Opinion: Queen Elizabeth II dies: Can the monarchy endure after beloved Queen's death

Photo by PC Media on Unsplash
Sunday 11 September 2022

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Mother is dead. She had been a perennial presence and yet somehow always removed - in truth, more otherly than motherly.

Her interminable reign predated the vast majority of her subjects.

Britannia once ruled the waves, but now finds itself adrift upon them, rudderless in the storm.

At the helm, an apprentice King and a novice PM more wooden than the First Fleet.

Poetically, the flimsy Liz Truss had been officially on-boarded by the reliable 'Liz trust' just hours before the ageing monarch shuffled off this mortal coil. Duty to the end, even her death, summary and selfless.

As a far-flung franchise, Australia now faces a moment of unavoidable introspection. Malcolm Turnbull had long-ago declared himself an "Elizabethan republican", his tactical retreat offering the reassurance his reactionary colleagues required to stomach him. Until they didn't.

His was a betrayal of sorts, but not one that others could practically gain-say. After all, we'd had our chance, but in 1999 Australians preferred to party like it was 1788.

Will we find our own way now she's gone, as Turnbull predicted?

In the terrace vernacular of HG and Roy (which feels suddenly apposite) it's time to head into the room of mirrors for a good hard look at ourselves.

That the British monarchy remained so beloved here was a modern marvel - not for its consistency with modernity, but for the opposite - its discordant echoes from of an era when monarchs and czars ruled by force or birthright rather than elections.

QEII transcended war and peace, time and change. Her titular reign over a fading British Empire (now politely referred to as the Commonwealth) a triumph of subtlety and the most-practised of discretions.

In hindsight we see how she reigned by reining in. How she pared back an institutional form from antiquity tuning it to the liberal sensibilities of the age. She did this by emphasising dignity, distance, and above all, restraint.

How much of the magic was personal? Was she a remarkable person or an ordinary one who filled a remarkable job - a person who, unlike many in our self-promoting culture, was asked to take up a unique role, and actually rose to it?

For Paul Keating, she was an "exemplar of public leadership" who "assimilated a national consciousness" at a time when "the self" was privatised and "the realm of the public good, was broadly neglected".

Arch monarchist Tony Abbott had no doubt, nominating her 21st birthday speech in South Africa, where she said, "My whole life, be it long or short, shall be dedicated to your service, and to that of the great imperial family to which we all belong".

"Every day of her life right up to the last, she was true to that wonderful pledge," Abbott told Radio National.

On that day in Cape Town, less than two years after WWII, she had also spoken poignantly to her own generation.

"I am thinking especially today of all the young men and women who were born about the same time as myself and have grown up like me in the terrible and glorious years of the Second World War.

"Will you, the youth of the British family of nations, let me speak on my birthday as your representative? Now that we are coming to manhood and womanhood it is surely a great joy to us all to think that we shall be able to take some of the burden off the shoulders of our elders who have fought and worked and suffered to protect our childhood."

It is easy enough to brush off this humility, these well-chosen words, as the craft of Palace speechwriters. But what followed was another 75 years of fidelity to these sentiments.

As the historian, Mark McKenna noted just months ago in a brilliant piece in The Monthly, the Queen prevailed in Britain and Australia, while many around her struggled.

"Hovering above a succession of tabloid scandals, the Queen reigned in lonely dignity, seemingly untouchable, attracting more public affection as she aged."

Not for her the episodes of tasteless indulgence or self-pity. There would be no crises of meaning, no public tantrums. There were failings and blind spots, of course. The monarch's familial aloofness would be called heartless, even cold.

And there were the things not said. Horrendous crimes of the British colonisers to which the Crown had never confessed. As the eminent historian Henry Reynolds told a conference at ANU mid-week, the liability for reparations to First Nations Peoples for land stolen should begin with the British for it was in the Crown's name these things were enacted.

Finally, a silly story. When she came to Australia in 2011, David Speers and I were in Parliament's Great Hall along with hundreds of others. Journalists usually affect a kind of indifference to celebrity but Speers suggested we should meet her. After wanly protesting my republicanism we pushed through the throng to where Julia Gillard PM was guiding Her Maj around. Seizing the moment, Speers nudged me through a gap and then suddenly, we were close. A bemused Gillard wearily intoned, "Your Majesty, there's a couple of journalists here who seem desperate to meet you". The diminutive monarch turned, politely extending her gloved hand as your correspondent simultaneously half curtsied and bowed - all on live TV.

As Kevin Rudd admitted on Friday, the Queen's gravitas could even awe republicans.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  12 September 2022/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications