Earlier last month, on the evening of September 9, I enjoyed a lovely cold glass of the best bubbles in a toast to Queen Elizabeth II as she became Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, passing the record set by her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. The Queen, who is 89, has reigned for 63 years and seven months.
‘Oh god’ I can hear you say but I put it down to my sense of Britishness for a moment overriding by Aussie pride. Being one of the last ‘Ten Pound Poms’ I came to Australia in the early 1970s after a childhood drilling of Queen and Country.
One of the first things I remember on arriving in Sydney was the Queen was just as prominent in daily life as she was back ‘home’. Exactly the same photograph of her hung in public places in both lands. And thanks to the Australian media I’ve been able to keep up to date with her comings and goings ever since.
So I have great respect and affection for Her Majesty. Yes, she’s a little old lady who travels around meeting people, collecting endless posies of flowers for no apparent reason, who doesn’t really say anything too important. But to the British she provides a focus for national identity, unity and pride, and gives a sense of stability and continuity. And as head of state, the Queen undertakes constitutional and representational duties which have developed over one thousand years of history.
For many British people one of life’s defining moments is when you meet the Queen. I always remember my nana having a photograph of her and my grandfather shaking hands with the Queen at a Buckingham Place garden party in the late 60s having pride of place in their home. I used to fantasise on my meeting the Queen.
In February 1992 the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were on a Royal Tour of Australia to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of Sydney.
It was a hot and humid Tuesday evening and after my usual workout at the gym, I popped into the supermarket at the bottom end of Oxford Street to grab a few things for dinner. At the checkout I realised there was no longer any traffic on the strip and seeing a few police motorbikes hovering around it hit me – it’s the Queen travelling from the airport to Government House. I threw money at the sales assistant, grabbed the bags and hightailed it onto the pavement.
The whole street was clear with very few people around. I remember stumbling in my haste and as I pulled up there she was eyeballing me from her backseat of the Royal car. For a moment I was in her face and she was in mine. She seemed to recoil with an ‘Oh gawd’at the sight of me and cracked up laughing. Naturally I was mortified – I had given the Queen her jollies!
Given this current moment in history and the kind of affection the Queen enjoys you wonder why it was only at the end of August that the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) chose to reignite.
The ARM has a new Chair in Peter FitzSimons, the celebrated author and popular journalist. On August 26 he gave the most significant speech on an Australian republic since the 1999 referendum at the National Press Club in Canberra.
“The Australian Republican Movement wants a national plebiscite on an Australian head of state by 2020,” he said. “We’re getting the band back together, and gearing up to ask the Australian people the question again.”
FitzSimons announced support for an Australian Republic is strengthening again, with 47 percent of Australian voters in favour of an Australian head of state instead of the British Monarch, and 57 percent of voters in favour of holding a national vote on our head of state by 2020. Almost a quarter of Australians are undecided, with only 29 percent of Australians opposing the change.
Bill Shorten has signalled his intention to advance an Australian republic should he win office and of course our new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is a founding member of the ARM and a devout republican.
However, for me and countless others – including republicans – it seems pointless to restart the republic debate while she remains the monarch, given the respect and affection many Australians have towards her.
So cheers your majesty! Long live the Queen.
As for Princes Charles, William and George ... well, that’s another matter.