Monday, December 30, 2013

Musings on history, complexity and the monarchy

Interesting piece in The Telegraph (London) by Peter Osborne, Only the Queen understands the true value of the Commonwealth. Triggered by a new book, Monarchy and the End of Empire by Professor Philip Murphy (OUP), the article discusses the interrelationship between the Queen's role as British head of state and as head of the Commonwealth. When speaking on British matters, convention dictates that she must speak as directed by the British Government. However, as head of the Commonwealth she speaks independently, The British Government cannot dictate her words, nor indeed her role.

Peter writes from a British perspective. However, the actual position is a little more complex than that, for the Queen is head of state of 15 Commonwealth Realms in addition to the UK: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Papua New Guinea, St Christopher and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Tuvalu, Barbados, Grenada, Solomon Islands, St Lucia and The Bahamas.

While national constitutions vary, the Queen's central role in each Realm is identical to that holding in the UK. In Australia, for example, her formal title is Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth. The wording in Canada is a little different, an older form, but the principle is the same. When acting as Queen of Canada, the Queen does so totally independent of her role as Queen of the UK or Australia, working within the same constitutional conventions that hold in the UK. In all cases, her role as head of the Commonwealth is a separate role.

There are republican movements of one sort or another in all the Queen's major Realms from the UK to Australia. In all cases, the focus is on the appropriateness or otherwise of the Queen's role as head of state in that country. There is less focus on the overall complexity of the Queen's role.

If you think about it, being head of state in sixteen sometimes conflicting countries is no mean feat. Add in her role in the different nations within the UK, Scotland is not the same as England or Wales or Northern Island, plus the Commonwealth. In all, the Queen has to be conscious of the sensibilities of fifty five countries, including many of their constituent parts.

This piece is not an argument for or against constitutional monarchy. My musings have taken me in a different direction. Given the complexities involved, can the current system survive and, if so, for how long?  

The present system works because of precise role separation that has evolved over a long period. The Queen reigns, but does not rule, providing a ceremonial and constitutional focus that has proved far more durable than might have been expected. It works because the monarchy stands above the cut and thrust of politics, providing a sense of ceremonial continuity. It works because of acceptance of often unwritten constitutional conventions. It works because of the Queen's self-discipline, her capacity to distinguish between her roles, her willingness to limit what she says and does despite her personal feelings.

Last year, Australia's retiring Governor-General Quentin Bryce delivered the ABC's Boyer lectures. In her last lecture, she publicly backed both Australia becoming a republic and gay marriage. Depending on points of view, it was variously hailed as a landmark speech or as a breach of the Governor-General's ceremonial role as the Queen's representative.

The Queen in her various roles as Queen does not have this type of freedom, no matter what she may think or feel. She must always exercise care in public utterances, conscious always of roles and responsibilities. Governor-Generals have a little more freedom, in part because the Queen stands above them. To a degree, they can become embroiled in political controversy without affecting the standing of the office they hold. But only to a degree.

The current system will certainly survive for the present. If anything, the monarchy has recently regained support in Australia and especially New Zealand and Canada. Interestingly, the ABC's Vote Compass (link above) suggests that support for a republic in Australia is inversely related to age, with lowest support among those aged 18-34, highest among those aged 55+

In the longer term?  I don't know. The odds seem against it.

To greater or lesser extent, human institutions are always ephemeral. The monarchy's greatest strength, its reliance on history, roles and conventions, is also its greatest weakness. It survives only so long as those conventions are accepted on all sides.  We have already seen in places including South Africa and Fiji how the constitutional monarchy was simply swept aside, replaced by a republic, when it became a perceived impediment to those in power. It also depends on the capacity and willingness of the Royal Family to continue to fulfil their traditional role. Both make the current system vulnerable in the longer term. 


Anonymous said...

Actually, Jim, the Queen is hardly troubled by the need to exercise care in her public utterances. She has never, ever given an interview; and anything she says in public on ceremonial occasions is scripted for her by others. Nevertheless, after many years of practice on such occasions, I have to say that there has been a very slight improvement in her readings skills.


Jim Belshaw said...

That made me smile, DG, although I think that its not quite true. I hope that you had a happy Christmas and will have a good new year,

Anonymous said...

The people who demand a republic remind me somewhat of the Underpants Gnomes in that they have a desired outcome but are quite fuzzy as to the means, processes and political safeguards whereby their aim might be reasonably achieved. I shall hold firmly onto my present underwear until they explain precisely what is envisaged as Step 2 - most aptly caricatured as a series of ???,s.


Jim Belshaw said...

Happy new year, kvd. I don't watch Southpark, so had to look Underpants Gnomes up! Like you, I find it all very fuzzy.

Anonymous said...

And a hny to you too, Jim!

Never mind South Park; thought you read Krugman, Yglesias or DeLong occasionally :)

The devil is always in the ????,s


Anonymous said...

Further thoughts:

If, as DG suggests, our HOS (Head Of State) 's every word and deed is carefully scripted, and if HOS is merely a ceremonial figurehead, devoid of power, a mere placeholder, then - why not make the position available on a rotation basis to the current MPs for the normal three year term of their elected office?

This would give each said MP about 7.5 days as HOS, their actions and words supplied to them on a needs must basis by various functionaries (or just one?). As MPs from both (all?) sides of politics would ava-go-of-it there would be a reduced possibility of any one MP gaining too much effective power - a possibility which the HOS is said not to hold in any event.

I would favour restricting the 'placeholder' to sitting lower house MPs simply because those are most likely to be subject to public scrutiny in the course of their duties - much more so than your average Joe Citizen. To include Senators would make it too fiddly - because they'd then only get 3 or 4 days each, and the cost of letterheads and serviettes alone would be a drain.

And I would offer myself as the anonymous functionary who decides the what where and when of what is said and done, or not done, or undone. I think I would make quite a good functionary; just look at the thought I've put into this proposition.


Anonymous said...

Jim, before I submitted the above I had re-read the republicans' submission to the last plebiscite on this matter - specifically the proposed model revisions of the constitution.

I came away wondering again just what it is about this ceremonial role which adds anything substantive to the way our present democracy 'works'.

Others have suggested that we are just as well served by having the PM as our automatic HOS. I can't find any reason to oppose that - other than swearings-in which I expect could as easily be done by the current senior judge of our High Court.

I think it's a fuss about basically nothing; and an extra level of pomp and circumstance we could easily do without.


Jim Belshaw said...

I think that there are some ceremonial advantages in having a head of state that stands above politics, kvd. I think that there are also some circumstances where a head of state with limited reserve powers is an advantage.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim.

I think the point you are making and the kvd is posssibly missing is that without the role, you would create a vacuum into which something else would step or be put.

The Queen (and I'm not a monarchist per se) brings political and traditional legitimacy and I would not want to see her replaced by anything other than an equally ceremonial HOS. That is possibly the largest argument against an elected HOS who might be tempted to claim an electoral mandate.

Happy new year to you and Denise.

Bob Q.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect to you BQ I am not missing your point. I think it is a nonsense that we proclaim 'democracy' yet cling to the apron strings provided by 'somebody' who has absolutely no connection to any democratic process. And I say that with full regard for my own wish that no change be made to the present system. But let's at least be honest about our hypocrisy...

Jim's last comment mentioned some ceremonial and some reserve powers best handled by an apolitical HOS. I wanted to ask him about both of those concerns, but it seems to me having writ, we all must move on to the next crumb - remember the starlings Jim that I complained about moons ago? - so I didn't bother.

So let's - and thank you BQ - look at those two propositions:

- what specific ceremonial powers/procedures/processes could not be as easily handled by our PM or the CJ of our High Court?

- what reserve powers do you feel so needful of a single solitary HOS to have placed in their lap - as opposed to, say, the full bench of our HC?

On the first, I like pomp and history as much as the next person, but it really doesn't add anything apart from that.

On the second, the main objection seems to be the need to keep separate the various powers assigned to the various branches of our democracy. But that denies the very basic role which our HC plays in our society. Where would we be without the HC reviewing the possible illegality of government decisions? I am quite sure that their decisions are apolitical, but I'm also quite surte that their decisions have very great political ramifications.

It's a nonsense that, in a democracy, we still 'need' a final, single, solitary person, with ultimate power over our processes. So examine your own biases, or at least be honest about them.


Anonymous said...

And in summary, I should state that I agree with BQ that if the role is to be retained, then it should remain as is - as a 'best of bad choices' option.

But if, as seems inevitable, we make a change, then my preference is for removing the concept entirely.

Talk of 'traditional legitimacy' is simply fatuous; what would the HC would make of that as an argument?


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Bob. Happy new year. Are you back in Canberra?

I think that kvd is missing the point. I think that is demonstrated to some degree by his later comments. Alternatively, of course, he is not missing the point but just doesn't accept it!

Jim Belshaw said...

Actually, kvd, having re-read your comments, I accept that you are simply expressing an alternative view! Further comments follow in a little while.

Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, now picking up your points very briefly.

The chief justice of the HC has a very specific role. It cannot be politicised, nor is it suitable for ceremonial occasions.

Dealing first with ceremonial matters, the point is (I think) that it provides a symbol above immediate politics. The PMs do have part of this role, but the partisan distrust associated with their role creates some difficulties.

On the second, the reserve power, the role of the HC is to make judgments on law including use of reserve powers. I don't think that they can do that if the court is a player.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

I thought your original musings were upon the potential (you seem to think probably inevitable) movement away from our present system towards a republic. I agreed with your post, but moved on to think about what might then happen. If that's missing the point, then I must revisit my comprehension skills.

The time to think through available alternatives is well before the situation becomes heated - as I suspect it will for some stridently opposed to Queen Elizabeth's successor assuming the throne.

The present alternatives to our system seem to be a 'President' to assume the role of our GG. The methods proposed are 1)nomination by parliament; 2) direct election. We surely over the past few years have seen just how politicised just selection of a process has become - never mind the eventual selection of the candidate for the role.

Now, I suggested for your consideration a third possibility (no credit; others before have raised the same idea) and wondered what your thoughts might be on that. From reading your brief response it would appear that you think it unworkable, but on this we differ.

Taking only those latest comments of yours, I would suggest our CJ could reasonably handle the swearing in of ministers; there is no actual need for the procedural step of giving 'royal assent' to legislation properly passed; there is no reason why foreign goverment representatives need present their credentials to a GG instead of our PM; there is no reason why our Executive Council (itself a subset of the ministry of the day) needs an apolitical chairman; we already have a Chief of Defence; and anybody can open a fete, or keep the register of Australian Awards. Aside: notice just where and how limited the role of the CJ might be?

The second part is the prescribed 'reserve powers' - prescribed, not described. These are used infrequently, thank the Lord, but when used are intensely political in their ramifications. Should their invocation occur again I am simply saying that I believe their use by the HC in full session, would be received with much more respect than the decision of some future 'President' acting alone. (And that last concept denies the reality that past GG's have apparently sought the private advice of our CJ on contentious issues in any event)

And on those 'reserve powers' I would suggest thought be given to removing the 'whim of the GG' from those powers: for example, if you lose the confidence of the House, there WILL (not may) be a double dissolution - as opposed to an invitation to the opposition to try to form a workable government.

So there you go; your point was change appears inevitable. I accept that, but think the present republican alternatives are flawed. Or perhaps, as Bob Q suggested, I missed something vital in your post :)


Jim Belshaw said...

I see your point, kvd, and you are not outside the discussion. Still, unlike my first reaction when Mr Keating raised all this, I don't actually see the need to do anything at the moment. I suspect that the status quo can jog along quite comfortably for the present!

I suspect that a King Charles would not change things much, especially among the young. It might have, mind you, ten years ago. But the world changes. Who would have thought that support for the existing system would be stronger among the young?