When the Lord Chamberlain called an emergency meeting of the Royal Household last Thursday, there was speculation that Prince Philip had died and the world expected the worst.
Happily, it was a false alarm. But his extraordinary event drives home the fragility of the status quo. The Queen recently turned 91. She has reigned over Britain and 15 other of her realms as Head of State since 6 Feb 1952; a remarkable achievement for a remarkable woman.
No doubt, there is personal affection for her among Australians, or at least great admiration and respect. She has been a rock of decency, measure, civility and certainty in a turbulent world.
Yet she is 91. And it serves nobody to deny that the day fast approaches that she will no longer be the Queen by choice or by her passing, an event that is referred to as the 'Demise of the Crown'.
When that happens, we read that there is a plan that will swing into action with the uttering of a secret code from the palace. We will automatically and almost immediately have a new monarch as our Head of State. It will be a King, most probably King Charles. And it will be decided not by our own deliberate and independent choice, but by laws of the United Kingdom: the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Act of Settlement (1701) as amended by the UK Parliament in 2010. Captain Cook was not yet a twinkle in his parents' eyes.
We currently have no choice in the matter. It will just happen to us, regardless of what we might think. We will wake up to the news. It is as if the Queen will leave us Charles in her will.
Monarchists have long used the refrain "if it ain't broke don't fix it" to oppose change. Yet this change will be inevitable. All current vestiges of the Queen will need to be changed to our new King. The images that still appear on our currency, the pictures that still hang on government walls, the phrasing of oaths of allegiance need change.
Moreover, according to the laws of royal succession, our new monarch can only be a natural (non-adopted), legitimate descendant of Sophia, Electress of Hanover, and must be in communion with the Church of England. Under the current system, no Australian could ever qualify to the highest office in our country. Hardly a reflection of the Prime Minister's recently adopted "Australians first" stance and the values of modern Australia. Put that in the new citizenship test.
But the deepest change will be in ourselves. We have grown used to the Queen who has been part of our lives since 6 Feb 1952; the entire lives of Aussies who are 65 or younger. All that changes in an instant. Our identity will change. No longer will we be a people who continue passively to live with a remnant of our history in our lives because, to most, that is the way it has always been. We will be a people who have woken up to a new King, and who in spite of being an independent nation, could do nothing about it.
The momentous nature of the change itself will make it an issue. In the eyes of the world, we will be a people who by default are seen to be comfortable with a new monarch being imposed on us; one to whom, as a matter of law, our parliamentarians must swear allegiance when they are sworn in by the Governor General.
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Some say it is disrespectful or morbid to talk about the Queen's passing. It's actually responsible. It's like estate planning for ourselves and our family, and succession planning for our businesses and organisations. It's remiss not to do it.
The Prime Minister has said that the proper time to consider the issue of the Republic is upon the Queen's demise. I think that is wrong. It is too late. It will allow something enormous to just happen to us while we sit back passively, unable to do anything about it. It is diminishing to us as a proud, independent nation who can determine our own future.
The time to reignite the republic debate is now. It should start with a plebiscite to ask the question whether or not we should become a republic with an Australian as our Head of State and how we should choose them. We can then get into the technical detail about models with voters being able to choose with full information. No more tricky, stalling tactics and arguments from the Monarchists about having to perfect the model as a precedent to doing anything. That is like saying you can only leave a bad relationship after you've found the perfect new one.
The Queen is 91, and long may she live. But cold hard reality says we need to take our future in our own hands now and not let a new King of Australia just happen to us.
Time is ticking.
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