Queen Elizabeth was never destined to become a monarch, but over the decades she built a remarkable legacy of public service

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On a wall in our ABC Radio Melbourne office hangs one of the most famous pictures of one of the most famous people in modern history.

A still young woman, swathed in gold mimosetyl, gazes with calm composure at the viewer, with feathers of wattle sparkling at her shoulder and around her skirt.

For this portrait, painted by Australia’s famous William Dargie, the Queen is wearing the wattle dress designed for the Commonwealth royal tour in 1954 by her couturier Norman Hartnell. It’s an unequivocally patriotic statement dress, and she wore it to her first and last engagements while in Australia.

A painting of the Queen in a flanked, wattle-yellow dress, wearing a diamond crown and necklace
‘Wattle painting’ of Queen Elizabeth II by William Dargie(Courtesy: National Museum of Australia)

In the usual fashion of office humor and satire, you’d expect the odd cheeky note or sign – maybe even a Republican flag – to be stuck on this framed picture from time to time.

But strangely enough, it never happened: the picture remains as untouchable as it was when it was hung in almost every schoolroom across the country. A powerful symbol of an archaic but still living bond between the crown and a country that this unexpected young queen was to visit 16 times.

When I went on the air yesterday at 6am for six hours of national coverage of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I knew the stories of thousands of listeners around the country would become the heart of the programme.

On her very first tour – the planned Australian visit originally abandoned after the death of her father, the King – she visited 57 towns and cities in 58 days: by any modern standards, an absurdly punishing schedule. Multiply that by the amount of people who gathered to see her or meet her, and that’s an unquantifiable number of Australians with memories and encounters that would be as powerful as they would no doubt be entertaining.

United for one thing

It took just under an hour and soon Lyn was on the phone because her father worked for the jewelers Drummond’s and had set the stones for the stunning yellow and white diamond wattle brooch that Robert Menzies presented to the Queen on the first Coronation Tour. The task had become a treasured family story, and Lyn noted with pride that the work was considered one of the Queen’s favourites.

A platinum and diamond brooch in the shape of a wattle
The Wattle brooch.

In the days to come there will be much talk of usefulness or backwardness; the meaning or sins of monarchy and empire, and that is exactly as it should be, regardless of your point of view or position. We do history and our immediate future no favors by shying away from its shadows.

But in the immediate aftermath of the death of one of the most singular figures in modern history, it was remarkable how many people – monarchists and republicans alike – were both unrelenting in their praise of and frankly agony over decades of unwavering public service which a woman who was never destined to be a queen performed to the last.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating – the Lizard of Oz to the horrified British press and a staunch republican to the rest of us – put it best: that the Queen, during a century when the common good was so neglected, was an example of leadership, reflects every good instinct and custom of the British people. With her death, Keating wrote, her example of public service endures.

A complicated room

It was this very service that impressed even those who we might reasonably expect would find it difficult to celebrate her legacy. The Noongar man Dr. Robert Isaacs chimed in to recall with gratitude the Queen’s visit in 2011 to the Clontarf Academy for Indigenous Kids, recalling how attentive and genuinely interested she was in the students.

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