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Asia's monarchies are no longer earning their keep

Hereditary rule undermines humanity's relentless quest for equality

| Australia
Queen Elizabeth II meets Scott Morrison and his wife Jennifer at Buckingham Palace in June 2019: the existence of monarchies in the 21st century is antithetical to democracy.   © Reuters

Greg Barns is a lawyer. He ran the 1999 Republic Referendum campaign in Australia, and was chair of the Australian Republican Movement from 2000-2002.

Across Asia, monarchs are in the news a lot these days. In Thailand, there is the rage felt by many toward King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who not only spends most of his time in Germany, but who is busily seeking to impose a repressive monarchical regime on his people.

Malaysia's king, Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin, has stepped up his intervention in politics, refusing to accede to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's request that he be permitted to form a government now that he has majority support in parliament.

Then there is the refusal of the British monarchy to allow Australians access to the full story about the controversial sacking of a democratically elected government in 1975 by the governor general, the Queen's representative in Australia.

What each instance shows is that the existence of monarchies in the 21st century is antithetical to democracy.

While Vajiralongkorn's arrogance is extreme, and there are many royal families who comport themselves in a more dignified fashion, the reality is that time should be up for monarchies everywhere if we are serious about shoring up democracy.

It is, for example, simply extraordinary that no Australian, New Zealander or Canadian can ever be rise to become head of state, because in each country it is the English monarch who holds that position by right. Just as it grates that in each of the other 40 or so countries around the world where a monarch is the titular head of state, it is only an accident of birth that allows such people to attain power.

The world is moving, albeit slowly, toward replacing hereditary monarchs with heads of state who are elected, or selected more or less according to merit. While millions of Thais are shaking the foundations of their country's royal household, in the Caribbean nation of Barbados the government announced recently that it wants to achieve "full sovereignty" by November next year when it celebrates 55 years since its days as a British colony ended.

In neighboring Jamaica both the previous prime minister Portia Simpson Miller and incumbent Andrew Holness are committed to removing the Queen of England and replacing her with a non-executive president.

In Australia, where a 1999 referendum to remove the British monarch as head of state was unsuccessful, support for the monarchy's role is diminishing. Once Queen Elizabeth -- for whom many Australians feel a sense of personal affection -- abdicates or dies then the game is up. It is inevitable that Australia will become a republic. New Zealand and Canada could soon follow.

Just how out of step the British monarchy is in Australia was shown by the recent Palace Letters affair, with a recent poll showing that 62% of Australians now want an Australian as head of state.

In 1975 the reformist government led by Gough Whitlam was sacked by the Queen's representative in Australia, John Kerr. It remains a highly controversial matter in Australia given its implications for democracy in that country. Yet despite the fact that this event occurred forty five years ago, when a historian, Jenny Hocking, sought the release of correspondence between the Queen and Kerr, she was forced into an expensive court battle to win access to the documents.

As Hocking describes it, the "queen's private secretary argued strongly against their release" when the case began in Australia's Federal Court, as did the governor general's official secretary, even claiming in letters included in a submission from the official secretary, Mark Fraser, that their continued secrecy was essential "to preserve the constitutional position of the Monarch and the Monarchy."

Even Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, played partisan politics over the sacking of the Whitlam government, writing to Kerr in 1976 that "what you did last year was right and the courageous thing to do -- and most Australians seemed to endorse your decision when it came to the point."

While in Thailand protesters are seeking to reform their system of government to perhaps make it more like a Brtitish-style constitutional monarch where there is no such thing as a law of lese-majeste, and the financial accounts for maintaining the royal family are made public, the issue for all nations where a king or queen remains the head of state is more fundamental.

Why do monarchies exist at all, given that at the end of the day no matter how slick their public relations machines are, the values they represent are deeply antithetical to the notion of equality?

Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin attends a ceremony at the Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur in January 2019.   © Reuters

Why, for example, is it acceptable in the 21st century that a club of sultans in Malaysia, described recently by University Malaysia Perlis associate professor Murray Hunter as "the apex of an ancient Malay class-based authoritarian feudal system with all its artifacts, ceremonies, customs, and language," rotate the role of constitutional kingmaker and umpire among themselves?

When the Prime Minister of Australia wants to appoint a new governor-general, is it not humiliating that he or she has to write to London to get permission to make that appointment? While each monarchy differs, they all share one thing in common -- they undermine the relentless quest of humanity for equality.

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