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The Queen in the Commonwealth

Part of an address by Mr Richard Wood

To the Victoria League for Commonwealth Friendship, Toowoomba on Monday 2 August 1999

It is said that when it was proposed to Queen Elizabeth, now the Queen Mother, that she leave London during the blitz, Her Majesty replied:

"The children won't leave without me: I won't leave
without the King, and the King will never leave".

That story explains the affection that so many have for the person of the Queen and her mother. We know that the Queen (and her mother) have earned our respect. They have done, are doing, and will continue to do their duty. But there is a stronger and more fundamental reason for our being reluctant to change our constitution. However worthy or unworthy the King or Queen is, it is the office which is our protector, a part of those delicate checks and balances of our Australian constitution which reigns in any excesses of our elected officials, a point so carefully explained by Justice Handley at the Legal Forum on the Republic on 30 November 1996.

We have indeed been doubly blessed. First, our monarch is an internationally highly respected figure who has always done her duty. And in this country, we have had constitutional arrangements, state and federal which have ensured 150 years of continuous democracy. Only seven countries can claim that. Five are monarchies, four under Elizabeth II. We should be the envy of the world.

The Queen in our Commonwealth

This brings me to the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth now consists of one-third of the world's states and one-quarter of its population of which:

Of the former British colonies, only Ireland, Burma, the Sudan, British Somaliland, and South Yemen (formerly Aden) are not members. Cameroon (formerly partly British) and Mozambique (formerly Portuguese) are. Fiji's membership lapsed in 1987.

It is the only international organisation which has no need of interpreters (Bogdanor 271). What it is, is perhaps more important than what it does.

The term Commonwealth meaning the Commonwealth of Nations was first used by Lord Rosebery in 1884 who asked of Australia "Does the fact of your being a nation… imply separation from the Empire? God forbid! There is no need for any new nation, however great, leaving the Empire, because the Empire is a Commonwealth of Nations". (Bogdanor 240)

Why did the Commonwealth evolve? The American colonies had enjoyed extraordinary freedoms for that era. But they expected to be treated as Englishmen. And they would not have taxation without representation - so they revolted.

Unlike the Bourbons, the British both remembered their mistakes, and learned form them. By the mid-nineteenth century, Britain was able to export, and did export, new liberal institutions to her colonies. The other principal imperial powers did not. Indeed they could not, for they did not enjoy them at home.

And the grant of responsible government was to prove the antidote to separation (Bogdanor 242, McKenna, passim). By this century, all of the Dominions enjoyed complete self-government. And they began to enjoy a degree of autonomy in external affairs. For example, by the 1880s, it was agreed that imperial treaties would not affect the self-governing colonies without their consent.

All of the dominions signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, but not the Treaty of Lausanne with Turkey in 1923, nor Locarno in 1925 which committed the UK to the status quo in Europe. In 1920, Canada and the US exchanged envoys, and they entered into a treaty between them in 1923.

In 1926, the United Kingdom and the dominions agreed in the Balfour Declaration that the dominions were "autonomous communities within the British empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to another in any respect of their domestic or internal affairs, though united in a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations." (This was formalized in the Statute of Westminster, 1931.)

They further agreed "the Governor-General of a Dominion is the representative of the Crown, holding in all essential respects, the same position in relation to the administration of public affairs in the Dominions as is held by His Majesty the King in Great Britain, and that he is not the representative or agent of His Majesty's Government or any Department of that Government". (Bogdanor 246).

Hence the Governor-General from 1926 exercises the functions of and is therefore the Head of State.

The concept of a "common allegiance to the Crown" had to give way to allow India, as a republic to remain in the Commonwealth. Nehru was insistent that all constitutional power in India must flow from the Indian people, not from outside...So in 1949, under the London Declaration, it was noted that India accepted the King as the symbol of the free association of independent states, and as such Head of the Commonwealth. This is now the universally accepted role of the Queen in the Commonwealth. And it's a title given by common consent.

When King George VI died in 1952, Queen Elizabeth was proclaimed separately on 6 December 1952, not by right of succession but by common consent, as the Head of Commonwealth.

Occasionally, there are suggestions that a person other than the Queen be Head of the Commonwealth. The latest was by the British Fabian Society, in 1996. It proposed the Headship rotate among Commonwealth Heads of States. Some would wait a long time. Presumably, the Queen would have sixteen turns. Idi Amin could have been Head of the Commonwealth. And how would the Head be funded? Where would he live? Would he be happy to be no more than a symbol? It is inconceivable that anyone else be there Head.

A Quebecois newspaper once wrote of the title Head of the Commonwealth in these words. "This solution to the problem is in the good British tradition, it is both efficient and devoid of logic." (Bogdanor 27)

As Head, the Queen speaks to the Commonwealth without the advice of her British ministers.

There can be no doubt of the Queen's love for the Commonwealth. On her coming of age, she dedicated herself to its service.

Within the limits of her office, she plays an important and sometimes crucial role.

Sarah Bradford writes, for example, that she used her position and contacts to save the crucial Lusaka Conference in 1979 which was to lead to the creation of Zimbabwe. The Rhodesians had just bombed Lusaka. Robert Muldoon had unhelpfully gone public with a statement that he would advise the Queen of New Zealand not to go into a war zone.

Sir Shridati Ramphal, former Secretary-General says of her role:

"She did care and she did convey the caring…It mattered to her. These were not mere formalities, it was an important part of her life…All that was understood in the Commonwealth, and in return there was this easy acceptance of her in the Commonwealth…"
"…(S)he was always on high moral ground…very wise to the degree to which politicians would try to manipulate her into situations in which she might be compromised. There was never any doubt where she stood on issues like Rhodesia or apartheid but nobody wanted to get her into a controversy with Mrs Thatcher. Sometimes she came so close that it was only her moral strength that saw it through…at Lusaka, it was very important that the Queen should be here and use her influence with Kenneth Kuanda if things got tricky." (Bradford 381-384)

The Queen does not participate in the actual sessions of Commonwealth meetings. But there is a private audience with each leader. Of these, Sir Shridati writes:

"Nobody was ever indifferent to these because of what she brought to it. First of all, because for a long time she had been friends with these people…she knew them as young Prime Minister and young Presidents… Secondly, she did her homework prodigiously - the one comment I got from all of them was "My goodness, how aware the Queen is of our situation." She would know who was in the clutches of the IMF, who got what political scandal raging, she'd know the family side of things, if there were children or deaths in the family. She'd know about the economy, she'd know about the elections coming up. They felt they were talking to a friend who cared about the country, and the people concerned. It was the sort of informality and, to me, it made a lot of difference to the meeting because it was another bit of glue that made them a collective and the Queen was very conscious of the valuable role she was playing."

So there we have it, the glue that holds the Commonwealth together.

From an Australian point of view, the Queen has two roles. Queen of Australia and Head of the Commonwealth. Those who say she is a foreign Queen only display their ignorance. She has no power to depose the Prime Minister, as Robert Hughes wrongly alleges (Hughes 85). Hughes, writing in 1993, seemed unaware that when the speaker asked the Queen to intervene after Gough Whitlam was dismissed, the Queen's private secretary stated the correct principal, that is precluded

"from intervening personally in those functions once the Governor-General has been appointed, and from interfering with His Excellency's tenure of office except upon advice from the Australian Prime Minister." (Bogdanor, 277, 278)

So why does the American resident Mr Hughes lecture us on his visits to Australia, when he so obviously misunderstands the Australian constitution. The point is the Queen holds these two offices with our consent. If it is our wish, she will let either or both go. And if we want to do it, there is a constitutional procedure to do it. It is arguable that this requires more than the procedure in Section 128 of the Constitution. It is submitted that such a fundamental change involve first legislation by all of the parliaments and only then a referendum, approved nationally and in all of the states, not just four. (The Preamble to the Constitution, the Australia Act)

The Duke of Edinburgh put the point that it is up to Australia and no one else if we wish to change. He did this as long ago as 1969 when he was in Canada:

"The monarchy exists in Canada for historical reasons, and it exists in the sense that it is a benefit, or was considered to be a benefit, to the country or nation. If at any stage, any nation decides that the system is unacceptable, then it is open to them to change it.
I think the important thing about it is that if at any stage people think that it has no further part to play, then for goodness' sake let's end the thing on amicable grounds without having a row about it".

There you have it. If we want a President, we can do it. Without niggling, without undermining the present arrangement. Without a cultural cringe. Without politicians trying to ram a republic down our throats.

What we don't want is some of our diplomats making feeble excuses about our constitutional arrangements. And we don't want any of our politicians having audience with foreign presidents telling them, no doubt to their surprise, what that politician is going to do about our constitution. About something fortunately the politician has little control over!

I wonder if you are sometime surprised, as I am, by the effort incurred by banks, corporations and also the government departments, public instrumentalities in choosing new logos which they announce with even more expense as if it were some victory or of some benefit to us.

Christopher Fildes in The Spectator, 2 November 1996, explains this feverish activity in this way:

Chairmen are touchingly proud of these non-solutions to non-problems because it enables them to push their real worries further down the list."

Non-solutions to non-problems. Are the few politicians left who push the republic listening?

If they push this non-solution to a non-problem, we know they are pushing their real worries, the real concerns of the national, that is what they were elected to correct, further down the list.


Vernon Bogdanor, The Monarchy and the Constitution, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995

Sarah Bradford, Elizabeth, Heinemann House, London, 1996

Robert Hughes, Culture of Complaint, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993

Mark McKenna, The Captive Republic, Cambridge University press, 1996

Due acknowledgement should be given when quoting from material on this Site

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