Saturday, February 16

John Who?

There I was at my No 1 Ladies Book Club, and I happened to mention our recently departed Prime Minister, John Howard. "John Who?", one of our number responded.

Very witty, I thought. But a bit later, I thought: By George, I think she's got it! Never again need I name the fellow who gave tolerant and progressive Australians so many dispiriting years.

So from now on, it's John Who?

Which leads to a delightful thought. When the opposing factions in the Liberal Party rump despair of their vacillating Oppostion Leader as he tries to be all things to all men and allows Kevin Rudd to play him like a hypnotised chook, he'll become Doctor Who.

Meanwhile, isn't it interesting how history repeats itself? And why do our conservative leaders so love dressing up in medieval finery to go poncing around the Old Dart?

First up in the buckle shoes and funny hat was Sir Robert Menzies, who took the title of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, a post created around the 12th century to make sure the Dover ports paid their taxes to the English monarch. I think he's the guy who said of Liz, "I did but see her passing by, yet I'll love her till I die."

His beloved Queen Liz rewarded him with the Lord Warden's post from 1966 till 1978, fitting him in between Sir Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother. She'd also put him into the Most Noble Order of the Thistle (which caused some merriment with the plebs Down Under).

Now, if newspaper reports are to be believed (a big ask), Queen Elizabeth of Australia, in her other role as monarch of England, is about to appoint John Who? to the Order of the Garter -- a collection of knights established around 1348 to provide companionship to the monarch.

Ermine robes, buckle shoes, pomp and ceremony, adulation of our beloved ruler, long to reign over us. Johnnie Who? will be so chuffed. And as for Janette!

But Queen Elizabeth owes him. With brilliant strategy, John Who? managed to thwart the desire of 70 per cent of Australians to make their nation a republic.

He split the republican vote when we debated whether our President would be elected by parliament or by a popular national vote. Like most Australians, I supported the idea that Australia should stand as a proud, independent nation, while still still acknowledging our British heritage.

But I also believed our President should be appointed by a parliamentary vote, not by a national election, because it would not disrupt constitutional arrangements which were working so well. And that's where we lost.

With the Mad Monk as his mouthpiece, John Who? showed his mastery of wedge politics. Tony Abbott said the position of President would be far too important to be decided by politicians. We should vote no to a republic so we didn't have the Prez elected by politicians.

Abbott lost me at that point. Either he's stupid, and I don't think he is, or he's so contemptuous of his fellow Australians he counted on their not knowing that under the existing, continuing arrangement, one person -- the Prime Minister, possibly but not necessarily in consultation with a few cronies -- chooses the Governor-General.

It would become a major constitutional crisis if the British monarch rejected the Australian Prime Minister's nomination.

This was shown in a confrontation in 1930 when Labor Prime Minister James Scullin nominated the progressive Australian politician and jurist Sir Isaac Isaacs as G-G. In London, the reaction was predictable. Gad! A good fellow and quite loyal, but he is a Jew, after all. Unthinkable.

Scullin had to go to London to put the case to King George V, and he won. Sir Isaac became Australia's ninth Governor-General, one who helped strengthen national unity into the difficult Depression years.

So today our proud secular nation has a head of state who can only be a member of the Church of England communion, under the Act of Settlement enacted on the opposite side of the world in 1701.

Thanks, Johnnie Who?

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