The incautious, entitled, ‘meddling’ King Charles III of Australia: Can he stay out of politics?

Sep 21, 2022
Silhouette of King Charles III
Image:alamy

When, according to the self-appointed guardians of public decency and royal decorum, is it ever ‘appropriate’ to speak about the future of the monarchy let alone, dare I say it, a republic? Not while the Queen was alive – because, disrespect. And not now that the Queen is dead – because, also disrespect. And of course, don’t even mention the troubling political interventions of our new Head of State, King Charles III of Australia, because that might draw the Monarch and the Monarchy into political controversy.

The imposed silence on all these matters, in themselves intriguing and vital aspects of our history and central to the consideration of the role of the Monarchy in the future, is a sad reflection of a lingering colonial deference. The immediate ascension of King Charles III as Australia’s Monarch and Head of State by birthright alone and not of our choice, inevitably raises questions about dynastic succession, the survival of the monarchy under the interventionist King Charles III, the future of the Commonwealth, and the unending ramifications of the colonial dispossession of First Nations peoples in the name of the Crown. And yet that rare opportunity for a welcome national conversation, for reflection, acknowledgment, and a shared discourse on our future, has been lost in the name of ‘respect’.

Stan Grant describes his choking, asphyxiating, anger at the suffering and injustice my people endure’ in the face of these continuing occlusions of history; ‘We aren’t supposed to talk about these things this week. We aren’t supposed to talk about colonisation, empire, violence, about Aboriginal sovereignty, not even about the republic’. If we cannot speak about these matters today, at what is surely a high-point of public interest in precisely these questions of monarchy, democracy, and residual imperial power, then when?

The Melbourne Writers Festival in its collective wisdom decided ‘not now, not ever’ and closed off any chance of these unfortunate reminders of royal excess emerging by cancelling a session on the Monarchy scheduled three days after the Queen’s death. This frankly absurd capitulation not only continues the pattern of royal excisions from history, it conveniently precludes any discussion of Australia’s final disentanglement from our colonial past and the possibilities for a future republic.

In his first speech as our newly anointed Head of State, King Charles III of Australia, was a coded promise to change, itself an acknowledgement of his problematic political interventions which have caused some consternation; ‘My life will of course change as I take up my new responsibilities. It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply.’ Charles’ veiled mea culpa was a dispirited nod to the essential political neutrality of the monarch, the most important of what Professor Caroline Elkins terms the ‘imperial fictions’ underpinning the representation of the monarchy as merely symbolic, lacking any real power, and ‘above politics’.

The Queen’s apparent political neutrality is in stark contrast with her avowedly interventionist heir, now King Charles III of Australia, whose public pronouncements on political matters and agitations for his favoured causes are well-known. Even conservative royal commentators have expressed concern over this unacceptable royal reach into the political domain with one describing Charles as, ‘routinely meddling in political issues’, as having ‘no sense of caution … only .. entitlement’, and of risking constitutional stability if he continues to do so as King.

The significance of Charles’s political interventions is that they breach the claimed neutrality of the crown which is the defining feature of a constitutional monarchy. Political neutrality is the essential means of resolving the inherent contradiction that lies at the heart of a constitutional monarchy – between parliamentary democracy on the one hand and an unelected hereditary monarchy on the other. Although Buckingham Palace insists that the principle of neutrality is scrupulously adhered to, I have long argued that this apparent political indifference is a myth, enabled and perpetuated by secrecy.

The Queen for instance, made a carefully worded and yet highly significant ‘subtle intervention’ urging people to ‘think very carefully about their future’ in the days before the Scottish independence referendum. Former Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged in his memoirs that the Queen’s rare political comment had been enough to swing some undecided voters against independence, a critical intervention in what was predicted to be a close result.

The starkest of these political intercessions, the ‘Constitutional outrage’ of the Queen’s consent power in the UK, was only recently revealed. Through this exceptional ‘consent’ procedure, long considered a mere formality taken only on ministerial advice, the Monarch can amend any Bill that might affect their, or the Royal family’s, interests before it goes to parliament; ‘government ministers privately notify the Queen of clauses in draft parliamentary bills and ask for her consent to debate them’. More than a thousand pieces of legislation were vetted by the Queen or Prince Charles in this way during the Queen’s reign. The Queen’s vast wealth and global investment network was exempted from transparency laws made in the wake of the Paradise Papers revelations. Charles too benefitted greatly from this dynastic legislative vetting facility. As Prince of Wales his personal estate, the £1billion Duchy of Cornwall, was excised from legislation enabling other estate residents to buy their existing rented homes, ensuring that those on his estate continued paying rent – to him.

It is typical and should concern us all that despite the clear evidence to the contrary Buckingham Palace issued a statement insisting that in this process was ‘the role of the Sovereign is purely formal’ and that, ‘Any assertion that the sovereign has blocked legislation is simply incorrect’.

Charles’s direct interventions into policy decisions of the UK Blair government were only revealed after a decade long FOI battle by The Guardian. His so called ‘spider letters’ with ministers were reluctantly released in 2015, revealing his secret lobbying for his favoured policies. Charles was particularly exercised by the government’s plans to ban the hunt, the cruel plaything of the titled and entitled whose leisurely pursuits have for centuries included unleashing a pack of baying hounds after terrified foxes and pursuing them on horse-back until the foxes are cornered, torn and quartered by the dogs, or shot. Charles pleaded with Blair to spare this ‘romantic’ past-time as he described it and let the hunt, of which he and the now Queen Consort Camilla are ardent participants, continue.

Having fought unsuccessfully against the release of Charles’s ‘spider letters’ for a decade, the UK government promptly changed the FOI Act to ensure it could never happen again. There is now an ‘absolute exemption’ on the release of communications concerning the monarchy, the heir, and the second in line to the throne, an outcome by which all historians should be appalled.

Royal secrecy is critical to maintaining the façade of political neutrality. If we can’t see it, we can’t know it. Maintaining royal secrecy is hardwired in every archival holding across the commonwealth where documents relating to the royal family are routinely deemed ‘personal’ and closed to public access. It is the perfect means of ensuring royal control over the archival record and, therefore, history.

Our own history furnishes us with a clear example of this, the Queen’s secret correspondence with the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, regarding Kerr’s dismissal in 1975 of the Whitlam government. With the release of these ‘Palace letters’ following my successful legal action against the National Archives of Australia, we now know that through this correspondence the Palace played a critical role in Kerr’s decision to dismiss the government. As Nick Feik observed in The Monthly, ‘No respectable historian’ could now accept that the Queen played ‘no role’ in Kerr’s decision to dismiss Whitlam.

The letters confirm that both the Queen and the now King Charles III knew from September 1975 that Kerr was, ‘considering having to dismiss the government’ and worse, knew of Kerr’s failure to warn the prime minister – the central duty of a governor-general which even Kerr’s closest supporters now concede was his greatest failing. Kerr had first raised the prospect of dismissing the government with Charles, Prince of Wales, in September 1975 during the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Independence Day celebrations in Port Moresby – two months before supply was blocked in the Senate. Kerr told Charles that he feared the Prime Minister might recall him from office while he was considering dismissing the government.

This conversation was clearly significant, and Charles raised it with the Queen as soon as he returned to England. Charteris in turn relayed the Queen’s response to Kerr’s concern for his own position as governor-general, in a letter in early October 1975. This is one of the most disturbing of the Palace letters in its breach of the essential political neutrality of the monarch, and it was the first one that I looked for when the letters were released. Charteris tells Kerr that if Whitlam did seek his recall, ‘the Queen would take most unkindly to it’, a pre-emptive partisan criticism of the prime minister for a hypothetical action which never actually happened. The Queen expressed no such criticism or even concern over the governor-general’s consideration of the dismissal without warning of a government which retained its majority in the House of Representatives.

For the next six weeks these intensely political matters were canvassed by Kerr and the Queen, through Charteris, in this remarkable correspondence, including the contentious use of the reserve powers. On 4 November 1975, Charteris told Kerr emphatically that he had the power to dismiss the government – ‘that you have the powers is recognised’ – despite this ‘advice’ from the non-lawyer Charteris being directly against the formal advice of Kerr’s Australian legal advisors the solicitor-general, Sir Maurice Byers, and the Attorney-General. The Joint Opinion of the law officers provided to Kerr two days later concluded that, ‘The mere threat of or indeed the actual rejection of Supply neither calls for the ministry to resign nor compels the Crown’s representative thereupon to intervene.’

In his final letter before the dismissal, the Queen’s private secretary assuages Kerr’s concern, which he had raised in an earlier letter, that any use of the reserve powers might adversely affect the monarchy in Australia. Charteris replies definitively in his letter of 5 November 1975, telling Kerr; ‘If you do, as you will, what the constitution dictates, you cannot possible [sic] do the Monarchy any avoidable harm’. To the contrary Charteris writes, ‘the chances are you will do it good’. [My emphasis] Which is precisely why, as Malcolm Turnbull concludes, Charteris’s letters ‘can be read as encouraging Kerr’ to dismiss Whitlam, a conclusion shared by others; ‘Buckingham Palace gave Sir John Kerr a green light to dismiss the Whitlam government only a week before November 11’.

Finally, like his mentor Lord Louis Mountbatten, our new King Charles III fully supported Kerr’s actions, telling him soon after the dismissal that, ‘What you did … was right and the courageous thing to do’. The ‘royal fingerprints’ on the dismissal could hardly be clearer. It is simply risible to continue to claim, as some still valiantly do, that the Palace was not involved in Kerr’s decision. It was. As Professor Chris Wallace has noted, the letters show ‘the monarch providing not just comfort but actual encouragement to the governor-general in his sacking of the government’.

Gough Whitlam never imagined that the Queen would have engaged with Kerr in this way before dismissing the government. Asked about that possibility Whitlam appeared shocked; ‘Her immediate reaction would have been, “Have you consulted your Prime Minister?”, or, “What is your Prime Minister’s advice?”. Words the Queen should have said to her recalcitrant representative in Australia, Sir John Kerr, and never did.

If ever there was a time to assert our national independence, to sever the remaining ties to this relic of colonialism and become an Australian republic with an Australian head of state, this is it.

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