Lessons about Australian identity from 'The King's Speech'

18 Comments

The King's SpeechSome advocates of monarchy have jumped on the film The King's Speech as evidence that Australia needs a monarch. Monarchists often argue like this when they want to personalise the constitutional debate by concentrating on a member of the Royal family with attractive features.

An important difference between republicans and monarchists is that republicans believe that individual virtues like humanity and service are widespread throughout the community. Monarchists on the other hand see such virtues concentrated especially in monarchs and Royal families. That is why republicans believe in democracy and campaign for more democratic political structures, while monarchists frequently talk of the magic of monarchy.

Neil Brown, writing the cover story of a recent issue of the Australian edition of The Spectator, claims  that the evident humanity and commitment to service of King George VI, played by Colin Firth, will be a knockout blow in any future referendum on an Australian republic. Indeed he suggests that the NO case should send a DVD of the film to every household to guarantee victory for the monarchy. 

Monarchs and members of Royal families can be humane, brave and/or dedicated to service. Of course they can. But so can many or even most people. We see it demonstrated around Australia every day, not least in the generosity of spirit shown in the current crises.

Republicans believe in the sovereignty of people and in their virtues. We don't believe that members of the Royal Family, whether it is Princess Anne in her speech in February 2009 at the Victorian bushfires memorial service (extravagantly praised by Brown as far superior to anything else that day) or Prince William, to name just two, have special features not found among the Australian community, including our elected representatives.

He compares Kevin Rudd, then Prime Minister, and John Brumby, then Victorian Premier, most unfavourably with Princess Anne. This criticism of elected representatives is not just a partisan shot by a former federal minister and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, but is rooted in a belief that Royal personages are superior people.

Humanity is a good thing wherever it is found. Of course it is. George VI demonstrates plenty of it in his valiant struggles, under the tutelage of the Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, to overcome his stammer so that he can fulfill his public duties. But no amount of humanity in any member of the Royal family should counter the arguments in favour of Australia becoming a republic.

Those arguments do not depend either upon monarchs being indifferent or uncaring as Brown suggests. He misunderstands this point totally.

The argument is not personal but based on the principles of egalitarianism and democracy. Republicans sometimes need reminding of this point too. While personalities may make a difference to a referendum campaign they should never be confused with the case for a republic itself. But republicans rarely exhibit the distaste for elected representatives that monarchists encourage.

No film about members of the British Royal Family, no matter how humane and personable they are, will overshadow the case for an Australian republic at a future referendum.

The argument for an Australian republic does not depend either on Australians being especially good blokes and sheilas either. If it did then Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush, would be a republican hero.

He recognises authority but will not bow to it. He insists that his professional work with the Duke of York/George VI is conducted on a no frills, first name basis. He might be somewhat eccentric, but his humanity and humour are enormously appealing. Jack is as good as his master.

What Logue’s portayal does demonstrate is the difference between hierarchical aristocratic culture and egalitarian popular culture, not just then but now. Logue/Rush is an Australian to be proud of in this Australia Day week. Let’s celebrate the values he represents.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a columnist with The Canberra Times. He is Deputy Chair of the Australian Republican Movement.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, The King's Speech, monarchists, Neil Brown, The Spectator, Royal Family

 

 

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Existing comments

Well said, John, and very balanced. Whatever the monarchists say, it is inescapable that the human institution of monarchy is of its very nature an insult to all the rest of us, who are by definition of a lower order. It has no place in any country, least of all Australia.
Peter Downie | 25 January 2011


Right on the money regarding Lionel Logue - but the whole point about monarchy is that you get whoever comes out of the womb (and survives) to be your head of state. How 'good' (George VI) or 'bad' (Edward VIII) they may be is beside the point. The danger in monarchy is having real power in such a person's hands - which is why 1688 is such an important date in English history. But heritage and tradition continue to give power to the monarch even so, and the parliamentary reforms of the last 150 years have been vital in further limiting its power.

So to my mind, the portrayal of Edward VIII in The Kings Speech is a better guide to the question of how a head of state symbolises a people's identity, and the extent of their power. Which is also why debate about the so-called 'reserve powers' of the G-G is probably the most important issue in moving towards a republic, because any model in which the head of state has ANY political - as distinct from moral / persuasive - power is doomed to fail.
Charles Sherlock, Bendigo | 25 January 2011


I fail to understand how any educated adult person could support a monarchy which is an institution based on racism, sexism and religious discrimination. A monarchy may had a place during the Middle Ages to create some form of national unity, but in today’s world is has as much relevance as a Tooth Fairy has to a Gummy Shark.
Beat Odermatt | 25 January 2011


Monarchy, wherever it exists, epitomises the class system which is obviously unfair. A system that can be inefficient or even tragically harmful - and often is.
While it is natural that parents try to give their children a good start in life, great inherited wealth and influence can be damaging to a country and its people when, falling into the hands of someone unfitted to use them wisely and well. Let's value democracy and aim at reducing the power of 'class'.

Bob Corcoran | 25 January 2011


"The argument is not personal but based on the principles of egalitarianism and democracy. Republicans sometimes need reminding of this point too."

Indeed, and something else Republicans, particularly those from the Roman Catholic cheer squad, need to be reminded of is the urgent need to activate s.116 of our Australian Constitution.

A Republic can be neither egalitarian nor democratic until 'the church' is put squarely outside the power structures of the state.

Just as there is no need for a monarch to peer over our shoulders 'guiding' our morals, values and behaviour, so there is no need to keep any gods hanging over our very human activity.

A Republican who clings to the need for a god to sit above the Australian Republic, is not a genuine Republican.

And, as I recall, there were more than a few references to the status of monarchs and their close relationship to gods in this film.
Hugh Wilson | 25 January 2011


One of the hardest guidelines to get people to accept when discussing politics,at least in Australia, is "to put principles before personalities". Of course there have been great and good monarchs and monarchies, but they have had their day. Already there are successful experiments with various forms of republics throughout the world- some of them in countries that used to be part of the British Empire. Why can't Monarchists see this?
Uncle Pat | 25 January 2011


Australia needs our own King and Queen who are brave, bright capable,visionary and caring who can lead the nation instead of all this fighting between parties and politician. Give the king or Queen the role as Prime Minister and elect representatives from the different cities, town and country to speak for their region and indicate what need to be done.

Then no more dirty squabbling between two major parties who are so much alike anyway as they fight every 3 years to see who the new "king" prime minister would be.Politics could disappear as headlines in the news every day.
Trent | 25 January 2011


To all republicans please, read Senator Neville Bonner speech 1998 Constitution Convention or log on to Google and watch Neville Bonner speech on the Video. Thank you.
Ron Cini | 25 January 2011


This is a superb article and the thoughtful comments are a welcome addition. It's disheartening that the case for a republic still has to be argued in today's Australia, but Professor Warhurst puts it brilliantly. This piece deserves wide circulation; I hope it can generate constructive discussion.
Myrna | 25 January 2011


Trent's contribution reminded me of a long ago literary lunch where Edward de Bono suggested Australia should have its own monarch and he volunteered to go first. He would travel the country and say things like 'This isn't good enough. Fix it up!!' Had a certain charm.
Lynn Davidson | 25 January 2011


As usual, a good balanced piece by John W.

@Trent. OK, let's imagine we have your King and Queen of Australia, and during their lives the King conducts himself with decency and honour (Much as George VI did), but it turns out that his oldest son is an absolute drunken debauched playboy, and has been known to use violence against women, and takes scant interest in the affairs of the nation..

Then the King dies, and the son immediately ascends to the throne. What would we do about that, Trent? Are we just stuck with him until he in turn dies?

Phil S | 25 January 2011


I like the monarchy. It gives us an automatic head of state without the politicking and is in the long run cheaper.
DON | 25 January 2011


If all the sins of the elites could be redeemed by a bit of charity, it would be just too easy.

I recall that John Mortimer, who gave us the wise Rumpole, was said we should not expect charity from the poor: they can't afford it.

Similarly, in the Bible, Peter reminded us that 'charity shall cover the multitude of sins'.

The Republic is still the most sensible alternative for Australia.
Eveline Goy | 26 January 2011


It maybe that Geo. VI was not that virtuous, in any case. I have been reading accounts of his Nazi and anti-semitic sympathies, at least until Britain declared war on Germany.
Douglas Clifford | 26 January 2011


The English Monarchy is really all a bit of a distraction here. To all intents and purposes, we don't have a hereditary monarchy. What we have is Head of State who is appointed by and can be removed by the PM. That wouldn't be so much of a problem perhaps if the PM did not also dominate the Parliament as well as being Head of Government. Our problem is not the hereditary monarchy because that's really irrelevant.

Our problem is the concentration of power in the Prime Minister. The reason we need a Republic is not to get rid of the Monarchy but to place a limit on the power of the PM. And that's why neither Howard or any other PM will suggest any sort of Republic other than a token one. The people saw through that at the last referendum. They didn't reject a Republic per se - that wasn't the question that was asked. What they emphatically rejected was Howard's 'Clayton's republic' which would have removed all vestiges of the independence of the GG and entrenched even further the concentration of power in the PM.
Ginger Meggs | 26 January 2011


Neil Brown, as quoted by John Warhurst, maintains that "The King's Speech" spells the death of republicanism in Australia. I suggest that Brown's remarks spell the death of the monarchy in this country. There's every reason to believe, after reading Brown's diatribe, why we should put a distance between us (our nationhood etc.) and the monarchy. Remember the reason for the founding of Australia. Not the land for the free. But of the oppressed by an inhumane monarchic system. And we still wave our little flag with the Union Jack in the corner? For pete's sake, when will we ever grow up?
Alex Njoo | 27 January 2011


I see no reason to be concerned over Australian identity. I would rather see a recognition of the common humanity of Ghanaians, Americans, Australians etc. National identity is another we/they gestalt which divides humanity into us and them. I prefer to see nations become merely convenient administrative units. We could also recognise that all governments of whatever kind are oligarchies with a subset of the population controlling everybody else. One way of determining the composition of the oligarchy would be to set minimum standards for a level of knowledge and them select among those who meet those standards by lot.
David Fisher | 28 January 2011


Personally the majority of people like myself opposed to the Australian republic are not overly concerned about the royal family "per se". Monarchists often see the most important as the constitutional conventions inherited over many decades, and the historical devolution of the "crown" as a base of power to a "bee sting" preventing the secular political state from lurching towards totalitarism. The fact that Bill Shortens wife was Bryce daughter speaks for itself of the need for a apolitical executive with traditional reserve powers.
John Petrie | 30 July 2017


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