She's your Queen, not ours

The French tests show Australia must speak for itself, argues Malcolm Turnbull; If Chirac visited, would the Queen say 'Wearing my antipodean crowns for a moment, your nuclear policy stinks'?
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The Independent Online
AUSTRALIANS, by and large, are a fairly phlegmatic lot. Some would say we are apathetic. However, there has been no evidence of "she'll be right, mate" in the Australian reaction to the French nuclear tests. Not since the Vietnam protest marches of the 1960s have so many people taken to the streets in public protest.

Public hostility to the tests is found across the political spectrum. The government, led by Paul Keating, and the opposition, led by John Howard, have been competing with each other to be the most outraged by Jacques Chirac's nuclear pretensions. The shadow foreign minister, Alexander Downer, even went so far as to suggest that Australia should send a warship to the test zone.

The British government remains unmoved, and, in marked contrast, continues to provide Chirac with his main support. This difference between Australian and British policy underlines the essential silliness of the two countries sharing the same person as head of state. While it is true that the Queen of the United Kingdom and the Queen of Australia is a different legal and constitutional entity, the fact remains that Queen Elizabeth is seen throughout the world, including Australia, as being the personification of Britain.

To Australians of the 1950s, this presented no problem, even though by then Australia was in almost all respects an independent country. The Crown, nevertheless, remained a potent symbol with great political significance. It was inconceivable that Sir Robert Menzies' Australia would find itself at odds with Britain in terms of foreign policy. The web of formal and informal relationships between the two countries was such that in most respects they, together with Canada and New Zealand, spoke as one.

Australia and New Zealand were even prepared to offend the United States by supporting Britain (and its French and Israeli allies), against the rest of the United Nations, during the Suez Crisis of 1956. On 1 November 1956, Menzies cabled Eden to say "you must never entertain any doubts about the British quality of this country".

During the 1950s and well into the next decade, most Australians saw themselves as being British. In 1953 Menzies said that the Crown "will always be the sign and proof that wherever we may be in the world we are one people".

Ten years before, during the Second World War, when the Australian Labor government had turned to America for help, the prime minister, John Curtin, gave a speech to the House of Commons in which he said: "We carry on out there as a British community in the South Seas and we regard ourselves as the trustees for the British way of life in a part of the world where it is of the utmost significance to the British commonwealth and to the British nation and to the British empire - call it by any name that you will - that this land should have in the Antipodes a people and a territory corresponding in purpose and in outlook and in race to the Motherland itself."

An Australian politician who proclaimed today that Australia was a British nation would be regarded as nuts. John Major's decision effectively to condone the French government's nuclear tests in the South Pacific has much more impact at an emotional rather than an intellectual level. Thinking coolly, we all know that nations have interests, not friends. We recognise that Britain long ago committed itself to Europe and with all the insecurity of the recent convert is only too anxious to please. Equally, we recognise that the Queen in the right of Australia acts on the advice of her Australian ministers as, in the right of the United Kingdom, she acts on the advice of her British ministers.

But at the emotional level - and symbolic issues are always emotional - how long can this regal anomaly persevere? If President Chirac were to visit London, no doubt the Queen of Britain would receive him with great courtesy. But would she act on the advice of her Australian and New Zealand ministers to take him aside and say, "Wearing my antipodean crowns for a moment, President, I have to tell you that we think that your nuclear policy stinks"?

Of course she would not. The Queen's primary and overriding obligation is to Britain. She sits on the throne because of British laws and no other. If she ceased to be Queen of Britain she would cease to be the Australian queen. Our constitution states that our head of state is the Queen and "her heirs and successors in the sovereignty of the United Kingdom". So the president of a future British republic would become Australia's head of state.

Just as the Queen's overriding commitment is to Britain, so is Britain's to Europe. Forty years ago the British attitude today would have been inconceivable. In an area, like the Pacific, where Australia and New Zealand had a special interest, the British government would have been at pains to ensure that Anzac sensitivities were respected. Right or wrong, for good or ill, those days are past.

The monarchy's Australian supporters have long ceased to rely on "the British connection". Rather they contend that change is too difficult or that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". But in truth the monarchy is broke in Australia and it does Australia considerable harm.

Is it not demanding a little too much generosity and understanding from other nations to expect them to regard Australia as an independent nation confident in its own Australian identity when it retains the monarch of another country as its head of state?

Mr Major's attitude to the French tests will not win him any gratitude from Paris. It will disappoint Britain's friends in the Pacific. But most significantly, perhaps, it will serve to demonstrate, yet again, how different the interests of our two nations have become and how incongruous and uncomfortable it is to retain a British monarch in Australia.

The British monarchy made sense in Australia when our country was a British colony. It continued to make sense when we regarded ourselves as Britons. It makes no sense today.

Malcolm Turnbull acted for Peter Wright against the British government in the 'Spycatcher' case. He is now chairman of the Australian Republican Movement.