May 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Knights and the old republic

By Mark McKenna

Detail from St George and the Dragon (circa 1435), Rogier van der Weyden

Tony Abbott's aggressive monarchism

As you enter the sandstone Tudor Gothic of the University of Sydney’s quadrangle from the city end, you pass through an archway over which hangs a large wooden honour roll of the type you might see in any high school or university around the country. It bears a list of the university’s Rhodes scholars in faded gold lettering: Malcolm Bligh Turnbull in 1978, and only three lines below is the 1981 scholar, Anthony John Abbott. It’s striking to see the names of the two men so close together so long ago, as if their fates were entwined from the beginning.

Throughout their political careers, Abbott and Turnbull have represented different ends of the conservative spectrum. In the early 1990s, the pair were direct opponents – Abbott was the executive director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM) and Turnbull the chair of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM). In 2009, they fought a bitter contest for the Liberal leadership decided by the narrowest of margins. The weight of that single vote becomes heavier by the day, with Abbott having emerged as a prime minister determined to stamp his brand of ossified “land of hope and glory” nationalism on the face of Australia. His recent re-introduction of imperial honours is merely the surface ripple of a much larger struggle to define the philosophy of the Liberal Party itself. The prospect of knights and dames gallivanting around Australia certainly invites ridicule, but the move masks a serious intent that poses crucial questions for the Coalition and for the future prospects of an Australian republic.

In bestowing the title “Dame” on Quentin Bryce, the first sitting governor-general to support a republic, Abbott demonstrated both his political acumen and the depth of his attachment to the Crown. Ever since he led ACM before entering federal parliament in 1994, Abbott has fought to entrench the Liberal Party’s support for constitutional monarchy. As he frequently reminded his colleagues, this support was “the first plank of the foundation platform of the Liberal Party”. He has also attacked any Liberal MP who dared to support a republic openly. As he chided the NSW Liberals in 1994: “Anyone who does not support constitutional monarchy is at odds with the party.” On this issue above all others, Abbott did not tolerate public dissent.

The culture warrior in Abbott has long seen republicanism as a pet project of elites, celebrities and intellectuals who are bent on “sneering” at Australia’s “heritage”. An “instinctive believer in tradition”, he let his profound social conservatism glow even more brightly in 2010, when he reflected on the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The monarchy was evolving, he luxuriated, “through something as natural and as fitting as the marriage of an appealing man to an attractive woman”. Abbott’s opposition to gay marriage is perfectly consistent with his love for the traditional royal family, which he sees as “akin to loyalty to a team, solidarity within a family or faith in a church”.

Abbott is well aware that one of the most powerful tactics republicans have is to draw attention to the loss of cultural respect for the monarchy. His reintroduction of imperial honours is a conscious attempt to reinstate that respect. He cannot see that it is impossible to reinstate by fiat what has already disappeared. The political futility of Abbott’s decision is already reflected in the bafflement expressed within his own party room, and the common knowledge that the dames and knights, his personal fetish, will be swiftly removed when he is gone – either by a more liberal colleague or by Labor. Nonetheless, the future of an Australian republic depends on Coalition backing.

For all Abbott’s rhetoric about the importance of constitutional monarchy, the federal Liberal Party’s current platform does not include any reference to the Crown or the monarchy. If this is love, then it is, as Paul Keating once aptly remarked, “love that dare not speak its name”. Their ambiguous commitment to “a constitutional head of state” notwithstanding, the Liberals’ failure to place the constitutional monarchy at the heart of their platform suggests that the weight of party opinion is against Abbott. As Turnbull and many other Liberal MPs sympathetic to a republic well know, a party that defines “liberalism” as promoting “the individual and enterprise” and seeks to reward the achievements of citizens cannot but apply these same principles to the head of state. The tension between respect for tradition and belief in meritocracy lies at the heart of the party’s position on the republic and its future more generally.

When Abbott stated in 2010 that “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”, he explicitly suggested that the highest source of dignity and esteem in public office comes not from within Australia but from outside (as with imperial honours), through our connection with a distant British family. How can this longing for imported dignity sit comfortably within a Liberal Party that seeks to align itself with the “values” of contemporary Australia?  

Abbott’s aggressive monarchism has provided the ARM with an influx of new supporters, but the public response to his reintroduction of imperial honours also points to some of the challenges the republican movement faces. An Essential Media poll last month found that, while “only about a quarter of the electorate supports the move, concentrated among the over-65s and Coalition voters … knights and dames … leave the electorate perplexed – nearly a third of us don’t know what to make of it”. That large number of confused voters – a mixture of the ignorant, the apathetic and a younger generation that sees its political priorities more in global issues such as climate change – is precisely the sector of the electorate that republicans need to persuade. Polls such as the recent Nielsen survey, which showed that just over half of respondents opposed a republic, have been conducted at a time when there is no clear republican alternative on offer. Until one emerges, such polls will continue to yield lukewarm results.  

The arrival of the royal infant and his parents last month resulted in predictable paroxysms of hysteria from monarchists and effusive welcomes to Oz from our benighted prime minister. Once again, republicans welcomed the royals to our shores, and went out of their way not to offend. Once again we endured the bizarre headlines: ‘First wave arrives as the littlest royal starts his crawl Down Under’, read the front page of the Australian. Throughout his career Abbott has repeatedly insisted that “the personality of the monarch is immaterial”, and argued that the continuity of our institutions is what counts. But, as the royal visit demonstrated, the personalities of the monarchy are crucial to their popularity.

“The longer the Liberal Party is seen as being the monarchist party,” Malcolm Turnbull wrote in 1993, “the easier it will be for the Labor Party to present itself as the party of the new, nationalistic Australia of the future.” The point remains valid. If the Liberals want to be taken seriously as a party that articulates contemporary Australian identities, how can they side with Abbott’s regressive monarchism? How can we take ourselves seriously as a nation unless we seek to establish an Australian dignity in our honours system, our institutions, our head of state and every facet of our public life?

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna is a professor of history at the University of Sydney. His books include An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark.

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