How the monarchy became a bad joke in Australia

The Guardian, February 29 1996

Just over 30 years ago, the Queen visited the small town of Elizabeth, a sprawling maze of tarmac and redbrick bungalows about 30 kilometres north of Adelaide. The pavements along her route were lined six-deep with families slowly burning in the sun. The town square was packed. The council had spent weeks planning the visit, it had closed all the schools and some of the offices and, when the monarch finally arrived, the people of Elizabeth waved their flags and pointed their Kodaks and counted themselves proud to be Australian.

It was like that all over the country. When she went to the races in Melbourne, all the young ladies lined up in the grandstand and turned their backs to the horses to gaze up at her, gasping with excitement when she dropped her hankie. The prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies, recited a little poem to the effect that he had but seen her walking by, and yet he’d love her till he died. And he offered up his country not as an ally but as a loyal subject.

This was an Australia still linked umbilically to the mother country with blobs of cotton wool on Christmas cards and the National Anthem playing in cinemas. Australian troops had died in their thousands fighting South African Boers, Chinese Boxers, Malayan communists, Borneo rebels and New Zealand Maoris, all in defence of interests which were entirely British. When Menzies attempted to report the death of King George to his Parliament his voice broke and he was forced back to his seat with his fist clamped to his teeth to block his tears.

Even in those days of anglophilia, Elizabeth was special. More than anywhere else in the country, this was an English town, a magnet for thousands of the Ten Pound Poms who had migrated on government-assisted passages to a life of sunshine and employment. They set up English pubs and a brass band and a racing pigeon club. It was Barnsley in the sun. So when the Queen of England and Australia came to unveil the grand new fountain in the middle of their own square, they all turned out to express their love for the monarch in whose honour they had named their community.

Last year, the Duchess of Kent came to Elizabeth. Everyone knew she was coming and it was billed as an official royal visit. But there were no big crowds and no big plans and no excitement at all. Less than 50 people turned out to see her. She slipped in and out like a stranger and disappeared without inspecting the grand fountain which now stands parched of water with weeds pushing their way up through the cracks in its stonework. Someone has daubed blue paint over it and then printed neatly at its foot a simple message for the monarch: ‘Fuck the Queen.’

It’s over. Throughout its history, Australia has treated the royal family as an anchor, holding it close to a nation with which it shares language, culture, commerce and family. But on Saturday, when they vote in their federal election – regardless of the result – Australians will voice once more their declining affection for the Queen and her country. The six-week campaign has seen every political party in the country join some part of the republican chorus. It is a dramatic shift and one which reflects not only on the status of the monarchy but also on the declining prestige of Great Britain as a country. Australia’s alienation is a milestone on Britain’s long journey from world power into obscurity. The message from 18 million Australians is even harsher than that on the foot of the fountain: Britain is not wanted any more.

It is, in part, a reaction to the scandals that have beset the royal family. What seemed in London to be little more than a tired joke has translated itself on the other side of the world into a fierce political backlash. The former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, a rightwinger and a loyalist, acknowledges that ‘the harsh reality is that the young royals have done the monarchy immeasurable harm’. An election opinion poll published two weeks ago showed 80 per cent of Australians supporting moves to replace the Queen with their own head of state.

It is not just the Queen but Britain which has fallen from grace. The fall is hard to measure but harder still to miss. Listen to the jokes in the bars – the one about the pom who migrated to Australia, married a prostitute and brought her down to his level, or about the notice outside a lion park which advertised entrance fees for visitors in cars and buses and free entry for poms on bicycles. In Australia in 1996, there is no prestige in being British.

Last year, the Australian literary world was engulfed in ridicule by an incident which exposed the core of this feeling. They awarded their equivalent of the Booker Prize, the $25,000 Miles Franklyn Award, to a young Brisbane author named Helen Demidenko, whose pedigree as a member of a struggling ethnic community placed her at the top of Australia’s new pecking order. Demidenko explained that she was the daughter of an illiterate Ukrainian who had brought her to this new promised land and that it was her old Ukrainian relatives who had told her the terrible tales of famine and slaughter which filled her novel. She was lying. Her name was not Demidenko at all. It was Darville. Her father was not illiterate and he did not come from the Ukraine. He came from Scunthorpe. ‘We’re poms,’ Demidenko’s mother finally confessed.

The thoroughly monarchist leaders of the Returned Servicemens League tried to fight back by amending their constitution ‘to promote loyalty to the sovereign’ and were promptly challenged by a former naval officer who resigned publicly rather than agree to do any such thing. The Australian equivalent of the Rotary Club, Apex, has removed the picture of the Queen from its boardroom. Even the Scouts Association has been reviewing its oath to do one’s duty ‘to my God and the Queen of Australia’.

In the past 10 years, Australians have cut one tie after another. They have replaced the National Anthem with Advance Australia Fair, removed the right of appeal to the House of Lords, extracted the Queen from the standard oath of allegiance for new citizens and seen the birth of a formal Republican Movement, chaired by Malcolm Turnbull, the ferocious Sydney lawyer who won the Spycatcher case by playing on Australian resentment of London’s attempt to exploit their courts.

Even in Elizabeth, you can see the decline in Britain’s prestige. You still turn off the main road on to Elizabeth Way and curl past Prince Charles Walk and Princess Ann Boulevard. On your way to Philip Highway there are still nine soccer clubs and a pub called the Rose and Crown. Poms still run the town – eight of its 12 councillors were born in England – but the truth is that it’s over.

The mayor, Marilyn Baker, who was born in Blackburn, speaks for the older generation, who learned their loyalties in the war. Personally, she wants the Queen to stay and she has her album full of blurry pictures of the royal visit to mark the point, but she knows the battle is lost. ‘I don’t think any of us – if we sit down and really think about it – can deny it. Republicanism is a natural progression.’ The town’s chief executive, Graham Foster, is an active republican. ‘It’s time we grew up,’ he says.

In the Over-50s Club, the ageing pommies gather for lunch under the portrait of the Queen which still hangs high on the wall at the end of the hall where they like to sing Rule Britannia and Land Of Hope And Glory at their Christmas concerts. In the accents of Sheffield and Birmingham, they all talk about how much they still care for the Queen and how they remember that the old King never deserted London during the Blitz. And then they search for reasons for the demise of their royal family. ‘It was revered right up to the decade of Diana and Fergie. That was the start. We had put them on a pinnacle of respect and suddenly we got those two little upstarts and they’re bringing the monarchy down . . . When Britain went into the Common Market, it was like deserting the colonies. We never thought they’d do that. They stopped a lot of our exports, they damaged our economy . . . It’s the slant-eyes who have come into this country and won’t pledge allegiance to the Union Jack – bloody muslims and all sorts.’

The real reasons go deeper, to a tidal change in the perception of Britain. This began as no more than an undercurrent of resentment with its source back in the days of colonial rule. Occasionally, it has surged: when the Queen’s governor in New South Wales ousted the leftwing premier Jack Laing in 1932 after he refused to pay debts to imperial British banks; when Churchill abandoned Australian troops in Singapore; when the poisonous truth emerged about British nuclear tests in Maralinga; and, most contentiously, when the Queen’s governor-general removed the elected Labour prime minister, Gough Whitlam, in November 1975.

These were bitter moments when the royal embrace was like the warmth of the infected blankets which the settlers gave to the Aborigines as part of their policy of extermination, an act of oppression disguised as aid. And yet, the wave of republicanism did not break, because Australia’s loyalty was built not only on sentiment but also on self-interest. Britain had the power to help them.

Australians then saw the primary threat to their safety coming from Japan. In particular, they were determined to keep Australia white, to resist any form of Asian immigration. And their best defence against Asian incursion was the British navy which still ruled the waves around the world. Now, Britain offers them no defence at all. Downing Street would not even support them in condemning the French for running nuclear tests in the South Pacific. Last year, Australia negotiated a security pact with Indonesia which may be a cruel dictatorship but in the pragmatic world of Australian politics, it is a more useful ally than the mother country.

In the same way, Britain no longer has the commercial power to help Australia whose car industry, for example, is investing its future in Asia’s burgeoning economies. The formerly loyal colony now sells 78 per cent of its exports to Asia.

Whichever party – prime minister Paul Keating’s Labour or the Liberal-National coalition – wins the election, the new government will be committed to moving away from the monarchy. Both parties have agreed to set up commissions to investigate the details of a new republic. Keating wants also to hold a referendum to confirm that most Australians want to move in that direction.

Anticipating the result, Keating has persuaded the Queen’s new-governor general, Sir William Deane, to accept a curtailed period of office, ending in time for the new system to take over in the year 2001. The old governor-general, Bill Hayden, stepped down two weeks ago in a grandiose public ceremony in Canberra, complete with brass bands and a 21-gun salute. Only four adults and one child turned out to watch him go.