I remain a strong believer in the role of the Monarch in Australia and our immediate region in the countries where The Queen is the Head of State – Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.
I have had the great privilege to be honoured by Her Majesty on no less than three separate occasions – OBE on the recommendation of Prime Minister Namaliu in 1992, CBE on the recommendation of Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare in 2010, and CSM on the recommendation of Prime Minister O’Neill in 2018.
That unquestionably colours my judgement, but I have been carefully studying the role of the monarch in our region ever since I joined the PNG Opposition Leader Sir Iambakey Okuk as his principal advisor in 1978.
Fortunately, his deputy at the time was Sir John Guise, who had been the first governor general when independence was secured in 1975.Sir John lasted just 18 months in the role, opting to stand in the 1977 elections.
As he outlined to me, the role of Governor General under the PNG Constitution was much more limited than the Australian Governor General’s role under our constitution.
In fact, as he bluntly put it, he had no powers at all!
The PNG Constitution, carefully developed and consulted widely in the run up to Independence retained Her Majesty as Head of State, represented by a Governor General serving fixed six year terms, and chosen by the new National Parliament.
It is worth noting that under the PNG Constitution, the dismissal of the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam just two months after PNG gained independence just could not happen.
The PNG Governor General has no reserve powers when it comes to appointing, and removing Prime Ministers, or even Ministers.
That was tested in October 1991 when I was advising Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu. I know the circumstances really saddened Sir Rabbie.
I had the same feelings given that one of those involved, Ted Diro, was a close friend who I had helped mentor when he entered politics after serving as the Defence Force Commander.
Under the provisions of the PNG Leadership Code Ted Diro had been stood down as Deputy Prime Minister.
The standing down of public office holders against whom leadership code breaches are lodged is set out clearly in the Constitution.
The recently-elected Governor-General, Sir Vincent Seri Eri, who has served in many senior roles including Secretary for Defence, purported to “reinstate” Mr Diro to the Ministry.
The clear legal advice to the Prime Minister was that the action was illegal, and the Prime Minister should recommend to The Queen that the Governor General be dismissed.
The Palace was conducted and it was agreed a senior official would be despatched to London with a formal request from the Prime Minister, supported by Cabinet, that Her Majesty dismiss the Governor General.
Fortunately that end was averted when the Governor General resigned while the official was in transit to London. But there can be no doubt Her Majesty would have endorsed the Prime Ministers request!
The difference between this circumstance and the Whitlam dismissal is simple – the Governor General Sir John Kerr had the power to dismiss the Prime Minister.
No such power was vested in his PNG counterpart! The PNG Constitution could not be clearer on that – only the Prime Minister can appoint, and sack, Ministers.
The Governor-General only has the role of “swearing in” Ministers. He has absolutely no reserve powers whatsoever.
The position in the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu is slightly different.
The Governors General have limited reserve powers which as far as I can determine only Tuvalu has exercised on one occasion to resolve an impasse in the Tuvalu Parliament.
The position of The Queen as Head of State in the three South Pacific nations is not under immediate threat in any.
Especially in the case of Papua New Guinea reasonably frequent royal visits and the dignity brought to the office by successive Governors General, have kept support for The Queen, and the Royal Family, across PNG very high.
The Royal Family take a keen interest in the countries where Her Majesty is Head of State – even in Tuvalu which has a population of just over 12,000!
Just how engaged the Royals are was brought home to me in 2013 when I was privileged to be personally conferred by The Princes Royal at Buckingham Palace with the CBE.
She spoke fondly of her various visits to Papua New Guinea, and the impact the goodwill from the people had on her.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has prevented royal visits to Australia, and the island nations where The Queen is Head of State, for two years. As I recall the last royal visit to PNG was five years ago.
One wonders whether the continuing low vaccination rate in PNG (3 per cent) and the cost of royal visits will enable one to take place in the foreseeable future.
What concerns me is the confluence of two factors might already been significantly diminishing support for the Constitutional Monarchy in PNG, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.
The first is the absence of royal visits, but the second has the potential to have an even greater negative impact on the Monarchy.
Recently Barbados removed The Queen as Head of State, even though the people were not consulted via a referendum, on the move.
The Queen, as is proper, accepted the decision and sent Prince Charles to the handover ceremonies.
On the surface it was a smooth and amicable transition.
But beneath the surface there is NO doubt that the growing links which Barbados has with China (principally via extensive Belt and Board infrastructure loans) was a factor in the decision to break with the Monarchy.
No doubt whatsoever.
I fear that China’s first target in our region will be the Solomon Islands. Even though the SI was a British colony until it gained independence the links with the Royal Family have been less than in the case of PNG.
China’s influence in the Solomon Islands is, as I have written on several occasions, massive, and even more so given that the SI only switched relations from Taiwan to Beijing in 2018.
I have estimated that over 80 per cent of the SI exports go to China. And just about all public sector construction work is now undertaken by Chinese companies.
The question is what can Australia do about the position – without being seen to interfere in the foreign and economic policy position of independent countries.
The only real opportunity for Australia, and maybe New Zealand, is to help facilitate royal visits to all three island nations as soon as the pandemic circumstances make possible.
Royal visits are costly, and beyond the capacity of any of our three neighbours to fund.
The continuing role of the Constitutional Monarchy can at least slow China’s economic influence extending even more than it already has to the systems of government all three countries have adopted.
But I fear the inevitable. Our neighbours will end the role of the Monarch as Head of State long before Australia (and even New Zealand) does.
However, the very least we can do is to help facilitate royal visits to our region. It won’t harm our regional standing, it will annoy China, but it will serve the “Australian national interest” well.
This article first appeared in On Line Opinion and was used with permission.