June 2023

Essays

The coronation, the republic and the voice

By Mark McKenna
Prince Charles in Sydney, 1981, seated at harbour across from Opera House

Prince Charles in Sydney, 1981. © Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is a necessary step towards a republic

As a primary school student in the 1960s, I was told to “stand up straight and speak like Prince Charles”. While I could manage the first part, the elocution was a bridge too far. In any case, Charles was not the epitome of manhood and gentlemanly behaviour to which boys in Sydney’s western suburbs aspired. Nonetheless, for the rest of our lives, the prince who would be king followed us around.

When news of his birth was announced in November 1948, the electronic tubular bell carillon at Sydney’s AWA Tower rang out over the city, the royal salute was fired from North Head, court services in Darlinghurst were interrupted while jury members were informed, and pilots in civil aircraft announced the news to their passengers. In Canberra, the Chifley government sent 200 blankets made of the finest Australian wool to London for babies born on the same day.

I remember the commotion around our family dining table in 1966, when we heard that Charles would spend six months of his secondary schooling at Geelong Grammar’s Timbertop campus. Although we thought that he would have been better “educated” in a less prestigious school, we felt for him. Every time he stepped outside the classroom, the poor bugger was on the front page.

Even before he arrived, the nation’s law officers were in a state of hysterical high alert. In 1965, the governor-general’s secretary, Murray Tyrrell, visited Timbertop with Commonwealth police and Inspector Derek Sharp, Prince Charles’s personal police officer. Tyrrell informed the Prime Minister’s Department that the main security risks to the Prince were getting lost in the bush, appendicitis when on hikes, swimming in dams, bushfires, snake bite and the flu. To minimise the risk to Charles, the whole school and staff received “a mass inoculation against influenza”, tiger and brown snake antivenenes were purchased, and all masters and employees of the school were medically “screened”.

It was reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth II’s first visit to Australia in 1954, when the authorities, terrified that the young Queen would be attacked by blowflies and mosquitoes, recommended that “an emergency treatment with DDT should be applied about a week before the Royal Visit to the outside of public buildings and to surrounding vegetation”. Government officials spent as much time protecting visiting royals from Australia as they did welcoming them.

As it goes with royalty, everyone has their personal Charles. I often felt sorry for mine – wheeled out like a circus freak during half-time at the MCG in 1970 to parade around the ground with his younger sister, Anne; besieged by paparazzi at Uluru in 1983, as he climbed in his short-sleeved safari suit with Princess Diana beside him in her perfectly pressed white dress, both of them like strange, cardboard cut-outs against the windswept rock’s incandescent red.

But there were also times when I admired him. On January 26, 1988, Charles delivered the major address during the bicentenary celebrations at Sydney Opera House. He was the only speaker to confront Aboriginal dispossession, albeit implicitly and without offering an apology. For Australia’s “original people”, he said, the process of British colonisation “must all have seemed very different, and if they should say their predicament has not yet ended, it would be hard to know the answer, beyond suggesting that a country free enough to examine its own conscience is a land worth living in, a nation to be envied”. Then, in 1994, there was a rare moment of candour. As the republic debate swirled around him, he admitted that “perhaps” Australia was “right” to want to become a republic.

Watching the coronation of King Charles III on May 6, I could only agree. While the music and panoramic views of Westminster Abbey were stunning, the bizarre choreography had me flummoxed. After more than two hours of following the mysterious trail of discreet wardrobe changes, and various sceptres, swords, rods and assorted sticks swinging about, I was well and truly exhausted.

As musician Nick Cave predicted, the ceremony was “stupefyingly spectacular”, while the emotional attachment of millions to an institution that prides itself on emotional restraint was on full display. The whole show was a kind of hallucination, evoking a Britain and its former empire that has long been nothing more than chimera.

Unlike ABC TV’s introductory forum, which subjected the Crown to critical analysis, the BBC’s coverage was predictably dutiful and patriotic. Observing King Charles and Queen Camilla receive the royal salute and “three cheers” from more than 4000 United Kingdom and Commonwealth servicemen and women massed on the garden lawn at Buckingham Palace, one BBC commentator gushed that it made him feel “proud to be British”. Each to their own. But could anyone seriously say that the coronation made them proud to be Australian?

Since Charles came to the throne in September last year, discussion of an Australian republic – initially tentative and ever-so polite – ploughed its well-worn path. Will Charles modernise the Firm? Downsize the monarchy to bicycle proportions? Perhaps even make it green? Will Australians warm to Charles as our head of state? And to Camilla, the Queen consort? How will Charles’s reign influence the polls on the republic? Is he too old? Would it be better if he stepped aside for William and Kate? Will Harry and Meghan derail the whole show? And so it goes on, ad nauseam.

The prospect of a republic has long been chained to speculation on the monarch’s popularity, personality and beliefs, the duration of his reign, and the various antics of his family. While this kind of juxtaposition – Charles and his mob or an Australian head of state – might have been sufficient in the 1990s, it’s limiting and increasingly fruitless in the early 21st century. The crucial issue is not whether we like or dislike Charles, but whether having the British monarch as our head of state is an appropriate reflection of Australia’s multicultural, liberal democracy in the 2020s. In any case, polls on the monarch’s popularity will remain standard fare. The British monarchy will continue to maintain a presence in Australian public culture long after the republic is declared. For historical reasons, it will never be completely excised or fully rejected.

Despite the flood of institutional mourning that surrounded the Queen’s death in September 2022, there are hopeful signs of a significant shift in both the tenor and focus of the republic debate. Today, the Nationals remain the only political party to declare its allegiance to the monarchy in its party platform, promising to “promote within Australia, a society based on Christian ethics and loyalty to the Crown”. By contrast, the Liberals’ platform supports “a constitutional head of state as a symbol of unity and continuity”, a noncommittal statement that could mean either the British monarch or an Australian president. More telling, perhaps, is the bland, whitewashed narrative of Australian history that follows, which mentions Indigenous Australians only twice, and clings doggedly to the white triumphalist view of “Australian nation building [as] a story of remarkable achievement”.

The question for Peter Dutton and his floundering party is how this kind of liberalism – myopic, nostalgic and entirely uncritical – can possibly speak to contemporary Australia. The Liberals seem trapped between traditional allegiances that voters have largely rejected, and more socially progressive values, with no way of knowing how to clearly articulate their position. Yet another reason why Dutton’s strategy on an Indigenous voice to parliament risks fossilising his party. Nor is the future republic that Dutton opposes what he imagines it to be – or rather, fails to imagine.

The long struggle of generations of Indigenous leaders has finally placed the question of constitutional recognition of First Nations people at the centre of debates around constitutional reform. And the release of the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017 has seen a growing acceptance that recognition, treaty and truth are the necessary first steps towards a republic.

It seems astonishing now to think that in 1999 republicans essentially told Indigenous Australians that severing ties with the Crown was more important, more urgent and more defining for Australian identity than addressing the exclusion of Aboriginal people from the Constitution. It said much about Australia’s lingering colonial mentality. Twenty-four years later, it’s clear that the fate of the republic is tied to the fate of the voice, far more than it’s tied to the question of Charles and his successors. A republic without recognition would be a republic without just foundation, a republic without heart. 

The Australian Republic Movement’s new co-chairs, Craig Foster and Gija, Yawuru and Gagudju woman Nova Peris, have started to turn their attention to how a republic might fill the vacuum created by the monarchy’s gradual retreat as a unifying symbol of Australian identity. Foster told me that he was heartened by the response to the coronation, which he sees as “a validation of the fact that Australia has entered into a new conversation regarding its future, no longer shying away from uncomfortable questions about its history”. Suddenly the ARM is speaking a different language, and the issue of a republic is about much more than merely severing ties with an obsolete Crown. With their support for the voice, their embrace of multiculturalism and Australia’s fundamental democratic temper, Foster and Peris have both sharpened and broadened the movement’s rationale.

In another marked departure, they’ve highlighted the monarchy’s complicity in colonialism, and its deleterious effects for Indigenous peoples of the former British Empire. Together with Indigenous leaders and politicians throughout the Commonwealth, Foster and Peris recently signed a petition demanding Charles apologise for the effects of colonisation and make reparations by redistributing the wealth of the British Crown, and return cultural artefacts and human remains. Peris has also been unequivocal about Charles’s relationship with Indigenous Australians. “He’s not our King,” she said. “We never called for him to be King and we never ceded our sovereignty. There’s a lot of pain when we look at the monarchy.”

The legacies of that pain have been evident in the long and complex relationship between Indigenous Australians and the Crown. Aboriginal people have petitioned the Crown for land rights, recognition and justice since the mid 19th century. In the 20th century, petitions gradually came to speak not only for the Aboriginal people of one locality or region, but also for those across the entire nation.

In 1933, Burraga, a Dharawal elder from Thirroul, south of Sydney, pleaded for all Aboriginal people in New South Wales to petition King George V for guaranteed Aboriginal “representation in federal parliament” (as existed in New Zealand). “Before the white man set foot in Australia,” he wrote, “my ancestors had Kings in their own right. And I, Aboriginal King Burraga, am a direct descendant of the royal line … One hundred and fifty years ago the Aboriginals owned Australia, and today he demands more than the white man’s charity. He wants the right to live.”

One year later, Yorta Yorta activist William Cooper drafted a similar petition to the King, although he did not deliver it to prime minister Joseph Lyons until September 1937. Lyons refused to support Cooper’s petition, which was signed by more than 1800 Aboriginal people across the country, or forward it to the King, by that time George VI. In 2014, Cooper’s grandson, Uncle Boydie Turner, finally submitted the petition via governor-general Sir Peter Cosgrove to Queen Elizabeth II. Almost 90 years since Cooper wrote the petition, there has still been no official response from the British monarch.

The venerable, majestic Crown – at once object, person and synonym for state authority – is the cloak that legitimised the taking of Indigenous land by force. Despite the many appeals made by Indigenous Australians to the person of the monarch throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and the handful of more recent meetings between the monarch and Indigenous representatives in London, there is little evidence that these interactions have made a substantial difference to the social, legal and political status of Indigenous Australians. At best, they have offered the possibility of highlighting government inaction on Indigenous issues. At worst, they are a reminder of the monarch’s aloof distance and powerlessness to effect real change in the lives of Aboriginal people. In any event, a polite “audience” with the King cannot atone for more than two centuries of profound neglect. As William Cooper wrote to the Lyons government in 1935, despite the fact that they are the “original owners of the country”, Indigenous Australians have “no voice” in the government of the Commonwealth.

This history points to the urgency of a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament and why, in essence, the voice is a fundamentally republican proposal: not only because it disperses power and protects Aboriginal people from arbitrary and potentially harmful policies, but also because it circumvents any need to petition a distant royal intermediary, by bringing the representatives of Indigenous people to the heart of power and enshrining their advisory capacity directly to the Commonwealth government in Canberra, which is where so many of the decisions that affect their lives are made.


Whatever Australians might think of the monarchy today, there is no doubt that when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in June 1953, it stood as the emotional centre of a nation that saw itself as British and white. Prime minister Robert Menzies, who was convinced that the Crown represented an enduring “spiritual and emotional” connection for millions of people around the globe, attended the coronation in London and filmed the event on his home movie camera. And when it came to deciding the membership of the Australian contingent to London, he refused to include Indigenous Australians.

In early 1953, the Victorian RSL put forward the name of Australia’s first commissioned Aboriginal officer, Captain Reginald Walter Saunders (1920–90), as someone who should be among the 135-strong contingent of Australian army officers at the Queen’s coronation. Saunders, whose father and uncle had both fought with the First Australian Imperial Force, was a Gunditjmara man born at Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve near Purnim, Victoria. In World War Two, he served in North Africa, the Mediterranean and New Guinea. Unlike so many of the men with whom he’d fought, he did not receive land under the soldier settlement scheme when he returned home. Undeterred, in 1950, Saunders enlisted again to fight in the Korean War.

Sergeant Reginald Walter Saunders at sea, September 1941. © The Australian War Memorial

The campaign to include Saunders and other Aboriginal people in the Australian contingent to the coronation was hard fought. Private citizens, churches, Aboriginal welfare groups, the National Council of Women and the RSL petitioned Menzies and the media. Journalists reported the scandal of Saunders’ exclusion. Some of the most forceful correspondence came from members of the public. As Martha Willey reminded Menzies, unless he changed his mind, Australia would be the only Commonwealth country not to have “Aboriginal representation” at the coronation. Perhaps the most imploring letter to the prime minister came from Miss Winnifred King:

Is it too late for Australia to redeem itself in the eyes of the world by sending at least one of her original inhabitants to represent us at the coronation of their Queen and ours? … There are many sad stains on our memories which we wish we could forget. Perhaps such a gesture as this would remove the sting of old wrongs from them, and from us, some of their shame.

Menzies, however, remained unconvinced. By May 1953, the government was adamant that “the representation of Aborigines from Australia at the Coronation was not practicable”. As Sir Philip McBride, minister for defence, had argued only weeks earlier, Saunders’ inclusion would have meant rejecting a “brother officer” already selected to attend the coronation. It was too late. Like Menzies, he “saw no reason to alter the contingent”. Indigenous Australians, who fought for the white invaders of their country, were not deemed fit to be seen as Australians in the heart of empire.

Reg Saunders remained a strong advocate for his people’s rights. In 1969, the Gorton government appointed him a liaison officer in the recently established Office of Aboriginal Affairs. Two years later, the Queen recognised his contributions by awarding him an MBE. In the last years of his life, he served on the Council of the Australian War Memorial, where, in 2015, a gallery and courtyard were named in his honour. Although Saunders is one of Australia’s most celebrated Aboriginal soldiers, the story of his exclusion from the coronation is barely known.

Seventy years later, it remains true that the racist ideals of whiteness associated with British Australia have yet to be explicitly rejected and reconstituted in a more inclusive and positive constitutional provision. As Stan Grant’s new book, The Queen is Dead, makes abundantly clear, the residue of white Australia will linger until this injustice and so many others suffered by Indigenous Australians can be acknowledged and set right.

Warrant Officer W.J. “Bill” Harrison, Lieutenant Reginald Walter Saunders and Private W.H. “Alby” Alberts, of of the Australian 3rd Battalion, confer with a North Korean interpreter, at left. Circa November 1950

When Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and others claim that the voice will divide Australians on the grounds of race or ancestry, they fail to see that the division of Australians on racial grounds was the founding principle of White Australia in 1901. It’s this division, this instability and this denial of Indigenous Australians’ humanity, that the voice seeks to overcome – by eliminating the racist silence in the Constitution and recognising First Nations people in a positive and substantive way.

Despite all of the monarchy’s claims to have modernised, only a fully reconciled Australian republic can genuinely address the dispossession and persecution of Indigenous Australians that the Crown propelled and sanctioned. This is yet another reason why a resounding “Yes” vote in the referendum later this year is essential not only for Indigenous Australians, but for the nation as a whole, a point powerfully made by Noel Pearson when he appeared before the joint select committee hearings on constitutional recognition in May.

The country is going to change the minute we vote on this, and change for the better. We’ll put a lot of bad things behind us when we do it. It’s a simple change, but it’s very profound. The impact of it is going to be tectonic. It’s going to change the country in a good way.

It’s precisely this change – its content, shape and form impossible to articulate until the moment arrives – that promises to shatter the inertia that has surrounded the issue of an Australian republic since 1999.

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna is an award-winning writer and historian. His most recent book is Return to Uluru.

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