Sunset of Empire

The Queen sinks slowly in the South

Gold Coast (photo by author)

I spent a couple of weeks in Queensland last month. It was so heavenly to escape Melbourne’s drear winter, where the days are about five minutes long and raining. Threading the needle of lockdowns and border closures and canceled flights was no fun but at least I wasn’t stuck in an AirBnB unable to enjoy the outdoors.

Queensland is a kind of anomaly in Australia. It’s where the right-wing gun-nut conspiracy theorists live, and the average political complexion is deeply conservative redneck.

When I was a girl, the Union Jack still flew over the Queensland State legislature and Queensland considered itself a part of the British Empire and Australia second. Royal visits were extremely popular and in the 1999 referendum on whether Australia should remove the Queen from the Constitution, Queensland resoundingly voted NO!

Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia (CC via Wikipedia)

An oddity

Perhaps alone among nations, Australia is uncertain about the identity of its head of state.

During the referendum, the republicans made a big point that it was inappropriate that Australia should have as its representative on the world stage an Englishwoman who lived in London and very rarely visited. Our head of state should be one of us, so vote YES to remove the Queen. Three cheers for Her Majesty, as Thomas Keneally the novelist put it, four cheers for Australia!

The monarchists, on the other hand, pointed out that the Australian Governor-General actually had all the head of state powers, represented Australia overseas, issued diplomatic credentials, paid and received state visits and was every centimetre an Australian. So, no need to change our arrangements. Long Live the Queen!

In the end, the referendum failed, the Queen retained her entirely ceremonial position in our affairs, and the chastened republicans retired to lick their wounds and await the inevitable end of the Elizabethan era. One must admit that Her Majesty is a fairly popular lady, admired for decades of service including a stint in uniform during the Second World War as a motor transport mechanic. She might not be one of us, but the idea of a princess changing tyres and driving a whopping great army truck along dirt roads is an appealing one.

She underscored her position by insisting on driving the Saudi King around one of her royal estates during a state visit. In Saudi Arabia at that time, women were not allowed to drive at all.

But I digress. I have a fondness for capable women who stand up for themselves.

The reason the Australian referendum went down in flames wasn’t because we all hated Her Majesty, but because the monarchists had joined forces with the republicans who supported a directly-elected President and they both encouraged a NO vote. “Next time around,” these republicans said, “we’ll vote directly for our own head of state.”

David Hurley, Governor-General (CC image via Wikipedia)

It might not come to that

As noted, there is some dispute about the Australian head of state. Here is what the Governor-General has to say about the matter:

The Governor-General of Australia is the Queen’s representative. In practice, they are Australia’s Head of State and have a range of constitutional and ceremonial duties. The Governor-General is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Defence Force. — The Role of the Governor-General

It looks like we’ve changed our head of state without a vote being cast or a shot being fired!

Furthermore, this change extends down to the States, who have their own views about local heads of state:

The Head of State in NSW (and the other Australian states) is the Governor who is appointed by the sovereign on the Premier’s recommendation. The Governor represents the Crown in NSW and performs the sovereign’s constitutional duties on their behalf ensuring stable government and a nonpartisan safeguard against the abuse of power. Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC is the 39th Governor of New South Wales. She started her five year term on 2 May 2019. The Governor-General is the Head of State for Australia. — “Who is the head of state? (New South Wales Parliament)

State Parliament and State Governor are aligned on this. Not only is the Governor-General the Australian head of state, but the State Governors are heads of state within their own States.

In alphabetical order, they all sing the same anthem:

The Governor is appointed by the Sovereign and is her representative in New South Wales. The Governor is the formal head of state in New South Wales. — New South Wales

In summary, the Governor’s role is as the local ‘head of state’ for South Australia, exercising constitutional, ceremonial and community duties. — South Australia

Tasmania, as a constituent member of the Australian Federation, is both a part of the Commonwealth of Australia and a self-governing State with its own separate identity and as such possesses all the constitutional elements of an independent and sovereign state, including its own head of state who is the Governor. — Tasmania

Although the Governor is appointed by The Queen as her representative, the Governor exercises the constitutional power of Head of State in Victoria. — Victoria

The Governor is the Head of State of Western Australia and represents the people of Western Australia in welcoming visiting Heads of State, royalty, ambassadors, spiritual leaders, members of the consular corps of Western Australia, and members of the general public who serve the State. — Western Australia

One hold out

Yes, you guessed it. In Queensland, Her Majesty sits firmly at the top of the gum tree.

His Excellency the Honourable Paul de Jersey AC CVO is the 26th Governor of Queensland and representative of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queensland’s Head of State. — Queensland

Photo by Lawrence Makoona on Unsplash

So what does “representative of the Queen” actually mean?

One thing to note is that each Governor is careful to say that the Governor (or Australian Governor-General) represents the Queen. These are words straight out of each State’s constitution. None of these constitutions define the term “head of state”. In any case, a nation or state is at perfect liberty to name any person they want as their head of state. If they are a sovereign entity, then there is nobody to gainsay them. Australia and each of the States are fully independent of the United Kingdom. Representing the Queen (which in colonial times actually meant representing Her Majesty’s Government in Westminster, rather than the sovereign herself) long since ceased to involve being the agent of empire taking direction from London.

The Queen herself does not claim to be the Australian head of state, though her website links to the Governor-General’s where he claims that particular title.

In any case, the die is cast

The Australian head of state has officially ceased to be the Queen. Except in one sunny part of the continent: Queensland.

Each State has declared its Governor is the local head of state. And to be fair, if they have a local head of government in their State Premier, then why not a local head of state who executes the local head of state powers?

Evidently, the separate governments comprising the Australian federation recently got together and decided that each could make their own decision on the matter without any need for a referendum.

It is a given that when the Queen’s reign comes to an end and her far less popular son becomes King Charles III there will be another referendum, and I imagine that this time around the republican movement will make sure that they are all on the same page and get it right.

I think the fact that Australia (apart from Queensland) has been gradually giving up the trappings of monarchy and empire will ensure a nation-wide YES vote.

But nobody has noticed!

Well, I have. Wikipedia has. And now you have.

So, Dear Reader,
• Who is your head of state?
• Who represents you on the global stage?
• Have you checked their website?




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