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A royal visit to warm the cockles of our republican hearts

Opinion

If there’s any uncomfortable silences when the fledgling Prime Minister meets the future king tomorrow, Malcolm Turnbull can always fall back on his Prince Charles impression.

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Although it’s fair to say the PM does a pretty crap Prince Charles, unless it’s improved over the past 20-odd years.

Back in 1993, Turnbull – then building up a head of steam for his ill-fated tilt at ditching the monarchy – joined an all-star panel of Andrew Denton, Bronwyn Bishop, Paul Lyneham, Wendy Harmer and Graham Richardson for one of the ABC’s televised “World Series Debating” ventures.

The topic was “That Australia Needs the Royal Family”.

And needless to say, Turnbull was not spruiking the affirmative.

At one point, he adopted a haughty air (even more haughty, one might emphasise, than usual) and pretended to be Prince Charles – then still married to Diana – pondering how to profess his love for Camilla.

He alluded to sanitary products swirling in toilet bowls and the like, which was hardly diplomatic. But then, this was 22 years ago. Turnbull probably didn’t expect Charles, whose royal family was then at its scandal-hit nadir, to retain his status as heir to the throne. And he certainly wouldn’t have expected he’d one day host him as Prime Minister.

If he had, he probably wouldn’t have dwelled quite so much on the prince’s love life in his 1993 tome The Reluctant Republic, or mused that it was “difficult to accept Prince Charles could ever be accepted as King”, or described Australia’s 1988 bicentennial as a “Year of Shame”, hijacked by lid-doffing, forelock-tugging old fogies and their Monarchist zeal.

Charles and his now-wife Camilla touch down in Adelaide today, and the streets will be lined with well-wishers, just as they were for their last visit in 2012, and for the prince’s visit with the late Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1988, that “year of shame”.

Back then, newly arrived in SA, I was among those who boarded the Cockle Train in Victor Harbor on a sweltering 38-degree day, as the Prince and Princess, the latter resplendent in a red dress hemmed with white, took a trip I more recently took with my two young children on the weekend just gone.

I doubt the royal couple enjoyed the ride as much as my kids did, but then royalty probably see a lot of steam trains.

Princess Diana and Prince Charles wave to the public while driving on a beach in Australia. January 31 1988

Princess Diana and Prince Charles on a beach in Australia on January 31, 1988

And I doubt the Prince recalls it as well as I do (though, yes, I had to Google what the princess wore!) when he ambled from the carriage over to the waiting crowd – herded behind a cordon like sweating pigs in a pen – and asked if any hailed from England.

As it happened, I hailed from England; but before I could muster the presence of mind to declare as much, a middle-aged woman behind me excitedly threw her hand in the air and exchanged some sweet nothings with the royal visitor in some middle-England accent or other.

And then he wandered off, and that was that.

In hindsight, it’s a fair microcosm of your standard royal visit; plenty of pomp and circumstance, rigid adherence to protocol and some well-meaning but airy pleasantries.

Perhaps Jay Weatherill, who is steering well away from any of Labor’s traditional republican zeal when he hosts the royal couple today, has the right idea.

“It is possible to be a republican and still show respect to visiting dignitaries,” he told InDaily in a statement.

“The royal visit allows us to showcase to a national and international audience some of the best that South Australia has to offer – particularly our beautiful Barossa Valley (and) at a personal level, I share His Highness’ passion for sustainability and addressing climate change.”

Bob Hawke once forecast that Australia would be a republic by its bicentenary. Instead, the streets were lined with doe-eyed subjects. These days, I suspect the crowds will be thinner and the eyes less misty. (At least the weather will be nicer.)

But if the PM, perhaps Australia’s most vociferous republican, can put aside the snark and outrage to host the man who would be king, it is perhaps a sign that the republican debate has not so much been lost, but has lost its fire.

In 2015, we are less the reluctant republic than the apathetic monarchy.

When the Queen visited our shores in 1954, then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies rather nauseatingly quoted the 17th-century poet Thomas Ford: “I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die.”

Today, the royal couple will pass us by. And tomorrow, everything will be as it was before.

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