Queen and country

Kylie Field

Arena Governance

Queen Elizabeth II is head of state in 16 countries. But what do the citizens of these nations think about having a foreign national, from a far away land, reign over them?


Photo: Deb Ransom

Photo: Deb Ransom


Crowds of people line the streets hoping for a glimpse of the VIP in town. Flags wave frantically, merging together in a sea of red, white and blue. Bouquets of flowers are thrust forward from small hands vying for a polite smile or brief acknowledgment. The excitement is building on the faces in the crowd as television crews and photographers get ready to beam images across the globe. It’s another day of record crowds. A car pulls up and out steps the visitor. The crowds erupt into cheers. But this is not a celebrity or movie star, it’s Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom and Head of the Commonwealth.

As it stands, the Queen is the head of state for 16 of the 53 member countries of the Commonwealth. Her portrait hangs in council chambers, schools and public buildings across the globe. She appoints a governor-general to represent her in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Jamaica, but has no political influence or power over these countries. She is one of the longest-serving monarchs in the world and many would say one of the hardest working. It’s been reported that she is au fait with most matters directly relating to the Commonwealth and opens the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting with a speech she has composed without any briefing or assistance. It has been suggested that she brings stability and unity to the Commonwealth, but how do the citizens of countries that lie across the seas feel about a foreign royal being their head of state? Do many believe that one day a citizen of their country should be president? Or is it felt that the Queen has been a benign force for good for their country?

Tom Bygott, an Australian mathematician currently living in Cambridge, is extremely proud to have Elizabeth II as Queen of Australia. “I don’t think of her as being British, or indeed of any other particular nationality within the Commonwealth. Her role as Queen of Australia, Queen of Canada and, say, Queen of Jamaica have all been admirably performed and she has long resisted being the favourite of one nationality against another,” he says adding that Australia’s constitution was written around a monarchy.

“We are ‘one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown’. We cannot become a republic just by replacing the Queen with a president/politician without dire consequences. In our constitution, certain powers that are not explicitly allowed to the federal or state governments are reserved for the Crown. These are called Reserve Powers, and they include the ability to dismiss governments and veto legislation.”

Sandra Lee, an Australian author and journalist, believes the benefits to countries like Australia are largely symbolic and historical. “Royal visits are good for trade, tourism and diplomacy. Every royal visit in Australia is greeted with fanfare and the population, mostly, holds the Queen in great affection. Magazines and newspapers revel in the visits, because sales and circulation go up. A royal visit will usually see an increase in tourism to areas the royals have visited,” she says.

Lee suggests Australia will eventually become a republic but suspects it could be decades off. “The phenomenon of William and Kate has renewed interest in the royals and, if their recent very successful visit to Australia and New Zealand is any guide, the monarchy will continue as it is.”

But not all Australians agree with Lee and Bygott’s view that the monarchy is a force for good in Australia. For Sydney-based lawyer Anne Von Fehrn it seems odd to formally hang on to a symbolic function. “I feel Australia can still continue its emotional and perhaps sentimental attachment with the monarchy as a concept without having them as a formal head of state,” she suggests.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s recent tour of New Zealand appears to have rekindled an interest in the British monarchy, with reports showing that almost three-quarters of respondents in a poll conducted by The Waikato Times were in favour of retaining the Queen as head of state. However, comprehensive surveys conducted by the New Zealand Election Study after each general election between 1999 and 2008 showed voter support for the monarchy was declining. When recently asked about New Zealand retaining the Queen as head of state, Prime Minister John Key said he believed it was inevitable New Zealand would become a republic.

New Zealand Herald journalist Verity Johnson wrote in her column in 2013 that “…it’s a little patronizing that England still imposes its Queen on us. It implies that New Zealand is a backward rock, not able or not trustworthy enough to lead itself”. Johnson went on to say the Queen represents an antiquated, arrogant approach to other countries rooted in the assumption that mother England knows best.

Yet constitutionally, even in the United Kingdom, the Queen’s role is purely ceremonial. She opens parliament but has no say in British politics, even though she meets with the Prime Minister every week. In law, the government of the day is known as Her Majesty’s Government and the ministers of the government exercise ‘royal prerogative powers’ on the Queen’s behalf in governing the country. The Queen can dissolve parliament, but only when formally asked to by the Prime Minister. The same can be said for countries of the Commonwealth where the Queen appoints a governor-general to represent her, with the appointee chosen by the prime minister of the country in question. The governor-general can ask for parliament to be dissolved, but only under exceptional circumstances where confidence is no longer held in the parliament.

Canada is the most visited country by the Queen in her 60 years on the throne and she has been quoted as saying it feels like a “second home”. However, a growing disparity between old and young Canadians would suggest the latter are less likely to feel as passionate about the Queen of Canada.

For many older Canadians like Joan Laduke, being part of the UK is seen as a good thing. “The Queen and Prince Philip are very well received in Canada. She is a model of what we should all aspire to. Her dedication and what she promised as a young girl of 25 is amazing. Yet she is accepting of change,” she says. “We are similar in age and it’s not easy to accept new things. She’s accepted we have tried to be more independent but her role as Queen of Canada has been positive. Long live the Queen of Canada, I say.”

Canadian journalist Brandie Weikle points out that the British monarch is part of Canadian history and that the current status quo is just accepted by most. “That said, I have mixed feelings about any set of regular human beings holding an almost demi-god-like status in our culture,” she says. “But I doubt I’d become an advocate for moving away from our constitutional monarchy. The operative word there is ‘constitutional’. If the royal family were anything other than figureheads, I would find that quite deplorable and backward.”

On the flip side, Tom Freda, director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, sees no compelling reason why Canada should share its head of state with any other country. “Imagine telling someone in just about any other independent nation that their head of state has just been replaced by someone who isn’t a citizen, doesn’t live in their country and was chosen solely because he or she belonged to a certain family or religion – in another country. They’d think you were insane. We also have a simmering unity issue in this country. In Quebec, which represents about a quarter of Canada’s population, the monarchy is very unpopular. Consequently, many believe that Quebec nationalism would be dealt a mortal blow by Canada becoming a republic,” he said adding that a republic is inevitable.

“All you have to do is look around the Commonwealth. Most members are already republics, having cut their constitutional ties to the British monarchy decades ago. Here, opinion polls prove that, despite a generally favourable view of the Queen and most other royals, support for having a democratically-selected Canadian as head of state is higher – and climbing year-by-year. One reason is because we’re not mostly descended from British immigrants anymore. As our demographics change, so do our views of Canada’s place in the world. You see, the pursuit of a non-hereditary head of state is far deeper than just democratic reform and the realisation of the obsolescence of monarchy in the 21st century,” he says. “It’s the next stage in our path to independence.”

Elsewhere, the removal of the Queen as head of state at one outpost of her realm is already underway. In her inaugural address in January 2013, Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller announced she would “initiate the process of detachment” from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. “There is no doubt that she has been a gracious and engaging Queen and a model of dedication to duty, which has been a feature of her entire reign,” she said. “In our 50th year of political independence, the government of Jamaica announced a decision to act on the aspects of constitutional reform, which has been in serious contemplation for almost 20 years. We decided to ensure that all the elements and symbols of our governance system are fully representative of Jamaica. This is why we are beginning the process to have a Jamaican national as our ceremonial president and our official head of state. It is now time for Jamaica to take a stand on our system of government, after 51 years of political independence,” she said.

While countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand openly debate the role of the Queen in their countries, there is no denying she is still a very popular figurehead – and with the new generation of royals enjoying celebrity status, the meaning of the expression “long to reign over us” has never been more apparent.


Reigning supreme

Commonwealth realms are sovereign states that are members of the Commonwealth of Nations and have Queen Elizabeth II as their reigning constitutional monarch. There are currently 16 Commonwealth realms:

  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • Australia
  • The Bahamas
  • Barbados
  • Belize
  • Canada
  • Grenada
  • Jamaica
  • New Zealand
  • Papua New Guinea
  • St Kitts and Nevis
  • Saint Lucia
  • St Vincent and the Grenadines
  • Solomon Islands
  • Tuvalu
  • United Kingdom


About the author:

Kylie Field is an Australian journalist, currently living in the UK


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