King Charles’ coronation brings Australia closer to a republicMay 6, 2023
It is about being subjects rather than citizens. It is about ancient oaths of loyalty and fealty. It is about pomp and ceremony paid for by the state.
The coronation of King Charles III is a further step towards an Australian Republic. That may seem counter-intuitive because a coronation is an unrivalled opportunity for any monarchy to show itself off to its subjects. It is an opportunity to reinforce its brand in a display of expensive and ancient pomp and ceremony. It is its best chance to introduce the new king.
But a coronation also reveals a monarchy for what it is. It is about being subjects rather than citizens. It is about ancient oaths of loyalty and fealty. It is about pomp and ceremony paid for not by the monarch but by the state. The only way this can be defended is as a financial transaction. The state, in Britain, hopes to recoup its expenditure through increased “royal” tourism and “royal” trade.
That does not apply in Australia and other royal dominions. The coronation, despite some paltry and tentative Australian participation, is a very British affair. For Australians who value our independent identity rather than some faded imperial identity that is a huge turn-off. The coronation emphasises Britishness above all else. Fewer and fewer Australians are comfortable with that as a way of defining ourselves and our place in the world.
The Canberra Times editorial predicted that “The coronation could be the start of a public relations campaign to re-cement the monarchy in people’s affections”. Undoubtedly that will happen because the monarchy brand employs the best public relations advisers that its deep pockets can buy. The public relations campaign to buff the image has already started; it began the day the Queen died, if not well before.
The editorial concluded that “Charles King of Australia has work to do”. There is little that he can do, despite promising a more modern and compact monarchy. Charles has never been as popular in Australia as his mother was. She was a last bulwark against an Australian republic; that has been removed after 70 years.
Charles’ dilemma is not his fault and essentially not personal. He comes to his new position at a time in world and Australian history when it is increasingly more difficulty to justify the undemocratic anachronism that is monarchy.
We were told to hold our tongues when the Queen died rather than be true to ourselves as Australians. That edict came from many powerful voices, including our government. The pressure to comply was overwhelming and, among other voices, many republicans went along with the edict. We were told not to speak ill of the dead or what the dead represented.
As Stan Grant wrote at the time: “We aren’t supposed to talk about colonisation, empire, violence against Aboriginal sovereignty, not even about the republic. Everyone from the prime minister down has told us it is not appropriate”. That led Grant to strong emotions, including anger, and consequently he excused himself from any professional role concerned with the Queen’s death and funeral. That emotion has led to his latest powerful book, The Queen is Dead: The time has come for a reckoning. He calls for redress for his people, including an end to the monarchy in Australia.
Public opinion polls show that there is momentum growing for change to an Australian republic, which can be harnessed by the Australian Republic Movement (ARM) under its new co-chairs, Craig Foster and Nova Peris. Doubters will say that we have heard all this before, and republicans should never regard this change as inevitable. There have been many false starts since 1990, including the defeat of the 1999 referendum, but this time something is in the air.
The ARM has released public opinion polls showing that only one-third of Australians now think that King Charles represents our values. Two-thirds regard the monarchy as the opposite of Australian values such as equality and a fair go.
In this context publicity for the coronation is counterproductive for the monarchy. The event may be a ratings success, because pomp, ceremony, and celebrity still draw an audience. But it won’t convince an Australian audience that the British monarchy is something we should continue to be tied to.
The proposed coronation pledge of allegiance only aggravates the problem for the monarchy, opening it up to charges not just of anachronism but absurdity. Those days have gone in Britain; much more in Australia. Foster and Peris have called for Australians to make our pledge to democracy instead of monarchy.
Australia’s many republican leaders over the past 30 years have been forced to walk a fine line regarding British monarchs, giving precedence to courtesy and human respect. For some it has been a real dilemma. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese walked that line at the time of the Queen’s death and funeral. For many Australians both he and our media went over the top.
Yet nothing about a republican leader pleases the monarchists. The Monarchist League, chaired by former Coalition government minister Eric Abetz, doubts that the republican Albanese should attend the coronation, and criticises the lack of another public holiday.
The ARM has called on Albanese not to pledge allegiance to King Charles; attend the coronation, out of respect for the current Australian constitution, but don’t bend the knee. His actions will be watched by both sides.
Albanese is a proven expert at walking a fine line between action and inaction on many contentious issues. His government has already demonstrated republican credentials, including appointing a Minister for the Republic, Senator Matt Thistlethwaite. Now there is a republican wave ready for him to catch.
First published in the Canberra Times, May 4, 2023.