Friday 21 October 2011

How I told the Queen we did not need her anymore
Paul Keating
Former prime minister Paul Keating, in his Sydney offices yesterday. Picture: Renee Nowytarger Source: The Australian

I met the Queen at Balmoral at 6pm on Saturday, September 18, 1993, in the Victoria and Albert Room, the drawing room of the house, known to be have been Queen Victoria's favourite.

The Queen told me the room was as Victoria had left it. Furnished in the manner of William IV, the last remnant of its classicism fallen prey to its decoration; the looming romanticism that would define itself by appropriating Victoria's name.Interestingly, the furniture was not of the age of mahogany, nor the second age of walnut. It had the colour of a woody lemon reminiscent of amboyna or Kurelian birchwood, somewhat in the manner of Charles X and faded. Dry, its parched complexion gave the sense the room's earthly moistures had long since vapourised.
The floor was clad in a tartan carpet. Sparse in pattern, its faded blue-and-green grid resisting being subsumed into its background; a spritely biscuit turned grey by time and wear. The rather grand desiccation of it all hosting a not-quite-formally dressed Queen at a most unlikely juncture.
I had come from Australia on the unpleasant errand to tell her, in all her conscientiousness, that we did not need her any more. I admired the fact she met me alone. Advised but without advisers, she faced what she knew was a conversation about her life's mission: the propagation of the monarchy and its centrality to the states within the realm and to her family. She was to entertain a heretic - delivered to her home by a foreign constituency whose message would call into question all she stood for.

When she looked at me I wondered in the 40 years she had been the monarch how many prime ministers she had met. Indeed, how many heads of state, chief ministers and mayors she had had to deal with, this lone woman who had not chosen this role for herself and who very nearly missed it. All that weight and all that time and now the head of the government of the favourite "dominion" had come to repay the conscientiousness by telling her, as far as Australia was concerned, it was going to come to nought.

I have always had much regard for women in public life, as I had for her. In the poignancy of this moment, the Queen sat with her dignity and the long history of her family and I with the aspirations and live mandate of a people. I wanted her to understand how and why Australia had changed, how it was different now than the way she might have found it in 1954 when she first visited.

I reminded her of our former policy of White Australia, how it had come close to marginalising us in a way that South Africa had been marginalised. That we lived in the east Asian hemisphere and that for 50 years we had had an ambitious migration program which had changed our character; I told her the monoculture was a thing of the past. I reminded her of how we had relied on commodities for our national income and how these were now failing us. Our national income had been cut, yet we still had to pay our way - and pay it other than by borrowing from the world's savings.

I told her Australia had to engage itself meaningfully with the region around it, which already took 60 per cent of its exports. That our position was not unlike the one Britain found itself in; it had had to make its way with Europe out of economic and strategic necessity.I said Australia had to find its security in Asia, not from Asia, just as Britain had to find its security in Europe, not from Europe.

I reminded her that on our doorstep stood 200 million Indonesians - the largest Islamic country in the world. Australia had to be relevant in these places. I told the Queen that task was made more difficult when we appeared uncertain as to who we are; when our head of state was not one of us, when we go to the region as the Australian nation with all of our hopes and aspirations yet go with the monarch of another country. With a monarch whom a great number of Australians, especially of non-Anglo descent, feel no association with, nor any affection for.

I told the Queen as politely and gently as I could that I believed the majority of Australians felt the monarchy was now an anachronism; that it had gently drifted into obsolescence. Not for any reason associated with the Queen personally, but for the simple reason she was not in a position to represent their aspirations.

They were Australian, she was British. I explained how much people appreciated her efforts down the years and that it was not my wish nor the government's to involve her in any way in the current debate - in a way that would be detrimental to her personally or to her position as Queen of Great Britain. I said I would do all that was possible to conduct the debate along lines that removed her from the fray and that the government would be considering proposals for a constitutional change that could be agreed by the major parties.
I made clear to her the matter was not about me. Some people may tell her this, or say this, but this was not so. I said I had been given the rump end of a long government which I had managed to extend by winning another term, but winning six elections consecutively would be difficult.

I told her things had improved from a recent recession, but when change seems costless a fickle public may believe change can be made with little risk to themselves or to the country at large. This was not true, but many people thought it was. I said you may not be dealing with me, but the issue would not go away. The Queen knew I had come to Balmoral to broach this topic with her and she had sat through what must have been a difficult conversation for her. When I finished my remarks, she said, rather plaintively: "You know my family have always tried to do their best by Australia."   I said: "Yes, I know that, Ma'am." She said: "I will, of course, take the advice of Australian ministers and respect the wishes of the Australian people." I said: "We would expect no less of you and ask no more."

It really struck me, by her references to her family, how tenuous the hereditary nature of the position was. There was no allusion to a divine right or position of political superiority.
The occasion reminded me of the remark made by John Adams, the American revolutionary and second president, that there were no queen bees in the human hive, that we all arrive the same and are made the same and that it was belittling that any one of us should be "the subject" of another of us without us having any choice in the matter; the so-called consent of the governed.

The hereditary nature of the Queen's position, her remoteness from any contemporary mandate, struck me, at that moment and at that proximity, as banal; sad, even, and what a continuing fantasy she was forced to play out. Nevertheless, I think in some way the Queen felt relieved by the nature and course of the conversation. She had faced up to it and while her prime minister might be a republican he was not there to score off her. If it was inevitable, better with someone who had the horsepower to steer it through while keeping her well above it.

I said to her that, as these conversations go, the norm or protocol was to say nothing publicly about them. On this occasion this would be a mistake. I said it would be much better in the longer term for Her Majesty to let me say that we discussed the issue and that she said she would take the advice of her Australian ministers and respect the wishes of the Australian people.

I said, once that is said, once that is known, I could elevate her above the battle. But if it is fought out around her and her family as the surrogate for what is good and not good about Australia and its constitutional arrangements, she must be at a disadvantage and maybe not only in Australia. I said: "Sir Robert Fellowes (her private secretary) will probably advise you to say nothing and not authorise me to say anything on your behalf. I think this will be wrong advice for you."

She looked at me, wanting to believe what I said was correct. In her own way, I think she knew I would do my best by her, which subsequently I did. Later, she talked with Fellowes and it was quickly agreed that I should say something. Things lightened up when I got on to the other business; the "Waleses" and the timing of their next visit to Australia and for her agreement and an announcement to extend the term of governor-general Bill Hayden.

The Queen then offered me a whisky - which we were both glad of. Later, dressed down to tweeds, she drove me in a Land Rover to a barbecue in a remote hut Victoria had built for Albert; lest while hunting he was caught unawares in inclement weather.

As she steered her way into the night along the rough road and rocky outcrops, I reflected on the singularity of her mission, hoping that she might regard our conversation somewhat philosophically, without otherwise feeling too hurt.

Extracted from After Words: The Post-Prime Ministerial Speeches by P.J. Keating, to be launched by Allen & Unwin on October 30. $59.99
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