Australia’s love for the monarchy waned over time, but not its love for Queen Elizabeth II

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We are a country of “Elizabethans”, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared on the 25th anniversary of the Australian Republic movement.

The man who led the failed 1999 referendum to break away from the monarchy admitted to a room of its fiercest opponents that their cause would be put on hold until the end of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.

“The majority of Australians have known no head of state other than the Queen,” Turnbull told an audience in the Great Hall of Sydney University in 2016.

“She is so admired and respected that few of us can say—whether monarchists or republicans—that we are not Elizabethans.”

Australia’s dependence on the British monarchy has waned over time.

The overall national “Yes” vote in favor of a republic in 1999 was 45.13 percent, slightly higher than the 2014 Scottish independence referendum “Yes” figure.

None of the voices came up.

The former southern colony’s connection with Queen Elizabeth II has remained strong ever since she became the first reigning monarch to set foot on Australian soil on February 3, 1954.

At least 1 million people, more than half of Sydney’s population, turned out to watch the new Queen and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, travel through the city and suburbs at the start of their royal tour.

Crowds followed the young couple wherever they went, sometimes with dangerous consequences.

Paramedics had to treat 180 people after a 70,000-strong mob broke through police lines to catch a glimpse of the Queen as she arrived for a state banquet at a restaurant inside the David Jones department store in Sydney’s Elizabeth Street.

When she attended the Tivoli Theater for a concert, more than 60 people, including children, fainted in a crowd of 30,000 people.

Driving a Land Rover
Men line up in Canberra to see the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh on their first trip to Australia.(National Archives of Australia: A1773/1)

Elizabeth was not the first royal to visit Australia. Her father and mother toured as the Duke and Duchess of York in 1927, representing King George V, Elizabeth’s grandfather.

Her first visit to Australia would have been as a princess in 1952 in her father’s place.

But when George VI died while his daughter was in Kenya, the rest of the tour was cancelled.

When she finally arrived in Sydney Harbour, she did so as Queen “of Australia” – a title change adopted by the House of Representatives to replace the ambiguity of “the British dominions beyond the seas”.

The much-anticipated tour spanned 57 cities and towns over 58 days.

And it paid dividends, with then Prime Minister Robert Menzies quoting a 17th-century poet during a reception at Old Parliament House in Canberra:

“I only saw her pass by. And yet I love her till I die.”

A black and white photo of Queen Elizabeth II and Robert Menzies dressed in a ball gown and suit.
Prime Minister Robert Menzies escorts the Queen to the State Banquet in her honor at Old Parliament House in 1954.(AFP)

Australians were spellbound by the “queen of fairy tales” and newspapers breathlessly reported that the 27-year-old was warm, beautiful, witty and charming.

Almost a decade would pass before she returned to Australia in 1963 for a shorter five-week tour that included Alice Springs and the new South Australian town of Elizabeth, which had been named in her honour.

About 17,000 people showed up to see their home’s namesake. It was reported that 500 people, mostly children, had to be treated by paramedics for heat exhaustion, fainting and nosebleeds.

Australians always turned up in large numbers when the Queen visited.

When she opened the Sydney Opera House on her fourth visit in 1973, an estimated 1 million people saw her.

Queen Elizabeth opens the opera house
Queen Elizabeth II opens the Sydney Opera House on 23 October 1973.(ABC Archives)

But subsequent tours failed to capture the magic of her debut.

The dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the Queen’s representative Sir John Kerr in 1975 fueled the republican movement, as did the Queen’s Silver Jubilee tour marking her 25 years on the throne.

Australia’s sense of separateness from Britain grew.

In 1977, the country voted resoundingly to replace God Save the Queen as the national anthem with Advance Australia Fair.

The Queen continued to play an important role in important milestones for Australia.

She opened the High Court building in Canberra in 1980, attended the first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held in Australia in 1981, and closed the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane.

Yet in 1986 Prime Minister Bob Hawke watched as the Queen signed the Australia Act to make the country’s laws independent of Britain’s and renounce British interference in the Australian government.

Queen Elizabeth II holds a bouquet of flowers while standing next to a statue of herself.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Bob Hawke at the unveiling of a statue of the Queen at the opening of Parliament House in Canberra on 9 May 1988.(AFP: Andrew Murray)

The 1990s would prove a challenging decade for the monarchy as Princess Diana – who wowed Australians during her 1988 visit – divorced Prince Charles, heir to the throne, and revealed her long-term affair with Camilla Parker Bowles.

Her sudden death in 1997 further damaged the reputation of the royal family, who were perceived as callous in the days that followed.

But two years later, when people were asked if Australia should become a republic, people said no.

The referendum required a double majority—both a national majority of votes and a majority in at least four of the six states—to amend the constitution.

It failed, with the ACT the only jurisdiction to register a majority to become a republic.

A group of men and women hold signs saying 'vote no to this republic'.
Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy supporters celebrate at a rally in Sydney.(Reuters)

A year later, the Queen visited Australia on a low-key tour that focused on the regions where the “No” vote had been strongest, rather than the cities.

Her next trip in 2002 was overshadowed by the scandal engulfing Governor-General Peter Hollingworth, who was heavily criticized over allegations he covered up allegations of child sexual abuse when he was Archbishop of Brisbane.

In 2006, approaching her 80th birthday, the Queen opened the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

More than 80,000 people sang Happy Birthday to her at the MCG.

Her 16th and final visit to Australia was in 2011 and coincided with the CHOGM in Perth.

On a side visit to Brisbane, she traveled along the river on a ferry and was cheered by thousands of people.

The Queen accepts flowers in Federation Square
The Queen greets crowds in Melbourne’s Federation Square on her final trip to Australia.(AAP: David Crossling)

While old age prevented her from traveling to Australia again, the Queen’s presence continued to be felt, sometimes in unforeseen ways.

In 2015, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the champion of the monarchist cause during the referendum, brought back ladies and knights on Australia Day and promptly knighted the Queen’s husband Prince Philip in his absence.

When Mr Abbott was ousted by Mr Turnbull later that year, the Queen’s portrait was removed from the Prime Minister’s office.

Turnbull’s successor Scott Morrison put it back up.

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