Saturday, May 19, 2018

Royalty comes and royalty goes, but is never a part of Australian identity

The monarchy has been in the news in Australia over the past few weeks. A royal birth, Commonwealth Games opening, CHOGM leader elections, binge-watching 'The Crown' and now a royal wedding. But we’ve been here before. Remember Charles and Diana’s wedding.

THE BRITISH ROYAL hatching and matching have been in all the celebrity magazines. The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, recently had her third child. This is followed today (19 May 2018) by the royal wedding between actor Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, set for St George’s Chapel in the grounds of Windsor Castle.

1981 was the year of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul’s Cathedral. Anyone approaching 55 or over can probably recall exactly where they were and who they were with on 29 July 1981. For me, it was the night of my Charters Towers State High School formal.

Charters Towers was founded in 1872 during the gold rushes and developed into a thriving reef-mining centre. In 1877, with a population approaching 4,000, it was declared a municipality and by the 1880s, it was one of the major Australian gold reefing fields. During its heyday in the 1890s, Charters Towers was the second town of Queensland with a population approaching 30,000. Since the nearest major town, Rockhampton, was a long boat journey away, all the services necessary to civilisation in a very large area of Queensland were concentrated in Charters Towers. It was perhaps this isolation that fostered the nickname “The World”.

The boom of the 1880s, with an extraordinary influx of British capital, involving about five million pounds, had transformed the Queensland economy. The flood of money and employers hungry for profit encouraged the growth of strong trade unions. When relations between employers and workers became strained, the labour movement often blamed the interests of British capital. From here it was short step for many workers to advocate for a republic and separation.

A republican association was formed in Charters Towers in 1890 with a platform similar to the Bulletin’s and within months it had a membership of over three hundred. For the Australasian Republican Association, the word "republic" meant the establishment of individual and political rights. The editor of their journal, the Australian Republican was one of the great republican firebrands of the era, Frederick Vosper.

Vosper proclaimed:
"... A grand United Republic under the Southern Cross which, profiting by the experience and errors of others, shall be as pure and perfect as it is possible for things human to be."
Vosper believed republicanism was an expression of the civic individual and not subservient to factional politics or religion.

On my mother’s side, our family has lived in Charter Towers since the 1890s, resulting in a town with cousins as far as the eye could see. It was the egalitarianism and mateship of this north Queensland goldfield that seemed to absorb me growing up in Charters Towers. Probably came from my family’s long mining heritage. Whatever way, I always had the strong feeling that "jack is as good as his master".

As we were such a small Year 12 group, we customarily shared the event with the local private schools. The main hall in the north Queensland country town was called the Horticultural Hall, which brings up all sorts of rural images. The other main dance hall in the town was where we learnt and practised all our dance moves for the big night and reflected the interesting divisions in the old goldfield community. The Miners’ Union Hall was referred to by its abbreviation: MU Hall. However, in a collective loss of memory, townsfolk didn’t seem to remember how important and influential the association had been in the 19th Century and commonly referred to it as the "emu" hall.


Leading up to our big event it was all about cakes and long trains and dresses. This was all the girls could talk about. However, for the Year 12 girls, the evening was to become a conflict of almost irreconcilable proportions — do I go to the formal or watch the royal wedding on TV at home?

A long time ago – on 10 November 1977 to be precise – I remember seeing Star Wars for the first time. I was 12 at the time. My first republican moment was played out within the confines of the aptly named Regent Theatre, with a working-class community cheering on the successful overthrow of the Empire by the rebels.

For me, it was the Empire versus the Republic — with the rebels being the good guys fighting against the evil Empire.

We sat in the dark envelope of our town’s only theatre — my parents on one side and younger brother on the other. The theatre still had hessian low-slung seats arranged in long rows. It was like a beach scene at night without any water. Not that we had ever been to the beach. North Queensland beaches in the 1970s were basically mud, mangroves and sharks, with the added thrill of a high chance of being stung by jellyfish.

The lights went down, the fanfare came up and then that Star Destroyer emerged on the screen. As a kid, the movie was just jaw-dropping. Science fiction was nothing new for us in Charters Towers but we had no idea how revolutionary the Star Wars space opera would be.

Built during the gold-rush era of the late 19th Century, the Regent Theatre stood firm on the periphery of the British Empire. But now it held a republican people cheering on the rebels struggle to overthrow rule by an evil Emperor.

By 1981, the Regent Theatre had become a skating rink. Still, the people attended, although oblivious to the edifice of monarchy surrounding them. Meanwhile, audiences worldwide paused as the fairy tale coach, replete with its Cinderella, rolled up to St Paul’s Cathedral steps and the "Queen of the People’s Hearts" emerged in the crushed cream creation. Everyone gasped and winced and laughed when Diana repeated her bridegroom’s name incorrectly.

Our high school formal didn’t quite match the 2 million people lining the streets of Britain but for us, it was a defining moment. That night the girls declared for us rather than a privileged few on the other side of the world. They stood with their own Charters Towers princes rather than watch the royal wedding on TV.

Michael Cooney, national director and CEO of the Australian Republic Movement, has been playing down the level of interest in the latest royal wedding:
"It is a very sentimental occasion for some people or admirers of Harry's mother Diana, a guilty pleasure for some and for others it's all a bit English and a bit remote," he said.
"It's a big occasion in England and lots of people will enjoy being part of the audience but I don't think anyone really believes it's a big occasion for Australia."
Peter FitzSimons, national chair of the Australian Republic Movement, wrote an article recently titled 'You can be a republican and welcome a royal wedding'.

Dr Benjamin Jones, historian and recognised expert on republicanism, was quoted stating that:
Australians have always been able to separate the cult of celebrity and big royal events from constitutional matters.
“It’s an insult to the intelligence of young Australians to say that because they enjoy watching royal weddings, they want a royal to be the Australian head of state,” he said. “They might also enjoy reading about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, but no one is advocating they be the head of state.”
The teacup warriors at the Queensland Young Monarchist League will be watching the royal wedding live at the Queens Arm in New Farm if that interests you. If you’d like to dress-up in your royal wedding best to impress, perhaps the Treasury Brisbane may suit. Perhaps watching the royal wedding from an event cinema on the big screen might be more your style. If so, you are encouraged to attend wearing your own wedding dress again. But for many Australians, it appears the royal wedding in London has become an excuse to have a party.

Of course, this is all a bit of fun. Playing dress-up and pretending that fairytales are real. However, I’ve argued previously there is no place for princes in modern Australia. The public repudiation of previous Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s knights and dames decision showed that Australia has moved on from the old colonial way of thinking.

For us in Australia, royalty only ever visits us from somewhere else, from across the seas. It’s not something that lives with us. Royalty comes and royalty goes, but it is never a part of us.