The Queen is dead, long live the King. This oft-repeated phrase, in a practical sense, spells out that the transfer of sovereignty occurs the moment that the previous monarch is pronounced dead. In this instance, Prince Charles became King the moment his mother passed away. It is a powerful symbol that, even at such a moment of grief, the monarchy as an institution never lapses.
Sunday was a reminder that Australia plays its part in this transfer, too, with a ceremony in Canberra to officially proclaim King Charles III the King of Australia, with the cry going out: “God Save the King!” Does that sit comfortably with Australians, a reminder that our head of state is a distant king?
Some people will find it too early to ask such a question, but it will be asked, and we can ponder it while respecting the Queen’s remarkable service. She lived through an era of enormous change. One of her notable qualities was her ability to embody a sense of constancy and stability, even though the world around her was, at times, altering at dramatic speed.
The world is still changing at a frenetic rate and perhaps most Australians might prefer to hold on to the constancy of the monarchy as a symbol, especially as we have a robust parliamentary democracy and make our own national decisions. If the Republican movement is to ever gain traction, it must deal respectfully with those who see little practical need to alter our arrangements and who have affection for a monarchy that for some embodies stability.
Elizabeth II visited Australia 16 times, and what changes she would have seen. As the size and heritage of Australia’s population expanded and diversified, so has the debate over our identity as a nation and, by extension, our ties with Britain. While some have perceived this questioning as a sleight on our British heritage and, more personally, of the Queen, for those who have supported the call for a more independent stance – including The Age – it is best viewed through the lens of Australia’s natural evolution as it becomes more confident and sure of its place in the world.
This culminated in 1999 with the referendum calling for Australia to become a republic. The blame for its failure was usually sheeted home to the constitutional model chosen and the residual admiration for the Queen. Since then, it had been a given that while the Queen’s reign continued, the republic was a topic non grata. Former prime minister John Howard recalled on Sunday that, at the time of the referendum, the Queen took a great interest but always accepted that the decision was for Australians to make without interference.
With King Charles III officially Australia’s head of state, it is not disrespectful to wonder how this new era will impact Australian sentiment. One can admire the Queen for her service and grieve at her passing, and still discuss whether this country should sever its constitutional – not historical – ties.
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