Timing is everything in politics.
This week in Canberra a new junior minister, an obscure Australian Labor Party MP named Matt Thistlethwaite, was sworn in by the Queen’s representative, Governor-General David Hurley. His portfolio: Assistant Minister for the Republic.
A minister of the Crown sworn to bring about the demise of the Crown in Australia.
When Australia’s new strongly left-wing prime minister and admiring friend of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Anthony Albanese, announced his government would include a minister dedicated to making Australia a republic, his timing was calculated and deliberate.
The Labor party which has been fervently republican ever since a previous governor-general, Sir John Kerr, famously dismissed the government of Gough Whitlam on Remembrance Day 1975. Albanese was sending a clear message to the Labor faithful that his government embraces Whitlam’s plea to ‘maintain the rage’ against the monarchy.
It was also intended to seize the domestic media agenda to contrast Albanese’s ‘progressive’ government with its ‘reactionary’ centre-right predecessor, and it succeeded. Indeed, the over-the-top railing of some British papers against the appointment played into Albanese’s hands as Thistlethwaite happily did the TV rounds talking up his mission.
And it was very much intended to drive a wedge into the new conservative opposition. The Liberal party may have been founded by arch-royalist Sir Robert Menzies, and recent prime ministers John Howard, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison were all monarchists. But many in the Liberal party and parliamentary elite and its affluent constituents are fellow travellers with the republican cause. Indeed, Malcolm Turnbull, later to become Liberal prime minister, was leader of the republican side in Australia’s 1999 referendum
Albanese knew exactly what he was doing to stir up trouble in the new opposition’s camp.
But there was one very fundamental factor that Albanese deliberately and disrespectfully ignored: that this week is the climax of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. This is Britain and the Commonwealth’s celebration of the extraordinary life and service of the only monarch most of us have ever known. A monarch held in just as much popular affection in Australia as in Britain.
Whatever one thinks of the institution of monarchy – and opinion on its retention in Australia is evenly divided (although, surprisingly, polls indicate support for the monarchy is strong amongst younger Australians) – to appoint a minister dedicated to its abolition in the week of the Platinum Jubilee is more than just mean-spirited. It is a calculated insult to Elizabeth the woman and an insult to Elizabeth as Queen of Australia.
In symbolically slapping the 96-year-old Queen’s face, Albanese may have positioned himself as a prime minster of social change. But to do so inconsiderately and gracelessly, just to play domestic politics at a time when Australians are celebrating the Queen and her long reign of selfless service, says as much about Albanese’s Corbynite inclinations as his priorities.
It may well be that Thistlethwaite will do his taxpayer-funded ministerial job to ‘educate’ Australians about the merits of a republic, and not much else. But Albanese should instead have listened to the wisdom of two other republican prime ministers, Turnbull and the longest-serving Labor PM, the late Bob Hawke. Both Hawke and Turnbull insisted there is no point in reopening the republic debate in Australia until the Queen dies, so popular and beloved is she.
Indeed, in Australia’s recent election campaign, Albanese seemingly got that message and said pursuing a republic was not an issue for his first three-year parliamentary term, at the end of which the Queen could well be sending a 100th birthday telegram to herself. Yet here he is in his first full week as prime minister, throwing down the gauntlet to monarchists and the Crown itself when the Queen is centre stage of her unprecedented Platinum Jubilee celebration.
Timing may be everything in politics but, sometimes, patience is a virtue. Knowing the public’s affection for the Queen, and that many Australian monarchists (including me) fear for the institution’s future under a neo-Hanoverian activist King Charles who, unlike his mother, does not hide his opinions and passions, Albanese surely could have waited a few years before putting an Australian republic on the political agenda in such a blatant and provocative way.
To do it now, this week, is disrespectful, distasteful and poorly judged. It sends a needless and unwelcome message not only to the Queen herself but to millions of Australians who hold Her Majesty in great affection, whether or not they are themselves monarchists. Later on Friday, Albanese belatedly acknowledged his tactless misjudgment, with generous words of praise for the Queen and her service He insisted his appointment of an Assistant Minister for the Republic meant no disrespect to the Queen personally, and restated that no referendum on Australia’s head of state would be pursued in his current term. He also expressed his genuine concern about the Queen’s health after her Thanksgiving service attendance was cancelled.
But the avoidable damage was done. Albanese’s Platinum Jubilee week timing was a blatantly political royal insult he may come to regret.