“She wrought her people lasting good”.
Those words are on a statue here in Melbourne. Written about a long-serving queen. Not Elizabeth II, but our first monarch, Victoria, the one who gave us our name - fully fifty years before the federation of Australia. She appointed our governors, watched carefully over our affairs - but never set foot in Victoria. Or Australia, for that matter.
Here it is:
It’s right near the Arts Centre and the National Gallery of Victoria. In Queen Victoria Gardens, actually, named after (you guessed it!) Queen Victoria.
In case it isn’t clear, the inscription reads:
Erected by the People of Victoria
In honor of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria
“She wrought her people lasting good”
I just find it odd. It seems to come from a completely different world. From a time when Australians were incredibly proud of being British. Rather than, y’know, Australian.
And now, another coronation of a British monarch
Victoria has been a state for over 150 years, and Charles III is our seventh monarch (Australia’s seventh, too). He’s been king since Elizabeth II’s death in September last year, and a few weeks ago had his official coronation.
And so our Prime Minister, our Governor-General, and the six governors of our six states all had to go to the other side of the world to be part of it. They were there to celebrate the coronation of a man none of us chose. A man who, unlike those governors, wasn’t even recommended by the officials we elected. And, unlike my UK colleagues, we didn’t even get a holiday for it…
The coronation was on British soil, crowning a British monarch who will spend most of his time in Britain. We may have had representatives there, but Australia didn’t even get a mention in the coronation service.
For Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, there were these words:
Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan and Ceylon, and of your Possessions and other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?
For Charles III’s coronation, it had been slimmed to:
Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, your other Realms and the Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?
Our undoubted king
During the section of the service called “The Recognition”, four times it was said:
I here present unto you
King Charles, your undoubted King
Wherefore all you who are come this day
to do your homage and service:
are you willing to do the same?
Four times all those in attendance were supposed to respond:
God save King Charles.
The theme was continued in the section “The Homage of The People”:
Archbishop of Canterbury: I call upon all persons of goodwill of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of the other Realms and the Territories to make their homage, in heart and voice, to their undoubted King, defender of all.
All: I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God.
Leaving aside the “God” part of it (which deserves a post of its own), it’s undoubtedly true that legally, Charles is my king, and has been since September 9, 2022. What I don’t think is undoubted is that he should be our king.
Signs of the royal presence
Queen Victoria’s statue isn’t the only royal statue near the centre of Melbourne. Also in Queen Victoria Gardens is her son Edward VII:
Then in Kings Domain is his successor, George V:
Adjacent to Kings Domain is Government House. As I mentioned in my last post, there are portraits of some of our former monarchs hanging on the walls, including Queen Elizabeth II. I didn’t see a portrait of Charles when I was there in January, but maybe one day there will be one. There’s also the Royal Botanic Gardens, one of the many organisations with “Royal” in the name.
An important part of the Coronation are the Crown Jewels, usually on display in the Tower of London. We may not have them here in Melbourne, but the NGV does have a replica on display:
Not just any replica, but an actual used replica: It was used during the rehearsal for the coronation of King George VI in 1937.
One final reminder of the place of royalty in our lives is our War Memorials. Many were set up after World War I and contain the words “For King and Country”. For example, here’s the most recent one I’ve seen:
The paradox of royal visits
Queen Victoria never visited Australia. Nor did Edward VII, her son (he had planned to, but on the death of his mother had to organise his coronation instead). George V visited while Duke of Cornwall and York. Then, after he ascended the throne, Edward VIII visited as Prince of Wales, and George VI later visited as Duke of York. Elizabeth II was the first reigning monarch to visit Australia. And Charles III will probably follow that.
I mentioned in my last post how surprised I was that Elizabeth had visited Australia sixteen times (nine of those including Melbourne, and three in my lifetime). Well, I was equally surprised to find that Charles has already equalled that number of visits - just never (yet) as monarch. Apparently he even spent six months in his teens as an exchange student at Geelong Grammar School. And I’m sure it will continue to the next generation: Whether or not William ever does end up our king, we’ll probably see him on royal visits as the Prince of Wales.
So, as far as presence in Victoria or Australia goes, recent royals have done far more than Queen Victoria ever did. So perhaps they have a better claim to have done us “lasting good”?
But this is where I see the paradox: Over time, there has been more royal presence in Australia. However, they’ve had less actual influence on us, and the role just feels so much less relevant than it ever used to be.
The governors Queen Victoria appointed over the various colonies (including Victoria) had serious executive power. And there were still a variety of decisions that could only be made by Queen Victoria and her advisers. Yes, there were also elected legislators in the colonies from early on, but my impression is that back then the roles of governor and monarch were far less ceremonial than they have become.
Victoria’s Constitution was passed by the British Parliament, then given royal assent by the queen. The same was true of Australia’s Constitution at Federation: Yes, there were referendums in each of the colonies, but it also required the British Parliament to enact it, and the queen to sign it into law. You can see the original document here.
In those circumstances, having a royal representative (and future king) for the opening of Australia’s first Parliament was probably wise. It was a state occasion:
That was in the Royal Exhibition Building here in Melbourne - back in the days before “Canberra” was a by-word for the federal government. It was actually the building where I had most of my exams as a Uni student - though to the best of my knowledge there were no future monarchs present then.
Since then there’s been a definite increase in royal visits. We’ve had Royal Tours. We’ve had visits for special occasions: Olympics, Commonwealth Games, openings of Parliaments or Parliament buildings. And to me it just makes it seem less relevant: Even if we grant there is a place for that kind of ceremonial role, why do we need it to be provided by someone on the other side of the world, ruling a bunch of different kingdoms?
In the same way as the opening of the first Parliament probably warranted having royalty present, I’m sure the 1954 Royal Visit (the first by a reigning monarch) was a big deal. But can any subsequent visits really match the impact of that “first”?
About that 1954 visit, Robert Menzies, the then-Prime Minister, wrote:
It is a basic truth that for our Queen we have within us, sometimes unrealised until the moment of expression, the most profound and passionate feelings of loyalty and devotion. It does not require much imagination to realise that when eight million people spontaneously pour out this feeling they are engaging in a great act of common allegiance and common joy which brings them closer together and is one of the most powerful elements converting them from a mass of individuals to a great cohesive nation. In brief, the common devotion to the Throne is a part of the very cement of the whole social structure.
He was a well-known monarchist, so I’m not sure that he spoke for everyone back then. Perhaps he didn’t. But what I do know is that he doesn’t speak for me. At all.
It’s 2023 now. Our Prime Minister is a Republican, and there’s talk of another Republic referendum this decade. Somehow, our country seems to have survived. If there is any “common devotion” now that is a part of “the cement of the social structure”, to me it feels like that devotion is to Australia, not to “the Throne”. And I’d also be so bold as to say that’s probably how it should be.
No longer part of the empire
Another statue of Queen Victoria, this time in Geelong, casts a different light on her rule and her place in our country:
Perhaps Queen Victoria personally did us lasting good. But our pride in being British was also pride in being part of a mighty empire. An empire on which the sun never set. It made Australia someone in a big world.
We would be mentioned in things like Jubilee celebrations:
And, as the empire was a big place, it wasn’t like Australia was the only part of it that commemorated Queen Victoria despite her never visiting. The Geelong statue mentioned her being Queen and Empress. She was the Empress of India - the British Raj, the jewel of the crown. When I was in Kolkata on mission work, I visited the Victoria Memorial there:
Made using the same marble as the Taj Mahal, actually. It’s an impressive place, and its grounds also contain a statue of Edward VII on a horse that looks strikingly like the one in Melbourne.
As it turns out, by the time the memorial was completed it was only 26 years till Indian independence. That was more than 75 years ago. And in that time we too have gained complete independence from Britain, though unlike India we still retain the monarch - for now.
Back then, we were part of something bigger, and proud to be so. Now we are our own nation, and I think that’s also something we can be proud of.
Back to the coronation, here once more are the words for The Homage of the People:
I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God.
Supposedly the innovation for this coronation was that the homage was no longer just for the aristocracy: It could be performed by subjects in their millions in the safety of their own homes. Personally, I didn’t give homage, and I didn’t swear allegiance. Honestly, I’m not really sure what it would mean to do so.
I accept the laws of Australia, the country I was born in and have lived all my life in. And while I continue to live here, those laws will continue to apply to me whether or not I accept them. Right now, that includes Charles as king, and a Governor-General as his representative. It also includes the ability to change those laws, or to hold referendums on whether to change the Constitution itself.
In Elizabeth’s final years, there was a lot of talk about how it would be really disrespectful for Australia to cut ties with her after so many years of service - but that maybe it would be fair game once Charles was king. The current Labor government have said that if they’re re-elected in 2025 they’ll consider another republic referendum.
Perhaps Charles will be our last king, and perhaps he won’t. But to me that whole “heirs and successors” thing is completely up in the air. I’m not even sure I see the need to pledge allegiance to the reigning monarch. It’s far too soon to be worrying about allegiance to his heirs and successors.
Questioning the status quo
Sometimes when thinking about the status quo, I think it’s helpful to ask “If it wasn’t already like this, would we choose it?” In 1900, Australia was part of the British Empire, so having the British monarch as Head of State made some sense. And even if we hadn’t been part of the British Empire, it might have been helpful getting a world super power that ruled the waves on our side. If that meant adopting their monarch as our Head of State, maybe it would have been a sensible compromise.
I’m not sure it still made sense in 1952, when Elizabeth first took the throne. And I’m pretty sure it doesn’t make sense in 2023. If Charles weren’t already our king and we’d somehow decided to become a constitutional monarchy, would he even make our shortlist for potential monarchs of Australia? I don’t think so. So why keep him if we get a choice to remove him?
Queen Victoria was our past. So was Queen Elizabeth II. I don’t wish to deny that past, and I’m not particularly interested in pushing over statues or removing our existing coinage or renaming our gardens.
That doesn’t mean Charles III has to be our present and Prince William our future.
The statue of Queen Victoria that I started with represented how our forebears felt about her. So do the statues of Edward VII and George V and the evidence on War Memorials that people did choose to fight “for King and Country”. I don’t really understand those sentiments, but that’s not the point.
This isn’t about throwing off the shackles of tyranny. Unlike Charles I, this Charles seems very unlikely to be overthrown or executed for tyranny. And, as monarchs go, “irrelevant” is much less of an issue than “oppressive”. It just feels weird having a monarch on the other side of the world. And even more weird acting like they’re important to us.
When Elizabeth first died I thought “I really don’t want any statues of Charles around the place”. I think it highly unlikely that he will do anything for us that would justify such statues, and so I think erecting them would be a waste of money. But if they happen anyway, well, I don’t really care.
As far as our money goes, I’m sure I will be wanting coins with Charles III’s head in my collection at some point. Unlike Elizabeth, he won’t feature on the $5 note. And we had the Leader of the Opposition say, apparently in all seriousness, that that decision was “another attack on our systems, our society and institutions”. I don’t get it. There doesn’t seem anything wrong with making Australian currency, well, more Australian.
Our royal celebrities
To me, the view of the Royal Family that makes most sense now is that they’re celebrities. Not just in countries they reign now, but in countries where they haven’t ruled for hundreds of years (like the United States), and probably in countries where they’ve never ruled. I don’t follow many celebrities, and I don’t see a need to follow the Royal Family.
The Coronation was a celebrity event. Due to our special relationship to the monarch being crowned, Australia was represented by our Prime Minister, our governors, and a variety of other people. But is it any more or less important to Australia as a celebrity event than, say, the Oscars? Some will follow it assiduously. Some won’t. And that’s fine. They’d still be able to follow it if we parted ways from the monarch.
Personally, I’ve never watched the Oscars, and I wouldn’t have watched the Coronation if I hadn’t been planning on writing this post. It was interesting viewing, with pomp and ceremony and pageantry. Everything was thoroughly organised, including the procession afterwards. But I’d have survived just fine without seeing my king of 7.5 months go through it. I don’t think it has much impact on day-to-day life here in Australia.
I’ve mentioned my brother’s choir being involved in the jubilee celebrations last year. Well, in a couple of weeks they have a concert with coronation and coronation-adjacent music. There’s some good music in there. I’d go along if I weren’t out of Melbourne that weekend. And I’m sure it would be an enjoyable concert that wouldn’t change my view on the monarchy at all.
Having an impact
As a practical example, I hear Charles is keen on climate action. Perhaps that makes some difference - but is it really going to make more difference than, say, a film star being keen on climate action? When it comes to election time, which political party we choose to rule feels like it will have an impact on Australia’s climate ambitions. I don’t think it felt like the transition of power from Elizabeth to Charles had that same impact.
To me, our elected Prime Minister is our Head of State in all the ways that count. The same is true of our Premiers at the state level. Their actions and the governments they lead have a real impact on our lives, either for good or for harm. Visiting Parliament House in Canberra felt much more relevant than visiting Windsor Castle.
I wouldn’t object to us continuing with a governor / governor-general system similar to what we have now. They still feel like largely ceremonial roles, but are much closer to home and more directly applicable. Here in Melbourne I can visit Government House, and I’m pretty sure the current governor has done more for Victoria than Elizabeth or Charles ever did. It’s just weird that she in her turn is a representative of a monarch on the other side of the world.