It’s now starting to ease off, but for most of the last week the “palace letters” – the correspondence from the 1970s between governor-general John Kerr and the queen’s private secretary (available here and discussed by me here) – have provided a rich fund for pontification among the Australian political class.
Sadly but predictably, most of the debate has consisted in refighting old political battles. There’s no sign that anyone has changed their minds about anything much as a result – partly at least because there was very little in the letters that we didn’t already know.
There’s an asymmetry, though, in the debate. The partisans of Gough Whitlam, the prime minister that Kerr dismissed, are emotionally energised. Demonisation of Kerr is for them an article of faith. But those who think Whitlam was a poor leader have, by and large, no corresponding stake in defending Kerr. It’s quite consistent to think that the country was better off without Whitlam in charge but to feel uncomfortable, or just indifferent, about the means by which he was removed.
Nor is there any particular reason for opponents of the Whitlam tradition to be monarchists, especially if they have taken to heart the key lesson of the letters that I tried to impart last week: that the powers Kerr used, or something like them, are not specific to monarchy but are going to exist in any parliamentary system.
Although Whitlam’s supporters are usually republicans – and no doubt many of them would say that his dismissal was the original source of their republicanism – there is an unresolved (and usually unnoticed) tension in their position.
Once upon a time, republicans focused their attacks on the hereditary principle. They pointed out, correctly, that hereditary succession was a bad way to select rulers, that it fortified hierarchy and class privilege in society, and that it periodically produced rulers who were incompetent, under age or clinically insane.
Those arguments still matter in terms of the symbolic function of the monarchy in Australia; that is, the queen’s position as a formal head of state. But their constitutional relevance is essentially nil, because the queen’s actual powers in Australia are negligible. Her only role is in the appointment and removal of the governor-general, and in that she must act, as was established in 1930, on the advice of the Australian prime minister.
The real constitutional problem that we have is only coincidentally related to the fact we are a monarchy: it’s that the effective powers of head of state are both poorly defined and exercisable by a person who holds office at the prime minister’s pleasure. That situation could easily be duplicated in an Australian republic. Indeed, former Victorian governor Richard McGarvie proposed exactly that in the 1990s, and the model put to referendum in 1999 was not very far removed.
Conversely, we could get rid of the particular problem of the governor-general by creating our own monarchy. Some of the world’s most stable democracies, including Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, are constitutional monarchies; they still have reserve powers, but because their monarchs have security of tenure they are unlikely to ever have to use them the way Kerr did.
But that doesn’t solve the problem of concentrating so much prestige and attention in a single person chosen by the lottery of birth. That’s what Spain is now discovering with a series of scandals involving its former king, Juan Carlos, who abdicated in 2014 in favor of his son, Felipe VI.
Juan Carlos is 82, but he didn’t just abdicate due to age; his image had been tarnished by his extravagance and shady business connections, and there was clearly a concern that prosecutors in various countries might be on his trail. Things have gotten worse since then. An investigation into money laundering was launched in Switzerland in 2018, and last month the trail was taken up by Spanish prosecutors.
The BBC reports some of the striking details:
[His former mistress] Ms zu Sayn-Wittgenstein describes what she alleges to be Juan Carlos’s clumsy efforts to launder money. She mentions her surprise at suddenly being told she has been gifted a property worth €3m by the king of Morocco, before being asked to pass it over to the former Spanish monarch. …
Spanish newspaper El País, traditionally a staunch Juan Carlos supporter, revealed how he flew into Switzerland in 2010 to knock on the door of his wealth manager and hand him a briefcase containing $1.9m in cash he said was a gift from the ruler of Bahrain.
King Felipe is now desperately trying to dissociate himself from his father’s problems, but the damage to the monarchy is serious and possibly irreparable.
Juan Carlos won great respect in the early years of his reign for shepherding Spain’s transition to democracy and defending it against an attempted coup in 1981. Memories of that will no doubt always ensure the monarchy a certain reservoir of support. But to be a truly unifying force, the institution needs more than that.
In Australia we have been lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that the only monarch most of us have ever known has been competent, conscientious and discreet. As other members of the queen’s own family demonstrate, however, those qualities are far from guaranteed, and it would be foolish to rely on them for the future.
Systems of government always need to plan for the worst. That means assuming, among other things, that your Senate might not respect the convention of passing the supply bills, and that your monarch might turn out to be a money launderer, or worse.