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While the question of a republic remains unanswered, perhaps we could use our democratic rights to choose our next monarch? It’s been done before.
There’s been a great deal of talk in recent times about whether or not Australia should cut its ties to the British monarchy and become a republic. Actually, the discussion has been going on for decades, particularly so after the 1999 referendum returned a “No” vote, with almost 55% of Australians rejecting the model that was proposed at the time. It was an interesting result because many polls then – and since – have indicated that the majority of people would like Australia to become a republic. The problem lies in how it would be implemented. The prevailing attitude has been that it’s easier to stick with the system you know rather than open a can of worms and end up with someone like Shane Warne as our first president (no offence Shane, but no thanks).
Republicans argue that as a proud mature nation we should have our own home-grown head of state, that we shouldn’t be kowtowing to a hereditary foreign monarch who lives halfway across the world and whose allegiance is to her own country and one particular religion. Republicans make the point that our head of state doesn’t necessarily merit the position, it’s simply a matter of birth, and that we should be permitted to choose a head of state who would represent us and us alone.
In recent months, federal politicians with dual citizenship have been forced to give up their parliamentary seats because the Constitution states that our representatives must be Australian citizens only, and this saga isn’t over yet. How quirky then is the fact that our head of state is not even an Australian citizen?
But putting aside the question of a republic for the moment, let’s look at an alternative monarchical system, one that was in place for centuries in times long past, and one that may be more appealing than the current model: tanistry, a system whereby the monarch and the heir apparent is elected.
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The rule of primogeniture, where the first-born son automatically inherits the throne, was not always the norm. And by the way, it was only in 2011 that the British monarchy changed the rules to give both sons and daughters equal rights to succeed to the throne. Prior to that, the only way a female could become monarch was if the previous king had no sons, as was the case with Queen Elizabeth II.
Tanistry is the law of succession based on merit. In Scotland and Ireland, the tanist – the heir apparent (equivalent to a crown prince such as Britain’s Prince Charles) – was chosen during the lifetime of the king. The heir apparent was not necessarily the first-born son of the king, but the worthiest to succeed him. That man (and it was always a man) may have been a brother, brother-in-law, son-in-law, cousin, nephew. In Scotland, it was not uncommon for the heir to the kingship to be the son of the king’s sister.
At a gathering of family heads, candidates were assessed for a number of critical qualities. They had to be of sound mind and good intelligence, physically fit and able to lead troops in battle. They had to be of age, so there were no boy-kings, no regents – just straight-up rulers and their “deputies”. If for some reason, the king or the tanist was injured or became unfit for office through illness, another election was held to determine who would be next in line for the monarchy.
Admittedly, the candidates were all of “noble” blood and came from the same broad family tree, but the election of the tanist was based on solid principles, the prime one of which was the safety and security of the clan and its people.
Although there was family friction and various ambitious power plays from time to time, human nature being what it is, this system worked effectively for centuries from ancient times until around the twelfth century in Scotland and the late sixteenth century in Ireland. While it does have its limitations, the tanistry system certainly seems fairer than the passing down of the position through one family.
Republicans argue that we shouldn’t be kowtowing to a hereditary foreign monarch who lives halfway across the world and whose allegiance is to her own country and one particular religion…
By the way, the concept of the heir apparent has been preserved in Ireland, where still today the deputy prime minister is known as the “tánaiste”.
If we could vote for the next British monarch – and hence our Australian head of state – who would it be? Prince William, already second in line to the throne? David Armstrong-Jones, Earl of Snowden (that’s QEII’s nephew)? He’s a furniture maker, but the ability to whip up a nice coffee table isn’t perhaps sufficient qualification for the role of sovereign. Zara Tindall, daughter of Princess Anne? She has no royal title, which may appeal to republicans. Princess Beatrice, she of the crazy fascinators? A crown would probably be too tame for her.
Thinking outside the box, why not consider Prince Graeme of Hutt? Son of Prince Leonard, he’s the current ruler of the so-called Principality of the Hutt River in Western Australia, so at least he’s Australian…well, Huttian. Perhaps republicans would feel more comfortable with the monarchy under a King Graeme. Then again, maybe Shane Warne isn’t looking too bad after all.
The point is that the tanistry system chose the best person for the job, which is essentially the message of republicans – namely, that rather than someone stepping into the top role by virtue of birthright, the most appropriate home-grown candidate is elected. An Australian who can represent us internationally and unite us at home.
Sure, there are plenty of more pressing issues to deal with in the short term, but we should be having the discussion. Surely we can think about more than one thing at a time. And if we can’t have a republic yet, can we at least vote for the next monarch?
King Graeme anyone?