Charles III is a good bloke, says Malcolm Turnbull
THERE IS NO mention of Australia in Charles IIIs several coronation oaths; the only one of his 15 realms that is specifically mentioned is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The other 14 are swept up in an omnibus reference to your other Realms and the Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, all of which Charles will promise to govern according to their respective laws and customs. This is hardly surprising. In 1953, just before the coronation of Charless late mother, Robert Menzies, Australias prime minister, said that she sits on the throne not because of some law of Australia, but because of the law of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the Australian constitution of 1901, which united what had been six British colonies into a federation, gave enormous power to the monarchVictoria at the time, but extending to Her Majestys heirs and successors. By 1901 the British monarch was very much a constitutional one, bound to act on the advice of her ministers. But in Australia it was a different story. The new Commonwealth of Australia was not, nor sought to be, an independent nation. The extensive powers vested in the queen in the Australian constitution were designed to be exercised by the government in London. So it was on the advice of the British government that Australias governor-general was appointed. The constitution provided that he or she could send a law approved by Australias legislature to London for the queen (ie, the British government) to consider for royal assent. The monarch is stated to have the power to annul, within 12 months, an Australian law which has been passed by Parliament and signed off by the governor-general. This gave the British government the power to erase any Australian law that offended British interests. Over the years that followed, Australia acquired more autonomy. By the time Elizabeth became queen in 1952 Australia had become an independent nation. Governors-general were appointed by the monarch on the advice of the Australian government alone, and so today King Charles, in exercising his authority under our constitution, acts solely on the advice of the Australian government. But while the Crown had ceased to represent imperial authority over a subordinate dominion, it was its very British character that gave it meaning to Australians. A year after her accession Menzies said of the young queen: She is the enduring monarch, the monarch who dies as an individual but who passes on a crown that will always be the sign and proof that wherever we may be in the world we are one people. One British people, that isa point emphasised by the then Labor opposition leader, H.V. Evatt, who observed that the word British means to us as much as it does to the people of the United Kingdom itself and of New Zealand and Canada. To all of us it means the British tradition of government under which every member of this Parliament pledges his faith and allegiance to the monarch. While Menzies was lampooned even in his own day for his love of all things royal, Evatt was regarded as assertively Australian. But neither of them saw any conflict in being both Australian and British. Evatt even boasted that Winston Churchill had said to him: The better an Australian a man is, the better a Britisher. In 1954, when Queen Elizabeth made her first, rapturously received visit to Australia, the Australian governments Yearbook noted: The non-indigenous population of Australia is fundamentally British in race and nationality. No longer. Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world. Nearly 30% of all residents were born overseas, and of them only 14% come from the United Kingdom. The fastest-growing migrant communities hail from India, China and elsewhere in Asia. Australians generally regard Britain with affection, but nobody regards it as home in the way Menzies generation did or, indeed, as Prince Charles apparently told Jonathan Aitken young Australians did in 1970. By the end of Elizabeths reign Australians did not see in her a symbol of a shared British identity. In a changing world she was, however, the embodiment of continuity, and in that sense a reassuring stability. There were always more Elizabethans than monarchists. Australias only referendum on becoming a republic, held in 1999, was lost because republicans split over how the new president should be appointed. The model proposed would have had him or her chosen by a bipartisan majority of Parliamentappropriate for somebody whose role, like the king or governor-general, was meant to be ceremonial. Many republicans, however, argued that the president should be directly elected; allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good, they voted No. And so the monarchy survived: 55% to 45%. Later this year Australians will vote in a referendum on whether to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voicean assembly chosen by and composed of indigenous Australians, which would advise Parliament and government on matters affecting them. And then we will return once again to the question of the republic. There is consensus that an Australian president should have the same role and limited powers as the governor-general. So, learning the lesson from 1999, we should hold an advisory plebiscite to resolve the mode of election first, and then incorporate that decision into the formal referendum on amending the constitution. In 1999 the No case very effectively argued that the model presented was a politicians republic. This time it will be vital that the public are directly involved in the design of the amendment. Over the years polls have tended to indicate a slender majority in favour of a republic. There was a decline in support after the death of the queen, but the latest polls put the republic ahead again. Success, however, is not assured. Australians are conservative when it comes to their constitution: only 8 out of 44 proposed amendments have been approved. Australias system of compulsory voting enhances this conservatism, because the uninterested or uninformedwho are more likely to reject changedont have the option to stay at home. If the mode-of-appointment issue is resolved in advance, and republicans are united, the No camp will have to argue that the system works well enough and that change represents risk. But with the Elizabethan era now history, what can Charles III represent to Australians today? Most Australians who know the king like and respect him. His enduring dedication to the environment and sustainability strikes a chord with young people and his wry self-deprecation is equally endearing. But being a good bloke isnt enough. Australias head of state should be one of us. _______________ Malcolm Turnbull was the prime minister of Australia from 2015 to 2018.