When Queen Elizabeth II first visited Australia in 1954, it is estimated that more than three-quarters of the adult population took to the streets to see her.
It was the first time a reigning monarch had ever reached our shores and Elizabeth was determined to do it right, spending two months travelling the length and breadth of this wide brown land to connect with as many of her subjects as possible.
She even opened parliament in Canberra for the first time, wearing the gown she had worn for her coronation the previous year. The tour was a triumph and is still remembered as a landmark royal moment in Australian history.
She has since visited a further 15 times and on her last visit in 2011, the 85-year-old seemed almost maternal towards Australia, winning over crowds and even managing to soften the hearts of a few republicans.
In a moving speech at a dinner in Canberra’s Parliament House, she said she was “delighted to be back in Australia”, adding, “Ever since I first came here in 1954, I have watched Australia grow and develop at an extraordinary rate. This country has made dramatic progress economically, in social, scientific and industrial endeavours and, above all, in self-confidence.”
She painted a vision of a nation that was a role model to the world, calling it “this prosperous, energetic and dynamic nation of Australia”.
When the Queen visits Australia, she speaks and acts as Queen of Australia. And as a constitutional monarch, the Queen acts entirely on the advice of Australian government ministers, who are responsible to parliament. She is represented in Australia at a federal level by a governor-general – at one point, it was reported Prince William was eager to take up the mantle – who is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister of Australia and is independent of the British government.
On the surface, it seems to be more of a ceremonial role and yet, in 1975, the Queen became directly involved in Australian politics when, via Governor-General Sir John Kerr, she sacked Gough Whitlam’s scandal-hit government and appointed Malcolm Fraser as prime minister.
In truth, the whole episode had more to do with Kerr than it did Her Majesty, who wasn’t even aware of the events until later. Yet it did fuel the flames of Australian republicanism, which came to a head more than 20 years later, in 1999, when a referendum was held.
The result surprised the whole world, with 55 per cent opting to stick with the Queen.
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