Dream on, repub­li­cans Could a postal vote re­ally usurp the young roy­als?

Mal­colm Turn­bull’s re­pub­lic push will strug­gle against the roy­als’ pop­u­lar­ity

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - JACQUELIN MAGNAY

Mal­colm Turn­bull may have thought he was ad­dress­ing a do­mes­tic au­di­ence when he re­vis­ited the re­pub­lic ques­tion ear­lier this week, but his com­ments have been taken as in­spi­ra­tion for re­bel­lion in the heart of Bri­tain.

As the Prime Min­is­ter and long-time poster boy for the repub­li­can move­ment can­vassed the idea of hav­ing a postal vote about the po­ten­tial style of re­pub­lic that Aus­tralia might be in­ter­ested in in­sti­tut­ing — in a dis­tinct stage be­fore putting the re­pub­lic ref­er­en­dum ques­tion it­self — British repub­li­cans were cheer­ing.

Gra­ham Smith, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the British group Re­pub­lic, be­came in­volved in the cause af­ter spend­ing time in Mel­bourne dur­ing Aus­tralia’s failed 1999 repub­li­can ref­er­en­dum.

“I was a spec­ta­tor to that (1999 ref­er­en­dum), liv­ing in Mel­bourne, but when I re­turned to Bri­tain it was re­verse cul­ture shock,’’ he says. “You don’t see the daily syco­phancy in Aus­tralia, but in Bri­tain the lan­guage, the in­ter­minable royal sto­ries per­vade the news agenda, and it struck me how it needed to be tack­led.”

Smith’s or­gan­i­sa­tion — the only sig­nif­i­cant repub­li­can voice in Bri­tain — is ad­vo­cat­ing a re­pub­lic with a non-po­lit­i­cal leader who “can rep­re­sent the chang­ing times, speak to the na­tion’s hopes and fears, and play um­pire-in-chief in the po­lit­i­cal process”.

Monar­chists claim this is what the Queen does, but Re­pub­lic protests that “she keeps the chair warm” and re­mains mute on is­sues of na­tional im­por­tance.

Yet it is be­lieved that Prince Charles, when he be­comes king, will be more in­clined to speak out.

And it is the per­son­al­ity and pop­u­lar­ity of the monarch that may be a far more de­ci­sive fac­tor than the me­chan­ics and tac­tics of a repub­li­can plebiscite.

Repub­li­can ac­tivism has been low-key dur­ing the Queen’s reign of 6½ decades and there is lit­tle sense of any mo­men­tum for change at the mo­ment de­spite Op­po­si­tion Leader Jeremy Cor­byn’s staunch re­pub­li­can­ism caus­ing dif­fi­cul­ties in re­spect of his ad­mis­sion to the Privy Coun­cil.

Tech­ni­cally, ad­vo­cat­ing re­pub­li­can­ism is still a crime pun­ish­able by life im­pris­on­ment, or worse, in the Tower of Lon­don.

Repub­li­cans de­clare that Charles and his wife — and be­fore that his long-time paramour — Camilla, Duchess of Corn­wall, have been their best re­cruit­ing agents at a time that the monar­chy is rid­ing a wave of pop­u­lar sup­port. Those who back the repub­li­can cause — and there are about 40,000 sup­port­ers — in­sist that af­fec­tion for the monar­chy is ex­ag­ger­ated and most Bri­tons re­ally couldn’t care less. They are poised to cap­i­talise on such am­biva­lence when Charles takes the throne, an in­creas­ingly likely prospect given the hints the Queen of­fered in her Christ­mas Day mes­sage about stand­ing aside.

Smith and his small group of fel­low ac­tivists find that in polling, about 20 per cent of peo­ple are fierce monar­chists and 20 per cent fierce repub­li­cans, with the rest con­fused about the im­pli­ca­tions of an al­ter­na­tive set-up.

“The polling has shown the same sup­port for the past 20 years, and the only change has been about Prince Charles, with only 44 per cent ap­prov­ing of him as king,” Smith says. “He is a big prob­lem for the monar­chy and he will be very dif­fer­ent to the Queen. Peo­ple will sit up and take no­tice and ask, ‘Is this some­thing we want?’ ”

At the mo­ment, it’s only when the roy­als are seen as ex­ploit­ing the pub­lic purse — such as Princess Beatrice en­joy­ing 15 hol­i­days in 2015 (she’s off again at the mo­ment in South Africa), or Prince Harry killing six wild boars dur­ing a lads’ week­end away in Ger­many — that there is a surge in crit­i­cism.

Harry’s new fi­ancee, Meghan Markle, also mis­judged the mood by wear­ing a $56,000 Aus­tralian­designed gown in the pair’s of­fi­cial en­gage­ment por­traits, which at­tracted com­ment from Con­ser­va­tive-lean­ing vot­ers about celebrity grand­stand­ing and be­ing out of touch with Bri­tons who are strug­gling fi­nan­cially.

But the rebels are up against a well-oiled royal pub­lic­ity ma­chine.

When Charles emerged from the Ritz Ho­tel along­side Camilla in 1999 — two years af­ter the death of his ex-wife, Diana, the princess of Wales, and three years af­ter their bit­ter di­vorce — the care­fully scripted mo­ment was cap­tured by 200 pho­tog­ra­phers and cam­era op­er­a­tors.

This did not in­volve any spon­tane­ity, as the grad­ual ac­cep­tance of Camilla into Charles’s pub­lic life went through decades of care­fully or­ches­trated stages. One pho­tog­ra­pher from the tabloid The Sun had booked a room at the Ritz a fort­night in ad­vance to en­sure he could get an aerial shot of what was con­sid­ered ad­ven­tur­ous and dar­ing: Charles in the same space as the woman for whom he had de­clared his undy­ing love in the leaked and un­com­fort­able Camilla-gate tapes.

It was an­other three years be­fore the two were pic­tured hold­ing hands in the back of a taxi, and six years be­fore they were mar­ried at the Wind­sor Guild­hall, near Wind­sor Cas­tle; the Queen chose to stay away from the cer­e­mony but at­tended the sub­se­quent re­cep­tion.

In the years since, royal courtiers have worked tire­lessly to re- cal­i­brate British pub­lic opin­ion of Charles to a con­cerned fa­ther and benev­o­lent leader of The Prince’s Trust char­ity, and to trans­form Camilla from the wicked “other woman’’ into the wife of the fu­ture king. At the time of their wed­ding it was put about that Camilla would never be queen but in­stead would be known as the princess con­sort. Such an idea now seems ab­surd. Yet back then she was also handed the ti­tle of Duchess of Corn­wall, rather than the one to which she was en­ti­tled, the princess of Wales, which was in­ex­tri­ca­bly in­ter­twined with mem­o­ries of Diana.

Just how ef­fec­tive the del­i­cate pub­lic re­la­tions cam­paign has been, par­tic­u­larly in the con­text of a woman who has been cen­tral to the Prince of Wales since he was 23, could well de­ter­mine the fu­ture of the monar­chy.

It is of­ten noted that Charles is seen as a po­lit­i­cal med­dler, pas­sion­ate about ar­chi­tec­ture and the en­vi­ron­ment, yet in­creas­ingly an el­derly ir­rel­e­vance. In­stead, it is clear that the pub­lic ado­ra­tion skips his gen­er­a­tion and fo­cuses on the Cam­bridges, Prince William and Cather­ine. The com­mu­nity coo­ing over the royal off­spring, Prince Ge­orge and Princess Char­lotte, will spike again in April when the Cam­bridges’s third child is born.

Camilla is now per­ceived as in­of­fen­sive but im­ma­te­rial, and Bri­tons ap­pear re­signed to, if not happy about, her be­com­ing queen. There is lit­tle prospect of the Queen over­look­ing Charles and his wife in terms of the suc­ces­sion, no mat­ter how pop­u­lar that idea may be. Nor is Charles likely to ab­di­cate early in favour of his son William.

Then there is Meghan-ma­nia. The Queen has wel­comed Markle into the fam­ily en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, both to in­dulge her beloved grand­son Harry and to in­vite a new con­tin­gent of roy­al­ists into her fold.

At San­dring­ham last Christ­mas, the crowd swelled to un­pre- ce­dented lev­els as sev­eral thou­sand fans de­layed their tur­key lunch to catch a glimpse of the Amer­i­can ac­tress who has so charmed Harry.

As the me­dia gath­ered in their spe­cial pen off to the side for the ar­rival of the royal fam­ily, one of the Queen’s sec­re­taries spoke from be­hind, in­form­ing them of the Queen’s ar­rival, along with the Duchess of Corn­wall, in the royal car at the front of the church. Not one mem­ber of the me­dia turned around, as all eyes were on Markle’s ap­proach, hold­ing hands with Harry and cos­seted by the Cam­bridges on her other side.

How­ever, repub­li­can cam­paign­ers be­lieve the hype around the younger roy­als should be ir­rel­e­vant, as should Camilla’s so­cial stand­ing.

“The de­bate is not about who the roy­als are mar­ried to but the con­sti­tu­tion. We should be ques­tion­ing whether Charles would be a wise king and what the demo­cratic al­ter­na­tives are,’’ Smith says.

“Sup­port for the monar­chy is high, but it’s also shal­low. The pub­lic tol­er­ance is short and (it would take only) a jolt to scup­per that sup­port.’’

The royal fam­ily un­der­stands this well, hav­ing only to look at 17th-cen­tury history — when Oliver Cromwell es­tab­lished the Com­mon­wealth of Eng­land, the monarch was abol­ished and the Rump Par­lia­ment cre­ated — for a les­son in shock­ing pub­lic re­bel­lion. A snapshot of how sen­ti­ment can quickly change oc­curred just 20 years ago when the Queen was rocked by the sharp de­mands for her to re­turn to Lon­don and fly the Buck­ing­ham Palace flag at half mast im­me­di­ately af­ter the death of Diana.

Dur­ing the same pe­riod, the royal fam­ily had even bowed to pub­lic anger and started pay­ing taxes and scrapped the royal yacht Bri­tan­nia.

Charles has sensed the dis­gruntle­ment about the cost of the roy­als, hint­ing that he wants a slimmed-down monar­chy where only the direct line and their off­spring are on the civil list.

At present the Queen draws money from the Duchy of Lan­caster and a per­cent­age of the money from the pub­licly owned crown es­tate, while Charles re­ceives an in­come from the Duchy of Corn­wall.

In ad­di­tion the Queen will draw down about £76 mil­lion ($131m) this year — but Re­pub­lic says that doesn’t in­clude the duchy in­comes, the high costs of se­cu­rity for the roy­als or the costs in­volved in fam­ily mem­bers at­tend­ing func­tions across the coun­try, which are picked up by lo­cal coun­cils.

“We cal­cu­late the an­nual fig­ure is more like £354m,’’ Smith says.

So far, the British pub­lic gen­er­ally thinks that rep­re­sents value for money, par­tic­u­larly given how strongly the monar­chy draws in in­ter­na­tional tourists.

For now, the royal fam­ily is re­garded as a po­tent but ir­re­place­able sym­bol of soft power in ac­tion.

‘Sup­port for the monar­chy is high, but it’s also shal­low. The pub­lic tol­er­ance is short and (it would take only) a jolt to scup­per that sup­port’ GRA­HAM SMITH CHIEF EX­EC­U­TIVE OF RE­PUB­LIC

Clock­wise from left, Prince William, Cather­ine, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry head to church on Christ­mas Day; Mal­colm Turn­bull with the Queen at Buck­ing­ham Palace last July; Prince Charles and Camilla on her 70th birth­day; the royal fam­ily on Christ­mas Day

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