Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Making Monarchs Out Of Molehills

Penned upon the 12th of July, 2008

A rare political post! I don’t do too many these days. I’ve been thinking, though, about what legitimates power. The answer, in Australia, certainly, is probably compliance with the four European political ideologies – democracy, liberalism, socialism, conservatism. A legitimate government must comply with the wishes of the masses, it must respect the freedom of the individual, it must maintain a general quality of life, and it must keep the public order.

The problem is obvious: those who desire power treat this as a game, and and achieve some of the above – or cultivate the appearance of achieving them – as a means to deny others power; including those who could very well manage their stake of the public order on their own, thank you. To paraphrase Lawrence Ferlingetti, power rises, like anything that’s hot.

Now, in the specific Australian context, we have the monarch as the head of state, via a raft of traditions, constitutional technicalities and the Governor General. I’m not a monarchist (which has surprised some) but my understanding of the monarch’s legitimacy post-Divine Right is this: for the real dedicated monarchists, the monarch represents a moral exemplar, an avatar of the nation who sets the standard. For the more cynical sorts, the monarch is a reassuring figure of continuity – an image to hang on to in times of other social uncertainties.

This all seems a bit silly to me, but there are a couple of roles the monarch can play that I approve of. One serves to defuse one of the problems with the parliamentary system. Parliaments are notionally intended to represent the people through delegates divided by region. In practice, though, they form majority blocks which elect leaders who hold a great deal of power – the parties, the PM and the Cabinet. This, incidentally, is largely thanks to Irish reform leader Parnell – one of the many methods his Home Rulers instituted which caught on.

There are some parliaments which aren’t so centralised, and they do tend to often form stalemates – no-one’s prepared to comprimise their interests, so nothing gets done. The system of letting the executive favour some interests and sacrifice others, though, with Whips to ensure their will is done, does seem to be the band-aid which blunts the scalpel – it stops the bickering but also stops the bickering’s evolution towards consensus.

Now, in systems such as the American-style presidential one, this problem is amplified. The head of state has power over the legislative, not only through party procedure, but through voting power. The sting in the tail, though, is that the president, being directly elected and the face of the state, tends to attract the greatest public interest. Presidential elections draw enormous attention and come to characterise the public understanding of the entire political system. That’s not good for democracy.

Even in systems where the president is largely a figurehead, the role can get a lot of undue attention – it was the big sticking point in Australia’s republican referendum. A monarch doesn’t have this problem – they’re born into the role, they don’t act like a politician so people don’t expect them to have power they don’t, and they let the public focus more on the legislative. Ideally, the monarch could even serve not as a moral leader but as a social interpreter and advocate.

I admit I’m a little biased in saying this, simply because I think HRH Prince Charles, apparently heir, seems like rather a decent fellow. He’s studied humanities and languages, he writes and paints, he’s rocked a few traditions and he’s supported causes which otherwise might not have got the attention they deserve. He’s rather the thinking soul’s philanthropist – supporting beautiful and functional urban design, many environmental reforms, sustainable economics and organic agriculture, the preservation of traditional skills and cultures, mystic philosophy and life choices for urban youth. Among other things. The dude has credibility. When he gets the throne, well, as Lady Tanah put it, it’ll be like being an unbeliever whose local bishop is really, really nice. Not coming from the same place you’re coming from, but going to the same place you’re going to, sort of thing.

He also looks smashing in a double-breasted suit, and, I hear, is chums with Stephen Fry. That alone gets you many points indeed. Have a look at some of his initiatives here. Now, I’ll stop rambling – it’s just that, after eleven years of PM Howard, the thought of the head of the “Accounting for Sustainability Project” being our head of state is like kicking your way to the surface after a terrible shipwreck, lungs burning, to find a fruity sauvignon blanc and a plate of fresh baked goods balanced perfectly on a piece of flotsam.


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