment in the army because Aborigines allegedly couldn’t adapt to cold climates, and learnt bush carpentry as a roustabout stockman in Western Queensland. He’d become clerk of works on Palm Island, a surveyor of bridges with a shire council and was eventually chosen for the number three position on the Queensland Liberal Senate ticket.

From direct personal experience, Bonner knew oppression, discrimination, poverty and alienation. What he appreciated, though, in ways that many activists of the period did not, was the goodwill and the desire to do justice that co-existed in our society along with the ugly manifestations of racism. He was not bitter about a society where he was refused service in a pub because the same society had also welcomed him into the national parliament. Although Bonner always regarded himself as a “working man” he joined the Liberal Party because conditions in Aboriginal settlements and the rights extended to Aboriginal people had improved under the conservative side of politics and because of his scepticism that every social problem could be solved with money.

It’s worth emphasising that the first Aboriginal to enter the national parliament did so as a Liberal. This year, another Liberal, Ken Wyatt, became the first Aboriginal person to sit in the House of Representatives. The first Aboriginal person to enter a state parliament was a member of the Country Party. In like vein, the first woman to enter a state parliament did so as a member of the Nationalist Party and the first woman to sit in the national parliament did so as a member of the United Australia Party. The first Chinese born person to enter a state parliament was a Liberal as was the first Chinese born person to enter the national parliament. On the strength of this at least, it’s hard to accuse the Liberal Party of racism. Furthermore, I doubt that we would have contrived to confine a talent such as Warren Mundine to unwinnable seats.
To Bonner, the Crown represented what was best in English-speaking civilisation. It was the British government that had commanded the settlers to live in amity with the native people. It was Governor Phillip who had refused to take punitive action against the Aborigines who speared him. It was the crown courts, uncowed by local public opinion, that had sentenced white men to hang for the murder of black people. The actual treatment of black people might often have mocked notions of equality before the law. Discrimination in so many aspects of daily life might have betrayed the noble ideal of the brotherhood of man. Still, the system was supposed to guarantee to everyone the ancient rights and freedoms of Englishmen and sometimes it actually did. Unlike those who saw enough of its failings to reject it, he saw enough of its strengths to embrace it. After all, it was the Crown that could be appealed to for justice. Some of the Crown’s agents were often harsh, even brutal, but for much of our settled existence, they were the only protection that Aborigines had from the tyranny of the mob.

As is clear from his speech to the constitutional convention, Bonner had been inculturated into modern Australia without losing the strong sense that he was an Aboriginal. He was comfortable in his own skin as an Aborigine and as an Australian and found no more tension between these identities than someone might as both a worker in a business and at the same time a member of a trade union. He didn’t need to reject his Aboriginality to be an Australian or vice versa.

To give a further example, Noel Pearson’s capacity for leadership of Australians generally as well as of Indigenous people is also based on a nuanced appreciation of complementary identities. In a recent book of essays, Pearson deprecates the “repudiation of Australia’s British heritage” and observes that this heritage has to be as much a part of a confident Australian identity as the Indigenous one. Pearson wants a constitutional accommodation in which “the head of state is an Australian but there will be no need to repudiate continuing ties with the Crown or with Britain”.

Without, yet, enough recognition of Indigenous people, that’s pretty much what Australia already has. The governor-general, these days always an Australian, is our head of state. As the Queen’s representative, the governor-general has a standing that might not be accorded to a head of state simply appointed by the government of the day; and has a political detachment that would certainly be absent with an elected presidency. Without more appreciation for Aboriginal peoples and cultures, it might not quite qualify as Pearson’s “affirmational republic”; but it was first recognised as a “crowned republic” by no more unlikely an anglophile than Cardinal Moran way back in the 1890s.

In the same collection of essays, Pearson describes both the dispossession and the integration of his forbears: how their Aboriginal culture was condescended to; their land taken; and their rights ignored; but an education was provided; work was expected; and service in the army (in this case) encouraged. It might have been grudging but there was recognition to be had from the system at its best and, to his great credit, Pearson is prepared to acknowledge that. It may not have been equal, at least in former days, but there was a life that Aboriginal people could create for themselves by making the most of the opportunities that Australia provided.

As shown by Bonner and Pearson, the common prejudice that support for the monarchy is the product of “British race patriotism” is simply wrong. English descent is no more necessary to appreciate the strengths of our existing system of government than it’s a requirement to be a Briton to want to speak English.

For better or for worse, whether it’s the constitutional Crown, the judicial Crown, the Crown of the armed forces, or even the celebrity Crown, the monarchy has been a fixture of Australian life. Mostly for the good, it’s meant something to most people. Over the 200 years of our settled existence, it’s evolved in ways that no one would once have predicted. Sure, it could be removed but it’s far easier to see how we might be different than better for such an excision.

After two centuries, it’s almost but not quite an indigenous Crown. Still, the roots it’s put down in this country are not necessarily less deep than those of other British imports such as parliamentary democracy and an adversarial system of justice which hardly anyone wants fundamentally to change. It might not be the Crown for all seasons and for everyone but it’s turned out to be far more adaptive than even its strongest supporters could have imagined. For the foreseeable future, it will continue to annoy all those who think that the interests and attachments of the general public are somehow beneath them.