Paul Bongiorno: The Queen’s death helps resolve our identity crisis

The “passing” of the Queen has given renewed prominence to another piece of constitutional repair, Paul Bongiorno writes.

The “passing” of the Queen has given renewed prominence to another piece of constitutional repair, Paul Bongiorno writes. Photo: AAP

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has been a stark reminder of our place in the world of the British monarchy – we are down the queue, unspecified among the realms and overseas territories.

No matter how we style the new King as ours, Charles III is first and foremost theirs, he knows it and has pledged loving service until the day he dies to the people of the United Kingdom and all the remnants of the old empire, especially the 14 nations who also still claim him as their head of state.

Over the 120 years since the six colonies on this continent federated to form a new nation, the ties to the mother country have gradually been severed – the parliament in Westminster can no longer make laws that bind us, nor can its highest court pass final judgment on us.

The Governor-General is no longer the agent of His Majesty’s imperial government but rather the monarch’s delegated authority to ratify laws and to exercise the ultimate constitutional role of appointing or even removing the elected government.

A constitutional monarchy, no matter its trappings, is by definition undemocratic – no one got to vote for King Charles. The job is his by birthright.

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Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says he will defer a republic push until a second term. Photo: AAP

Little wonder then that Sky News in Britain, when interviewing Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on the weekend, asserted that the “Queen’s passing” has “reignited a debate about a republic” and asked if he would “opportunistically” seize the moment.

The Prime Minister said he would not.

The London producers were well aware of Albanese’s republican sentiments and nominating his second term in government, should he get one, to deal with the baffling anomaly of maintaining a supine dependency that undermines our identity as a proud, independent sovereign nation.

The government does not even have the ability to determine how we will officially mourn the death of our monarch; the protocols are apparently dictated by Westminster.

The Brits don’t mind sharing their Crown as long as we know our place.

Albanese says the protocols pre-date his government; one Canberra source suggests they were ratified during the time of the Howard government – hardly a surprise there.

Our Parliament had its sittings suspended for 15 days while in London it remained in session, with MPs paying their respects.

The ABC’s wall-to-wall coverage of the Queen’s death and its aftermath has seen the national broadcaster inundated with complaints.

One senior minister says “this is what you get when you vote no” – a reference to the 1999 republican referendum defeated partly on the lie that the Governor-General is our head of state.

The death of Queen Elizabeth buries that deception for good.

King Charles with his mother, the late Queen Elizabeth II. Photo: Getty

Albanese says now is the time “for us to pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth II” and so it is, but surely there is a clear line between maudlin sentimentality verging on sycophancy and a dignified commemoration of a life “well lived”, to quote the new King.

The “passing” of the long-serving Queen – the current usage for anyone whose life has ended – has given renewed prominence to another piece of constitutional repair, thanks to Albanese’s re-prioritising of recognition for those who can rightly claim ignored dispossession.

The Prime Minister told his international audience that his “absolute priority” was giving recognition to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution, which is the birth certificate of the nation.

At present the Constitution “would have you believe … that our history began in 1788. And that, of course, was an important part of our history. But, of course, we share this continent with the oldest continuous culture on the planet”.

Albanese agrees with Indigenous leaders who urged him not to repeat John Howard’s conflating of the recognition question with the republic, which saw both defeated in 1999.

Associate law professor at Curtin University Hannah McGlade told Radio National that the Queen did symbolise the British royal family and “by extension outstanding issues around justice and land for Indigenous Australians”.

The Kurin Minang Noongar woman said that Captain Cook in 1788 did not follow international law as required by his superiors in Whitehall.

Unlike his counterparts in taking possession of Canada and New Zealand for the Crown, he did so without making a treaty with the Aboriginal people.

Cook declared Australia “terra nullius”, a country without people of any consequence.

Senator Lidia Thorpe is not in favour of the Voice to Parliament referendum.

This grave injustice began to be addressed with the High Court’s 1992 Mabo Judgment, but it is unfinished business.

Dr McGlade believes Indigenous opponents of the Voice to the Parliament referendum, like the Greens’ Lidia Thorpe or the Liberals’ Jacinta Price, misunderstand what is being proposed.

She says having a constitutionally protected voice through a representative structure is reflective of rightfully claimed sovereignty.

The law professor says “you would never be able to negotiate a national treaty without a national body”.

In some ways it is an irony that the Queen’s death has given this issue a new prominence, but her record as monarch suggests she would welcome this development.

It is indeed a crucial stepping stone in asserting an identity as a confident, independent nation at one with itself.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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