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Almost an indigenous monarchy

Support for the royal family is not the product of any ‘British race patriotism’

4 December 2010

12:00 AM

4 December 2010

12:00 AM

Support for the royal family is not the product of any ‘British race patriotism’

The engagement of Prince William to Kate Middleton has produced more than the usual excitement associated with celebrity nuptials. There’s the reflection on our own personal experiences and on the state of things more generally that’s always prompted by publicly celebrated rites of passage. There’s the natural interest in what happens to someone who has been in the public eye since birth.

In this case, though, as well as being a kind of modern morality play, there’s the further sense that the monarchy itself is evolving and renewing: not as other institutions might, through legislation, vote, or upheaval, but through something as natural and as fitting as the marriage of an appealing man to an attractive woman.

For most Australians, the predominant reaction seems to have been pleasure at a young couple’s happiness, mixed, perhaps, with the hope that William’s marriage might be less troubled than that of his parents. The Daily Telegraph’s 10-page royal wedding special last weekend reflected great warmth towards the couple as well as concern about the pressures that they would inevitably face. For some Australians, though, the reaction has been more complicated. The editorial of the Sydney Morning Herald, for instance, worried that the celebrations for William and Kate might be a distraction from the need for a republic.

Beyond the opinion page quarrels, this latest royal wedding is likely again to demonstrate people’s response to ritual and tradition and their tendency to delight in princes and princesses. If republicans could bring themselves to suspend hostilities, they might come to appreciate that what they find inexplicable or even offensive is not so for others, and perhaps need not always be for them either.

The Spectator’s Rod Liddle has just confessed that he has actually grown to like the Royals because they ‘annoy so many awful people’ and because, without them, ‘we would have some over-promoted, time-serving, humourless bore as president’. What he now feared was that the wedding might make him a republican again because there would be months of ‘vapid, pointless’ stuff before musing that ‘maybe this bad mood will pass’.

To many observers, the late Senator Neville Bonner’s was the most powerful speech at the 1998 convention on becoming a republic. Bonner was not aggrieved that the monarchy was ‘foreign’. To an Aboriginal, almost everything about modern Australia is in some sense foreign. He wasn’t upset that the monarchy offended anti-discrimination principles which, after all, were utterly unknown to traditional Aboriginal society. If anything, its rituals and mysteries made the monarchy easier for a traditional man to identify with. What he found offensive was not the monarchy, but its abandonment.

‘We believed you,’ he said, ‘when you said that a democracy must have checks and balances… You told my people that your system was best. We have come to accept that… The dispossessed adapted to your system. Now you say that you were wrong and that we were wrong to believe you.

‘What is most hurtful,’ he declared, ‘is that after all we have learned together, after subjugating us and then freeing us, once again you are telling us that you know better. How dare you?’

Neville Bonner’s origins were about as far removed as possible from any Anglo-Australian establishment. He’d grown up in a camp on the banks of the Tweed River, had just three years of formal schooling, been refused enlistment in the army because Aborigines allegedly couldn’t adapt to cold climates, and learned bush carpentry as a roustabout stockman in western Queensland. He’d become clerk of works on Palm Island, a surveyor of bridges with a shire council and was eventually chosen for the number three position on the Queensland Liberal Senate ticket.

From direct personal experience, Bonner knew oppression, discrimination, poverty and alienation. What he appreciated, though, in ways that many activists of the period did not, was the goodwill and the desire to do justice that co-existed in our society along with the ugly manifestations of racism. He was not bitter about a society where he was refused service in a pub because the same society had also welcomed him into the national parliament.

It’s worth emphasising that the first Aboriginal to enter the Senate did so as a Liberal. This year, another Liberal, Ken Wyatt, became the first Aboriginal person to sit in the House of Representatives. The first Aboriginal person to enter a State parliament was a member of the Country party. In like vein, the first woman to enter a State parliament did so as a member of the Nationalist party and the first woman to sit in the national parliament did so as a member of the United Australia party. The first Chinese-born person to enter a State parliament was a Liberal, as was the first Chinese-born person to enter the national parliament. On the strength of this at least, it’s hard to accuse the Liberal party of racism. Furthermore, I doubt that we would have contrived to confine a talent such as former ALP president Warren Mundine to unwinnable seats.

To Bonner, the Crown represented what was best in English-speaking civilisation. It was the British government that had commanded the settlers to live in amity with the native people. It was Governor Phillip who had refused to take punitive action against the Aborigines who speared him. It was the crown courts, uncowed by local public opinion, that had sentenced white men to hang for the murder of black people. The actual treatment of black people might often have mocked notions of equality before the law. Discrimination in so many aspects of daily life might have betrayed the noble ideal of the brotherhood of man. Still, the system was supposed to guarantee to everyone the ancient rights and freedoms of Englishmen, and sometimes it actually did. Unlike those who saw enough of its failings to reject it, he saw enough of its strengths to embrace it.

As Bonner knew, the common prejudice that support for the monarchy is the product of ‘British race patriotism’ is simply wrong. English descent is no more necessary to appreciate the strengths of our existing system of government than it’s a requirement to be a Briton to want to speak English.

For better or for worse, whether it’s the constitutional Crown, the judicial Crown, the Crown of the armed forces, or even the celebrity Crown, the monarchy has been a fixture of Australian life. Mostly for the good, it has meant something to most people.

After two centuries, it’s almost but not quite an indigenous Crown. Still, the roots it has put down in this country are not necessarily less deep than those of other British imports such as parliamentary democracy and an adversarial system of justice which hardly anyone wants fundamentally to change. It might not be the Crown for all seasons and for everyone, but it has turned out to be far more adaptive than even its strongest supporters could have imagined. For the foreseeable future, it will continue to annoy all those who think that the interests and attachments of the general public are somehow beneath them.

Tony Abbott is leader of the Federal opposition. This is an edited extract from the Neville Bonner memorial lecture, given in Sydney on 27 November.

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