Queen's Hand A Royal Flush For Monarchists

Sydney Morning Herald

Tuesday October 19, 1999

David Marr

The lady in question is covering her tracks. The Queen's Web site - - used to say, in amongst the history of her corgis and the latest news of Princess Margaret, that Her Majesty was "head of state" of Australia, Canada, Barbados, etc. Some time in the past month the terms have changed. She now describes herself as "sovereign".

Monarchists are taking quiet pleasure in this. Republicans are wondering if the Prime Minister's hand can be detected in the shift. John Howard's office denied any knowledge of the change until we brought it to its attention.

Perhaps the Queen is playing politics on her own behalf. The woman Gough Whitlam calls "the most experienced and competent head of state in the world" knows how to sidestep a pointless dispute when she sees one. And this is pointless.

Ever since Paul Keating kicked off the republican campaign in 1995, monarchists and republicans have been brawling over the "head of state" question. Tony Abbott explained the tactics to me at the time: when Keating came up with the "Resident for President" line the monarchists countered with this notion that the head of state was already an Australian. Patriotism doesn't require a change.

Keeping this argument in play has to be recognised as a triumph for the monarchist cause. At first there were gales of laughter, especially from constitutional lawyers. But spokespersons were found to hammer away at the point. Sir David Smith, official secretary to five governors-general, lent his backing. Eloquent young monarchists like Sophie Panapoulos made this their big point. And what daring: saving the Queen by cutting her down to size.

They admit she is still monarch of this constitutional monarchy. They don't question that she's sovereign. Professor David Flint, convener of the Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, agreed she stands on top of our constitutional tree. But with great skill the monarchists have put abroad the idea that despite all this, what really matters constitutionally is whether she's "head of state" of Australia.

Until the other day, the best answer came from the Queen herself. Now the Web site isn't denying her old claim to headship, but sidesteps the question by using "sovereign". It's not an insubstantial claim, of course. But with Her Majesty no longer contradicting the monarchists, it seemed time to canvass the views of her living governors-general. There's not much comfort for them in these views from Yarralumla.

Sir Zelman Cowen ('77-'82) is on record condemning the idea of the Queen not being our head of state as "dishonest and mischievous".

Sir Ninian Stephen ('82-'89) recognises it as a "hot issue" but a "nonsense question" nevertheless. While he was in office - at work in Yarralumla or on tour abroad - he felt he was representing Australia. But he did not see himself as head of state. "The question of who is head of state has been invented in the last 10 years. It's an impossible question to answer because `head of state' is so hard to define."

We asked Bill Hayden ('89-'96) for a constitutional opinion but he sent a practical reply from the bush. At Yarralumla he saw himself for all "practical purposes" as head of state - except for the fact that he could only be sacked by authority of the Queen. "That safety mechanism, or anything faintly like it, is disturbingly absent under the Yes Vote proposal."

Sir William Deane ('96- ) pointed us to the Constitution. It was a couple of years ago when we called Yarralumla and asked if he felt he was head of state. We got no further than his official secretary who came back with this gnomic reply: "The Governor-General holds office, in the words of the Constitution, `as Her Majesty's representative in the Commonwealth'." Sir William seems not to be claiming the top job for himself.

None of this will change the monarchists' tactics. To the lip of the ballot box they'll be defending the Queen by portraying her as some appendix of the body politic - and claiming that all the authority is Bill Deane's. It's a spoiler's argument, designed to baffle. It could be foiled by using symbols on the ballot paper as they do in Indian elections. Beside the "no" box, the crown Bill Deane has on his numberplate, his writing paper, china and towels but never on his head. Beside the "yes" box, the man's own soft grey Akubra. Choose.

© 1999 Sydney Morning Herald

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