How a likeable Prince undermined the republic
Amid the continuing debate about our national identity and our constitutional arrangements, readers might be interested in this piece written this weekend for English newspaper The Mail on Sunday about our response to Prince William’s visit. It’s obviously written for an English audience, and it ended up being an embarrassingly positive piece where my republicanism almost abandoned me.
The last thing we need over here in Sydney is another cashed-up foreign interloper buying into the hyper-inflated property market to further jack up prices in the Harbour City.
But Prince Williams’ joking suggestion that he had so fallen in love with Sydney that he intends to buy a house here was not so much condemned as applauded.
A funny thing happened in Australia last week.
A country which is overwhelmingly republican in spirit, where most people presume that the republican question will be revisited on the sorrowful occasion of the Queen’s passing, seems to have put its republicanism on hold.
Credit for this goes solely to William.
Should he make good on his gag and shell out a lazy five million for a harbourside mansion, and show signs of assimilation by investing in a good pair of thongs and an eight-burner barbecue, Australians will be thrilled at the prospect of having the bloke as a neighbour.
But beyond that, Australians seem not only comfortable but almost excited by the idea of having him as our head of state.
This is in part an unfortunate reflection on his father. Charles is regarded here as the epitome of the upper-crust English oddball, a fellow so eccentric and wound-up that he is the antithesis of our laconic, knockabout style. The inevitability of his becoming our head of state leaves us cold.
But Wills has been afforded the highest honour a man can enjoy Down Under. He’s assumed top bloke status.
Amazingly he’s done so in the course of a whirlwind 72-hour visit. It featured none of the cliched nonsense which so often accompanies a royal tour. Mercifully, no koalas were hugged. And instead of the usual phalanx of dutiful flag-waving subjects, we saw a member of the Royal Family who walked not past but among crowds, mixing easily with everyday folk, making interesting and engaging conversation as if he were just another punter.
There were three events in Wills’ visit which were powerful button-pushing exercises. They spoke volumes about his style as a modern monarch. They also showed that William is very much his mother’s son - which more than anything may explain his popularity here.
The first was his decision to visit the Sydney suburb of Redfern, the squalid epicentre of Aboriginal urban deprivation, where black Australians lead a desperate semi-existence in a community ravaged by grog, heroin and speed. The arrival of our future King at the notorious Eveleigh Street meant so much to its residents - to say they were moved and amazed by his presence is an understatement. The rest of the nation noted William’s kindness and compassion in making the gesture.
The second was his visit to the Holsworthy Army Barracks on the outskirts of Sydney. The Prince spoke with soldiers who had returned from and are set to serve in Afghanistan, alongside their British comrades, in the war against the Taliban. It was a poignant reminder of our unbreakable relationship as two of the world’s most decent democracies. And Wills also got in a bit of shooting, earning the respect of the troops who commended him for being such a good shot.
The most powerful moment of his visit came on the third day in Victoria when William spent the morning and afternoon in the towns of Whittlesea and Flowerdale, having a barbecue with the survivors of the Black Saturday bushfire which claimed a staggering 173 lives last February. To this day, emotions are raw in these towns. And William was the absolute model of compassion as he wandered into the bush to talk with the victims of this terrible fire, shaking his head in disbelief as they told their tales, touching a man on the arm and saying quietly “I am so sorry”. When a woman broke down as she recounted the heroism of the volunteers, and then thanked William so much for making the visit, the Prince appeared to be channelling his mother’s heartfelt style as he said simply: “Not at all, it is a privilege to be here.”
Each of these events was poignant. But more interesting was the general vibe surrounding the visit, where in typical Australian style, we’d convinced ourselves ahead of Wills’ arrival that the whole thing was a bit of a non-event, only to end up almost obsessing over his presence here.
Even with some good-natured ribbing about his receding hairline, the women of Australia appear to be just as smitten as they have ever been with the dashing prince. Girls, young mums and grannies swooned in his presence. Even the NSW Premier Kristina Keneally had a giggly moment on welcoming His Highness to Sydney, gushing that he must have had so many fond memories from his last visit here, forgetting the fact that he was eight months old at the time.
The political debate surrounding his visit has been spirited. Republicans have declared that William’s niceness is a non-issue and that the only thing that matters is whether we have an Australian as our head of state. The monarchists have argued that the ease with which William has conducted himself - and the fact that he obviously understands and adores Australia, despite having spent no real time Down Under - shows that there is something innately special about the relationship between Australia and England, and that the Royal Family should forever be a part of that.
But it’s a debate which has really struggled to get beyond the more earnest blog sites and political shows. Most of us - including republicans such as myself - have simply been quite happy to see the top bloke prince having such a top time of it.
We do a good line in complacency in Australia. As a modern and independent nation which has never stuck with tradition for tradition’s sake, and which abhors class, our constitutional arrangements might be absurd. But that doesn’t mean we are going to rise up and do anything about it, especially if the cricket is on or we have mates coming over for a barbie. There is simply no mainstream clamour to revisit an issue which we dealt with at a bungled referendum just over 10 years ago - and more importantly, even under a republican Labor Prime Minister, no political enthusiasm to place the issue back on the agenda.
And even though we’re not jumping for joy at the prospect of King Charles, we’ve seen enough of his son this past week to conclude that King Will might be a ripper of an idea.
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