JERRY ROBERTS. Pomp and circumstance. The Royal tour.

Oct 18, 2018

There is some debate whether it was H.L. Mencken or P.T. Barnum who said that nobody ever went broke under-estimating the intelligence of the public.  Either way, the executives of Australia’s self-proclaimed Royal Network followed the advice faithfully when preparing for the current Royal tour.  They assumed that the entire population of our continent is brain-dead.  Judging by Channel Seven’s coverage of the visit by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the assumption was warranted. 

When a royal visit is on the drawing board the protocol divisions of the States’ Premiers’ Departments work with police, main roads, airport and harbour officials and local government to plan, rehearse and time in fine detail, down to the precise minute, every aspect of the visit.  A booklet is then printed and it reads like this:  At 10.37 am the Royal motorcade will turn off St George’s Terrace into the driveway of Government House.  At 10.39am the Royal limousine will pull up in front of the main doors.  At 10.40am a Boy Scout and Girl Guide will step forward from the Guard of Honour and open the rear door of the limousine on the left-hand side…. At least that is how it was done before Al Qaida.

The schedule in the booklet is written with confidence because each event is rehearsed – Boy Scouts and all – and it is remarkable how quickly one can drive from the airport to the central city when the police provide exclusive use of all intersections.  I wish I had kept my booklet from the Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee Tour when the Premier’s Department borrowed my services to assist with trying to maintain law and order among the travelling gang of Fleet Street royal family specialist journalists.

The original plan in 1977 was for the Queen and Prince Philip to sail from Geraldton to Fremantle on the Royal Yacht Britannia and begin the Perth visit in a motorcade from the port through Perth suburbs to the city.  In the event, the weather was rough, as is often the case on this stretch of Australia’s Indian Ocean coastline. The Britannia battled heavy head seas while the royal couple flew to Perth, re-joining the yacht after she was safely berthed at Victoria Quay.

The rest of the operation went to plan – except for the time.  By road from Fremantle to Perth via Stirling Highway is about 20 kilometres. All the way to the city throngs of people crowded the road verges to wave at the Queen and Duke. Even on the then uninhabited stretches of the highway past North Fremantle factories and around the wartime gun emplacements of Buckland Hill, the crowds were thick.  Where planners expected the motorcade to shift up to top gear we still had to crawl at low speeds. We were half an hour behind schedule by the time we rocked up to Government House.

This was not 1954.  This was 1977.  Memories of the 1975 Whitlam dismissal were still fresh in our minds.  Sir John Kerr, who made such a spectacular donkey of himself and brought his office into disrepute, was still Governor General.  These were the humourless, life wasn’t meant to be easy years of the Fraser administration. To this day, thanks to Jenny Hocking, there are still questions about the involvement of Buckingham Palace in the 1975 fiasco.

I was in a government car five vehicles behind the royal limo.  I can’t remember whether that was a Rolls.  It might have been a lovely old Austin Princess maintained for such occasions.  The size of the crowd between Fremantle and Perth amazed us in the government party.  Word filtered through that the Queen herself was taken aback, and delighted.  In 1977 the establishment was concerned about the Australian response to the royal visit.  The drive along Stirling Highway laid those concerns to rest.

At the tour’s end, when the Queen and Prince Philip boarded the British Airways jet at Perth airport, Sir John Kerr was there to see them off.  He brought with him the Canberra press gallery who were an even worse crowd of ratbags than the Fleet Street scribes.  It was an ill-humoured period in Australian politics.  The Canberra journalists had a sniff that Sir John was going to tender his resignation to HM.  He didn’t.

Decades later that street-smart, cynical Ozzy polly Bob Hawke said another republic referendum was not likely to be held while Queen Elizabeth was on the throne and I was inclined to agree with him.  A lot of us thought enthusiasm for British royalty would die out as the generation of Australians who had grown up in her reign passed on.  I don’t know if Bob was surprised but I was when a younger generation of Australians turned out in their crowds to greet the Queen’s grandsons, first William and now Harry, with their new brides.

None of this is a criticism of the royal family who are performing their ancient duties and carrying out their modern public relations role with style and grace. Prince Harry’s work with wounded service personnel leading to the Invictus Games is commendable.  Even die-hard republicans would have to admit that the Poms do the pageantry thing superbly. It helps when you have Purcell, Handel and Elgar writing the musical scores.

I suspect most of us feel sorry for the Royals.  It is a life in a fish bowl into which they are born.  It is not their choice.  It is their fate.  It amazes me that girls still want to marry princes and spend the rest of their lives having their photographs taken by long-range lens and published in women’s magazines every time they put on a layer of lard around their hips.

The problem for us is not the British royal family.  It is the Australian political system.  The popularity of the visitors need not delay an Australian referendum for a republic.  I voted no last time because the minimalist option for an appointed President was not a serious proposition.  West Australian political scientist Paddy O’Brien and geographer Martin Webb demolished the minimalist concept at the Constitutional Convention.  A President must be directly elected by the people and directly answerable to the people.  That is the object of the exercise.  That is what it is all about.

Recent comments from John Quiggin are pertinent:

“The President would acquire the current powers of the Governor-General (dissolving parliaments, including double dissolutions, resolving disputes between the Houses and initiating the formation of governments after elections) but with less deference to the wishes of Prime Ministers than in the past.  For example, the President would reject the shenanigans with absurdly drawn-out election time-tables that we saw in 2016 and saw proposed in 2013 and could refuse a snap election called to take advantage of a favourable climate.

“Assuming this, the President’s views on policy wouldn’t matter much.  Rather we would be looking for personal characteristics such as independent-mindedness and capacity for good judgement in a crisis.  A possible side benefit would be that parliamentary elections would be more about policy and less about the personality of the party leaders.”

However, I wonder if our media need to be quite so sycophantic.  I hope the news reader was exaggerating when she announced breathlessly to viewers on the Monday night bulletin that the news the whole world had been waiting for was confirmed and Meghan Markle had joined the pudding club.  I would like to think that we regard each and every new-born baby in King Edward Memorial Hospital and in every other maternity ward in every hospital in every city and town in Australia as being every bit as important as the latest bub in the Palace nursery.

It was not the done thing when I was a mild-mannered reporter on the Daily News to interview the Queen but I did interview her sister, Princess Margaret and then husband, the professional photographer, Tony Armstrong-Jones, also known as Lord Snowdon. We met in the serene gardens of the University of Western Australia’s campus at Crawley.  The couple looked fit and well, with the well-publicised Caribbean suntan. My female colleagues reminded me to take a note of the dress Princess Margaret was wearing.

It was a summery, canary-yellow outfit.  She was a beautiful woman and so was her sister, now ageing gracefully.  The sisters were not photogenic.  In other words, they were more beautiful in the flesh than in their pictures.  For those of us concerned with our waist lines, one of the Queen’s many admirable traits is the way she has retained her figure despite the dreadful State banquets and tedious afternoon teas that are her lot in life.  She must exercise iron-clad dietary discipline.  I wish I could.

After the Jubilee Tour the next big royal visit for Perth was in 1979 when Western Australia celebrated the 150th anniversary of its foundation as a colony.  Prince Charles did the honours on this occasion and again I was recruited for crowd control.  The celebrations included a reception at Government House Ballroom, a tastefully designed building directly across the Terrace from the 1859 Deanery of St George’s Anglican Cathedral.

For the occasion I had to dig my dinner suit out of the wardrobe.  I had not worn it since teenage years and it looked awful but it was too late to hire something decent.  Fortunately, I have never again had to wear one of those ridiculous rigs.  My newspaper photographer friend Rod Taylor looked even sillier in his penguin suit.  Rod and Prince Charles and I are about the same age and Rod had a burning desire to ask the Prince a personal question.

How did he manage to have a love life when he was constantly followed by press photographers?  Prince Charles was still a bachelor.  The question went up the line and the reply came back through channels as we stood on the Ballroom balcony.

Prince Charles replied that he managed OK.  In light of subsequent revelations Rod Taylor asked the silliest question in the history of that famous family and Prince Charles answered with the understatement of the year.

Jerry Roberts would like to see an Australian Royal Family of Kangaroos with a tall, dignified Red Boomer as our Head-of-State.


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