Originally published in the London Telegraph
The vast majority of Australians have nothing but respect and admiration for Her Majesty the Queen and will be wishing her good health and even longer life on the occasion of her platinum jubilee.
On her 21st birthday, she declared that: “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service” and to that of the “great imperial family to which we all belong”. Entirely true to her word, her subsequent three quarters of a century have been the epitome of duty and service – not just to the United Kingdom, but to all her realms and to the wider Commonwealth.
Between 1954 and 2011, the Queen visited Australia on 16 occasions. On her first trip, she made 33 flights, visited seven capitals and 70 country towns, and fully three quarters of the entire population turned out to cheer. From the beginning she has been the “people’s queen”; wonderfully complemented by Prince Philip, the classic “officer and gentleman”, whose Duke of Edinburgh awards, over nearly six decades, have fostered a spirit of “servant leadership” in nearly a million Australians.
In the wake of that first trip, then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies observed that this “common devotion to the Throne is a part of the very cement of the whole social structure”. Since that time, “daylight has been let in on magic”, the “fairy tale queen” has aged, and the Royal Family has had its share of human frailty and PR disaster. In the 1990s, there was even a sustained campaign to turn Australian into a republic. This ultimately failed on a 55-45 per cent national vote, despite almost every newspaper advocating for “an Australian head of state”.
Yet notwithstanding the atavistic ambivalence of some Australians of Irish heritage and the constant media drum beat that the monarchy is “out-dated”, “foreign”, “elitist” and even “racist”, it still fascinates us. Partly that’s the celebrity factor, partly respect for the Queen herself, partly appreciation that the Crown puts part of our system of government above and beyond party politics; and partly it’s the mystique of having a claim on the oldest continuing institution in Western Civilisation (apart from the papacy).
In April 2014, Prince William and Kate visited a hospice for dying children in my-then electorate. There must have been at least two hundred people having a spontaneous community barbecue in the street outside. Then, lining the streets, up to five deep down the eastern hill of Manly to the beach where the royal couple were to meet young life-savers, was a crowd the police estimated at over 20,000 people. As a veteran of the republican debate, and the condescension, scorn and vitriol then vented against the royals, I had never thought to see with my own eyes such a demonstration of the magic of the monarchy – and have rarely been so moved.
The Crown is more than the individual who wears it. It’s more than any of the countries that share it. It’s an institution that spans continents and centuries. It’s a link to our best ideals. And it perfectly reflects Burke’s notion of society as a compact between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born. Quite apart from the fact that Queen Elizabeth’s reign has been such a model of endeavour and achievement, such that there wouldn’t be a country on earth proud to have such a head of state, to tamper with our limited, self-effacing, democratic and constitutional monarchy would be an act of institutional vandalism, of cultural self-harm on an epic scale.
I doubt that a new reign will be quite the constitutional watershed that some people fear (or hope). Prince Charles has been an activist heir. Still, his practical environmentalism on his own estates and his obvious striving for what’s true, beautiful and good is wholly admirable. As King, he’ll very much be his mother’s son; and, like his mother, his seeming permanence will be a comfort in a changing world.
The celebrations might be more exuberant in Britain than here in Australia, but millions of us will salute this remarkable woman who’s been such a presence in all our lives. Her example will inspire us long after she has gone.