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A royal holiday


WHEN I began to write this "Cambridge Letter" I was in Brisbane. Australians were beginning a long weekend away from work. On the Monday the country enjoyed a public holiday to celebrate the Queen's Birthday. For a U.K. visitor this presented a paradox. At home the Queen's official birthday is not a public holiday. In Australia, where the role of the Queen as Queen of Australia has long been controversial, it is. Cynics among the Australians with whom I discussed this said that their fellow citizens don't care what the reason for the holiday is so long as they can enjoy it.

This year, however, the paradox was specially pronounced because of the resignation two weeks earlier of the Governor-General, Dr. Peter Hollingworth, amid great controversy. The Governor-General is the Queen's representative. He and so far the office-holder has always been, however, in effect appointed by the Prime Minister of Australia. Dr. Hollingworth, when appointed by the present Prime Minister, John Howard, two years ago, was Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane. The resignation came after much expression of public disquiet over his role, when Archbishop, in dealing with cases of sexual abuse by clergy.

Inevitably the affair has raised many issues. The judgment of Mr. Howard in making the appointment has been called into question. So has the actual process of choice. People are saying that there should be a more transparent selection system, and that the Prime Minister should consult widely, and with opposition as well as government politicians. Some have made the case for a form of election to the office.

These aspects of controversy are exacerbated by the fact that there is strife within the ruling Liberal (that is, in practice, conservative) Party following the decision of Mr. Howard to serve another term as leader rather than handing over to a sitting and eager deputy. The Labor Party , the main opposition party, is also in some disarray, doing badly in the opinion polls, and with a leader who was challenged by his predecessor.

The Hollingworth resignation, however, highlighted some more fundamental constitutional issues, concerning the role of the Governor-General rather than the process of choosing him.

One issue is the separation of church and state more significant in Australia, where there is no "established" church than in Britain where the Anglican Church is legally the state church. With or without an established church, there is certainly a strong case for arguing that church leaders should be free to speak out on moral issues and not be constrained by state office from doing so. To relate this to Dr. Hollingworth, an Anglican bishop remains a bishop whether or not he has a diocese.

Another issue is the role of the monarchy in Australia. Technically, Australia's head of state is the Queen; the Governor-General represents her. The habit has grown up of referring to the Governor-General as the head of state. If he were, he would be in office however chosen in his own right, and not as a representative of someone else. He would be in the same position as that obtaining, for example, in Germany, or in India. This would be the situation if a majority of Australians had voted for a republic a few years ago but they did not. Exactly what the Governor-General's role should be is not clear. In the words of Peter Kelly, Editor-at-Large of The Australian, "It is obvious that Hollingworth was not just inept in office but confused about what he was supposed to be doing. The confusion is widespread." Kelly argues that the office of Governor-General is trapped between "the obsolete role of representing the crown and the republican idea of representing the people".

In the U.K. in recent years there has been much discussion about the role of the monarchy, and there are certainly many who would argue that the whole idea is obsolete. So long as the head of state is an hereditary monarch, however, the process of choosing is lifted beyond the argument a point made, indirectly, by Prince William, son of the Prince of Wales and therefore second in line to the throne, in interviews on the occasion of his 21st birthday. Any controversy in the U.K., therefore, is likely to be about role rather than process.

In the wake of the Hollingworth affair, Australia has been immersed in controversy about both role and process. It will doubtless continue for many weeks but in the meantime Australians enjoyed celebrating the Queen's Birthday.

The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. E-mail him on

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