By Adam Fennessy
On the day I heard of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, I was talking with a work colleague who shared my Irish heritage. My forebears came from County Clare four generations ago; he came to Australia from Ireland via Bahrain 20 years ago. While neither of us are natural monarchists, we reflected on our shared admiration for the qualities of the late Queen: she was determined, loyal, stoic. She was a great leader, reflected my colleague.
We agreed she displayed all the qualities we look for in public sector leaders. More to the point, she was an admirable servant of the public. A model public servant.
My earliest memories of the Queen came from her imprint on the coins in my pocket when I was a young child buying lollies at the local milk bar. I remembered enjoying the Queen’s Birthday public holiday, especially in more recent years at the MCG when the Collingwood Football Club always played Melbourne.
I recalled the national celebrations when her son Charles, now Australia’s new Head of State, King Charles III, married Lady Diana Spencer. We had a ‘Charles and Di’ beach towel at home even though our family were in no way monarchists. I was impressed in later years to know of the Queen’s love of horse racing, with her best result in the Melbourne Cup back in 1997 when her part-owned stayer Arabian Story ran sixth to Might and Power.
Like many others across Australia and around the world, I felt I got to know Queen Elizabeth II better through the contemporary streaming series The Crown. Even though her character in the series was based on a mix of factual record and fictional colouring, I gained an understanding of the historical context in which she was crowned: an abdicating uncle in King Edward VIII, followed by the premature death of her father, King George VI, and her being thrust into the charge and light of history at her accession in 1952 at the age of 25.
What I liked most about the depiction of her character in the series was her focus, her loyalty and the integrity with which she approached her role as the constitutional Head of State of the United Kingdom.
We know that throughout her life she had a profound sense of the responsibility of leadership and the importance of governance. She showed a tremendous ability to work with people from all sides of politics and to provide wise counsel and guidance, leading through influence rather than the power to direct. Her single reign covered the premierships of 15 British prime ministers, along with 16 in Australia and 16 in New Zealand. In the earlier years of her reign she lived through the Suez Crisis and the 1970s Oil Crisis, and, closer to home, the 1975 Dismissal of prime minister Gough Whitlam by her representative as constitutional head of the Australian State, governor-general Sir John Kerr.
At the end of the 20th century, approaching her golden jubilee, she witnessed the end of the Cold War. In the 21st century, her reign saw the onset of climate change, digitisation, the dramatic growth of social media and the collapse of vast distances between many people and places across the world.
All the while, Queen Elizabeth II stayed focused and clear about her role as monarch and Head of State in the United Kingdom and across many commonwealth nations, including Australia.
Upon the passing of the late Queen, my reflections turned to the lessons she provided as a model servant of the public. At many times in her life, she faced the heart-wrenching challenges of balancing the personal and the professional, and of remembering her oath to serve others to her last day. She projected stability and permanency, and was informed and apolitical.
For the late Queen, governance was not a dry concept when considering the long-term interests of the Crown set against her personal and often tragic and confronting family life. She was forced to make constant sacrifices, to look and think beyond her immediate circumstances to the stewardship of her role as Head of State. She acted prudently and carefully and learned from mistakes, all the while under the intense glare of the media. She thought beyond these challenges and pressures to the people she was there to serve: this is the essence and spirit of public service.
In the past few days we have heard from our current prime minister, Anthony Albanese MP, as well as a number of past Australian prime ministers. The common themes of their reflections are her integrity and commitment to service. Prime minister Albanese referred to her “long life devoted to duty, family, faith and service”, and her performance of those duties with “fidelity, integrity and respect for everyone she met.”
Former prime minister Paul Keating, a staunch republican, noted the changing cultural dynamics in Australia and across the world during her reign: “In the 20th century, the self became privatised, while the public realm, the realm of the public good, was broadly neglected. Queen Elizabeth understood this and instinctively attached herself to the public good against what she recognised as a tidal wave of private interest and private reward. And she did this for a lifetime. Never deviating.”
What the late monarch has taught us is critical to our democratic institutions in Victorian and across Australia, inherited from traditions of conventions of the British monarchy and parliament: the way we serve is as important as the laws, institutions and conventions we uphold on behalf of our communities. A model public servant attaches themselves to the public good.
I reflect on the local context, of the seven public sector values that underpin the Victorian Public Service (VPS) in our state: responsiveness, integrity, impartiality, accountability, respect, leadership and human rights. All of these values can be seen in different ways in the reign of the late Queen.
The seven VPS public sector values were enshrined in law by the Victorian parliament through the Public Administration Act 2004. This same parliament is the successor to the first Legislative Council and then Parliament of the Colony of Victoria, named after Queen Victoria, the great-great-grandmother of Elizabeth II. This same colony federated with five other colonies in 1901 to become the Commonwealth of Australia. These seven values are real; they shape the way we do our work today in the VPS. When we attach ourselves to these values, we improve the services we deliver for people and communities across Victoria.
The history of the British monarchy in Australia — and the way many of us feel about it today — is complex. Many of us look to the near future as we debate the merits of Australia becoming a republic. Many people across our continent whose ancestors were here for more than sixty-five thousand years before the British landed on these shores wait with hope and pain for truth-telling, reconciliation, Treaty and a Voice to our national Parliament. Many have come to Australia from other shores — with other monarchs, elected leaders, presidents, communities, and families — to whom the late Queen may have been a distant and curious image amidst the noise and exhaustion of daily life. Many cannot begin to fathom the immense wealth and power that accrued over centuries to the British Crown.
In acknowledging this complexity of our Australian history, I come back to the lessons I learned from what I understood to be the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II: we must think deeply about the governing institutions that keep our nation together. We should be generous with our time and words, and gracious under pressure. If we are privileged to work in the public service, we must think about those who we are here to serve: our local communities, businesses, our environment, the first peoples of our lands, and their generations past, present and emerging.
Be respectful of our governance. Be transparent. Use evidence to make decisions that impact the lives of others. Attach ourselves to the spirit of service and our public sector values. Think beyond ourselves and our messy, noisy, daily lives. Remember we are all human and make mistakes.
Remember that these precious rules and institutions of governments within which we work are here to protect and serve others, including our future generations. Remember the spirit of service that the late Queen Elizabeth II, with all her strengths, flaws and wisdom, always kept close to her heart.
Adam Fennessy PSM is the current Victorian Public Sector Commissioner and has over 20 years of public sector experience at state and federal levels. He has recently been appointed as the new Dean and CEO of ANZSOG, and will begin the role on 3 October. This piece was first published in The Mandarin.