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Commonwealth Realm

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A Commonwealth Realm is any one of the 16 sovereign states of the Commonwealth that recognize Queen Elizabeth II as their Queen and head of state. In each state she acts as the monarch of that state and is titled accordingly. For example, in Australia she is known as "Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia" or simply, the Queen of Australia. (See List of Queen Elizabeth II's Royal Titles)

Upon the "advice" of the nations' prime ministers outside of the United Kingdom, the Queen appoints a Governor-General to act as her Vice-Regal Representative during her absence. The Governor-General in turn exercises almost all the powers of the constitutional monarch with mostly symbolic, figurehead duties, but also reserve powers, called Royal Prerogative.

In countries with federal systems like Canada and Australia, the Queen is also represented by a Governor in each of the states of Australia and by a Lieutenant Governor in each of the provinces of Canada.

Fourteen of the Realms are former British self-governing colonies (including the Dominions) that became independent countries either after the ratification of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, the collapse of the Federation of the West Indies in 1961, or at later dates, the latest being Saint Kitts and Nevis in 1983. The two exceptions are Papua New Guinea which was administered by Australia as an international trusteeship before independence in 1975 and the United Kingdom itself.


Countries currently Commonwealth Realms

The Commonwealth Realms are a part of, but should be distinguished from, the Commonwealth of Nations which is an organization of mostly former British colonies, the majority of whom do not have the Queen as their head of state.

Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen poses for different official portraits in each country. Here she poses as the wearing the insignia of the
Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen poses for different official portraits in each country. Here she poses as the Queen of Canada wearing the insignia of the Order of Canada

Commonwealth Realms are:

Additionally, under the 1981 Constitution, the Queen is head of state in the Cook Islands in right of New Zealand, but any change in the succession made by New Zealand would have no effect in the Cook Islands unless separately ratified there.

Powers of the Realms

While Britain no longer holds lawmaking powers over the Commonwealth Realms (although in some cases it still holds a degree of judicial power, see Judicial Committee of the Privy Council) the realms themselves hold considerable veto power over any legislation over the throne. In theory, since the Monarchy is no longer exclusively a British organ, rules altering its operation must be collectively ratified by all nations who live under it if they are to have effect in all the realms. If a rule change were not ratified by one of the realms, the old rule would still apply to that realm.

The principal effect of this, in practice, is that any alterations to the line of succession to the throne must be approved by the parliaments of all the realms in order to guarantee continuity of a single Commonwealth Monarch. For example, if the Act of Settlement were to be changed, either by Britain or in any of the other realms, allowing Catholics to suceed to the throne, this would need Commonwealth realm approval, as well as British approval. Otherwise, in theory, the monarchy might become divided if a Catholic were to became heir under the revised Act.

Another power the realms hold is the formal approval of any marriage within the royal family that may produce an heir to the throne. For example, when Charles, Prince of Wales married Diana, Princess of Wales in 1981 it required the assent of 15 governments (the above 16 minus Antigua & Barbuda, St. Kitts & Nevis, and Belize, which were not yet independent, plus Mauritius and Fiji which were still realms at the time).

Lastly, the realms also hold power over the titles and styles of the royal family. This particular power has been raised in some contemporary discussions, for, despite her own wishes, the only way Princess Camilla could avoid becoming Queen would be through a decision of all the Commonwealth Realms. Even if she became Princess Consort in Britain through legislation passed by the British Parliament, she would theoretically remain Queen in the other Commonwealth Realms if they did not pass equivalent legislation.

Flags of the Queen in Commonwealth Realms

In her capacity as Queen of different Commonwealth Realms, Her Majesty does not use the British Royal Standard, but instead uses either her flag for that realm, or her personal flag as Head of the Commonwealth, which is also used when visiting Commonwealth countries where she is not recognised as Head of State.

The Queen has flags for Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica and Barbados. Each is a banner of the country's coat of arms, with the royal cypher in the centre, with the letter 'E' for 'Elizabeth'. The Queen formerly had flags for Sierra Leone, Malta, and Trinidad and Tobago, but when these countries became republics, they became obsolete.

Flags of Governors-General

Similarly, the Governor-General has his or her own flag featuring the Royal Lion and Crown (The Saint Edward's Crown), with the name of the country written in capitals on a scroll underneath. The Governor General of Canada has a distinctive design, which features the Royal Lion with the Saint Edward's Crown, bearing a maple leaf.

Countries formerly Commonwealth Realms

Following their independence from Britain, most Commonwealth countries retained the Queen as head of state, but eventually changed the title of the monarch to the Sovereign of their own respective nations (ie: "Queen of Barbados", rather than "Queen of the United Kingdom"). South Africa and Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) were the first to do this.

With time, some Commonwealth Realms moved to become republics, passing constitutional amendments removing the monarch as their head of state, and replacing the Governor-General with an elected or appointed president. This was especially true in post-colonial Africa, whose leaders often did not want to "share" the office of Head of State with the Queen. They remained within the Commonwealth, following the precedent set by India in 1950, recognising the Queen as 'Head of the Commonwealth', but not as head of state. Previously, republican status was incompatible with Commonwealth membership, prompting Ireland to withdraw from the association on formally declaring itself a republic in 1949.

In some former Commonwealth realms, including Malta, Trinidad and Tobago, and Mauritius, the new office of President became a ceremonial post, but other countries, such as Ghana, Malawi and Gambia, the President became an executive post, held by the last Prime Minister. In the latter cases not only was the monarchy abolished, but the entire Westminster system of parliamentary government as well.

In Rhodesia, independence was declared unilaterally in 1965. Under the Rhodesian Constitution, the country was a Commonwealth realm until a republic was declared in 1970 in response to the failure of the international community to recognize Rhodesian independence. The existence of Rhodesia as a Commonwealth realm was never recognised by the monarchy.

In Fiji, the change to a republic in 1987 came as a result of a military coup, rather than out of any republican sentiment, as Fiji's indigenous chiefs had voluntarily ceded their country to the Crown. Even when Fiji was not a member of the Commonwealth, symbols of the monarchy remained, including the Queen's portrait on banknotes and coins, and, unlike in the United Kingdom, the Queen's Official Birthday is a public holiday. When Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth, the issue of reinstating the Queen as Head of State was raised, but not pursued, although the country's Great Council of Chiefs reaffirmed that the Queen was still the country's 'Paramount Chief'.

The former Commonwealth realms, and the intervals in which they were realms, are as follows:

1. Presidency is executive post.
2. Presidency originally ceremonial, now executive.
3. Presidency is ceremonial post.
4. Monarch removed from constitution and office of Governor-General abolished in 1936, Presidency created in 1937 by constitution adopted by plebiscite, but monarch retained external role until republic declared in 1949 by ordinary legislation. See Irish head of state from 1936-1949.

Burma, Cyprus, Zambia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Nauru, the Seychelles, Dominica, Kiribati, Zimbabwe and Vanuatu became republics on independence and were thus never Commonwealth realms. Nor were Malaya, Brunei, Tonga, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, the Trucial States, Swaziland, or Lesotho, all of which had their own monarchies, many of them having been British protectorates.

Rise of Republicanism

In recent years, there has been some debate within the remaining Commonwealth Realms about the continuing practice of sharing a monarch. While many seem to view the Queen's current role as Head of State with passive indifference, others view the Queen as an obstacle to true "independence" from the United Kingdom.

Contemporary Commonwealth realm republican sentiment tends to be quite different in nature from the sentiment which ended the realm status with the above nations. In the former cases, almost all the countries became republics very quickly following their independence, being monarchies by "default" as a result of British colonial practice. These nations almost all felt very eager to cut all remaining ties with Britain in order to seem completely sovereign and free of outside influences, however superficial. The remaining realms, however, have shared the Crown for much longer, in some cases over a hundred years. The republican debate in such countries is thus more complicated, both in terms of the political and cultural ramifications that a change to a long-standing monarchist status quo could bring.

In Australia, Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating made clear his intention to make the country a republic by 2001. Following the holding of a Constitutional Convention in 1998, a referendum was held in 1999 on replacing the Queen as head of state with a President indirectly elected by Parliament. The "no" vote was in a majority overall and in every state except Victoria, causing the referendum's defeat. Causes of the referendum's defeat are a matter of opinion between the proponents and opponents of constitutional change. Many republic supporters voted against the referendum because they disliked the model provided, preferring a directly-elected president. Referenda, particularly on questions of constitutional change, are notoriously difficult to pass in Australia, and widespread apprehension of the extent of necessary constitutional changes also contributed to the result. Sentimental regard for the monarchy is generally seen to be on the decline, and a majority of popular sentiment is usually reported as being in favour of a republic of some sort, but any potential change of the status quo lies in the future, certainly after the conclusion of current Prime Minister John Howard's term of office. See Australian republicanism.

In neighbouring New Zealand, Prime Minister Helen Clark and her predecessor James Bolger have also voiced their support for republicanism, and a republican movement has been established. There have also been doubts expressed about the future role of the monarchy in Canada with some members of the governing Liberal Party showing support for a republic, but there has been little sign of change in the immediate future. An organized republican movement was established in 2002.

In the Caribbean, P.J Patterson, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, and Owen Arthur, the Prime Minister of Barbados also plan to make their countries republics. Tuvalu's prime minister has announced his government's intention to hold a referendum by June 2005 on whether or not that country should become a republic[1].

Those advocating change have pointed out that the majority of Commonwealth countries have long since become republics, and that were their countries to do the same, they could still be part of the Commonwealth.

Most republicans in the remaining Commonwealth realms, advocate parliamentary republics, in which the Queen and Governor-General would be replaced by a President, as is the case in India. There has been little support in these countries for a presidential republic, similar to the United States or France. However, in Australia in 1999, there was disagreement over whether the President of Australia should be elected by parliament (as in India) or directly, as in the Republic of Ireland.

In April 2005, four republican organizations within the Commonwealth launched Common Cause, an alliance of Commonwealth republican movements. The four member organizations include the Australian Republican Movement, Citizens for a Canadian Republic, the Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand and Republic in the United Kingdom.


While the Queen's powers in Commonwealth Realms are limited to appointing the Governor-General (and even this is done on the "advice" of the prime minister), her name and image continue to play a prominent role in political institutions and symbols. For example, the Queen's image usually appears on coins and banknotes, and an oath of allegiance to her is usually required from politicians, judges, and new citizens. Opponents argue that these symbolic gestures make an independent nation look "subsidiary" to the United Kingdom, and are confusing and anachronistic. Proponents argue that their respective realm is already an independent nation where the sovereign depicted on the currency, and to whom oaths are given, is sovereign specifically of said nation. Any confusion about this can be eliminated with education. Also, the monarchy with its history and traditions are the basis for their national identity.

Critics of the monarchy also argue that as the Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England having her as head of state counters principles of non-sectarianism by promoting one religion as a de facto state religion even in realms that do not have an official state church.

Historically, Commonwealth Realm proponents of the monarchy were generally supportive of the monarchy as a symbolic link to the United Kingdom. During the late 19th and early 20th Century most politicians in the self-governing realms (then called Dominions) tended to view British culture and attitudes as favorable, and encouraged their prominence in the newly developing societies. Maintaining allegiance to the British King or Queen was thus seen as a natural thing for many residents, who did not yet regard their citizenship as being anything less than British subjects. Self-governance increased in the 1930's and 40's, and by the 1980s most realms had ceased to maintain any form of constitutitional ties to the United Kingdom. This thus marked the end of the so-called colonial mentality, and in doing so threw the future of the monarchy into question. Proponents of the monarchy then began to downplay the "British" aspect of the monarchy, and began to focus on the Queen's role as Head of State over an independent Commonwealth Realm. Today the Queen is described within realms as being the Queen of that realm (i.e. The Queen of Australia, The Queen of Canada etc...) with references to the Crown meaning the Crown of that country, not the British one. There has thus been a fundamental shift between the "family" aspect of the Empire days, in which all dominions rallied around a common monarch, and today, in which each Commonwealth realm is encouraged to think of the Queen as "their own," and serving a role independent of any other obligations in other countries.

Commonwealth realm supporters of the monarchy often argue that creating a republican head of state would ultimately cost more, not less, than the current monarchy. They point to the presidencies of the United States and France which cost more to maintain than their monarchies. They cite the additional costs involving in updating the governor-general's residences to full head of state presidential palace level, the costs of state visit, political advisors, increased ceremonial functions, etc, functions that in many cases do not exist for a governor-general, given that they are not a full head of state, but which would be required for a president.

Establishing republicanism in the remaining realms is often hampered in large part because of previous long disputes over constitutional issues and reforms (especially in Canada and Australia) and thus a reluctance to enter into the extensive constitutional renegotiation that would be required to establish a new political system.

Today most realms have both a Republican Movement and a Monarchist League that serve as a self-proclaimed official outlet of debate in the media and press.

See also

External links


  • Common Cause A Commonwealth Alliance of Republican Movements



New Zealand

Last updated: 08-23-2005 20:23:46