Dr David Shiels has a PhD in History from Cambridge. His research interests include this history of the Conservative Party and political biography. He is currently Archives By-Fellow at Churchill College.
The news that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are to make their first official visit to Australia and New Zealand next year was greeted with enthusiasm in both countries. Although the Prince has travelled extensively Down Under – and the couple touched down briefly in Brisbane during their Pacific tour last year – this will be the first time that they will make an official visit to the countries together. It is hoped that Prince George will go too, although this will be confirmed nearer the time. The trip has been on the agenda since the couple’s highly successful visit to Canada in 2011, and it is a further sign that the younger royals are beginning to take on a more active role in the Commonwealth.
In Australia, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s visit will be welcomed especially by the new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, a committed monarchist. Abbott, a former director of the campaign group Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, has spoken many times about his support for the constitutional status quo. A small-c conservative, he has described his support for the Queen as being as instinctive as respecting his parents. Significantly, his first act as Prime Minister was to restore the traditional oath of office, pledging allegiance to Elizabeth II, ‘Queen of Australia’, and in his inaugural speech he paid fulsome tribute to the Queen’s long service to the Australian nation. He has also recently given support to Prince Charles taking over as Head of the Commonwealth when the Prince comes to the Throne.
Abbott’s support for the monarchy is part of a trend away from the creeping republicanism of recent years that has also been witnessed in other Commonwealth countries where the Queen remains head of state. In Canada, Mr Abbott’s counterpart, Stephen Harper, has also spoken of his support for maintaining the relationship with the Crown, even though he has been critical at times of the Commonwealth as an institution. (Mr Harper recently boycotted the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka in protest at that country’s record on human rights issues.) Since coming to office the Canadian Prime Minister has enjoyed welcoming members of the royal family on visits to Canada, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their visit in 2011. His Government has promoted the symbolism of the monarchy in Canada and it even restored the use of the word ‘Royal’ in the titles of the Canadian armed forces. Importantly, Mr Harper recognises that the monarchy has the potential to appeal to all Canadians, including new Canadians who have no previous connection with Britain or the Crown. In Canada, unlike Australia, all immigrants continue to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen upon taking up citizenship.
In New Zealand, too, the Prime Minister John Key is also a supporter of the monarchy – Mr Key recently spent a weekend with the Queen at Balmoral. His Government has overturned some of the anti-monarchist acts of his predecessor – for example, by restoring the traditional honours system and reviving the award of knighthoods. Like Stephen Harper in Canada, Mr Key recognises that the monarchy can appeal to all New Zealanders. As well as speaking of the continuity provided by the Monarchy, he has used his patronage to appoint a Governor-General of Maori descent.
There is, of course, the possibility that the recent enthusiasm for the monarchy will be reversed when the present centre-right governments in Canberra, Ottawa and Wellington are replaced. It is true that Prime Ministers Abbott, Harper and Key are all conservatives, and that their support for the monarchy has the potential to be stereotyped as a right-wing issue.
But the debate on Australia’s constitutional future, like the comparable if less prominent debates in Canada and New Zealand, also cuts across party lines. Australia’s most prominent republican politician is Malcolm Turnbull – a man who led the Liberal Party before being ousted in 2009 by Mr Abbott and who now sits in his Cabinet as Communications Minister. In June this year – before Abbott became Prime Minister – Turnbull was involved in launching a new cross-party drive to revive the republican movement. Just a few weeks ago the Queen’s representative in Australia, Quentin Bryce, went further than any serving Governor-General by hinting at her support for a Republic. (Ms Bryce is also the mother-in-law of the new Labor Party leader, Bill Shorten.) Most observers still believe that a republic is inevitable, especially given that most new Australians no longer have the personal or family connections with Britain.
But the monarchists have the advantage in this debate. As urnbull has already conceded, a republic is unlikely to be instituted during the Queen’s lifetime. Her Majesty remains extremely popular in Australia and her dedication to the Commonwealth is recognised and appreciated. There is little appetite for re-opening the debate on the constitution, especially at a time when the standing of politicians everywhere is so low. What monarchists such as Abbott must do – as they have done successfully so far – is to persuade Australians to stick with what they know.
There is also an opportunity here for the royal family itself, especially at a time when the next generation is taking on a more prominent role within the Commonwealth. The Prince of Wales won much praise for the way that he represented the Queen at the Sri Lanka meeting, and he will want to continue to show that he shares Her Majesty’s commitment to the Commonwealth as a whole.
The younger royals also have a role to play in promoting and maintaining the royal connection. During Prince Harry’s recent visit to Sydney, Abbott told the Prince that while not all Australians are monarchists, ‘today everyone feels like a monarchist’. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are sure to be given a warm welcome in the country, especially if they bring Prince George. The idea would be alien to republicans, but it is possible that the baby Prince might one day be back as ‘King of Australia’.