Australia on show
The 1954 royal tour of Australia provided Australians with a chance to display the best of their country's achievements and potential. What the Queen saw and why Australian people turned out in such numbers to see her, has a yet greater significance when viewed in the social, political and economic context of the times. These displays provided insights into the Australia of the 1950s and the role and functions of a changing monarchy.
During her two-month stay in Australia the Queen saw a bewildering variety of people, places and products. Imagine the memories of Australia held by the Queen and Prince Philip as they sailed away from Fremantle on board the Gothic. During their trip they had seen children (thousands of them), servicemen, war memorials, combat aircraft, rocket ranges, nurses, hospitalised people, Indigenous people, civic dignitaries, town halls, parliaments, open cast mines, sheep, local produce, garden parties, horse races, cricket matches, surfing galas, rural Australia, metropolitan Australia, the Great Barrier Reef, the Three Sisters and much more besides.
Some of these themes have been present in recent displays about Australia. The Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games in 2000 included representations of Indigenous peoples, sport and rural Australia, although the intended audience was quite different. In 2000, the audience was potentially everyone in the world who could access a television. In 1954, television was still a novelty and did not become widely available in Australia until two years after the Queen left these shores. The royal tour was, then, the last of the great pre-television events. The intended audience in 1954 was not only Australia itself, but also the English-speaking world and particularly the Commonwealth. Australian displays presented this country as a youthful and vigorous place, a land of endless resources and a great place to enjoy life to the full.
One wonders, however, what the Queen made of Dubbo. Having travelled halfway around the world, she was presented with a row of sheep's rear ends. Not that the organisers in Dubbo had much choice if they were to show the wool on the sheep's back, the basis of the region's economic wealth. Australia was still an economy based heavily on primary industry. The post-war shift from production to consumption was only just beginning increasing numbers of women were returning to the workforce and adding to households' disposable income. However, the public imagination was still dominated by images of Australia as a land of resources. In Newcastle, the royal party visited the steel foundry and met with some awkward-looking workers. In Victoria, the Queen and Duke visited the open cast brown coal mine at Yallourn.
Hardly surprisingly, given Australia's contribution in global conflicts, the Queen often visited war memorials. In 1954, veterans from the First and Second World Wars were joined by veterans from the Boer War and Sudan Campaign. In Melbourne, the Queen opened the forecourt of the Shrine of Remembrance, while the MCG hosted a display by massed ex-servicemen. The Duke, who was usually detailed for visits to scientific establishments, visited the rocket range at Woomera to see the latest in Anglo-Australian rocket technology. Although Britain's decline as a world power seems evident in retrospect, for contemporaries this fact was not so clear. The explosion of the Anglo-Australian atomic bomb at Maralinga was not only seen to have put Australia on the modern technology map, but also confirmed Britain's role as one of the few nuclear powers on the globe.
Sport was another motif of the visit. As well as watching the races at Randwick and Flemington, Adelaide hosted a cricket match and Sydney laid on a surf carnival. Australia's natural beauty was on show as the Queen sailed throughout the Great Barrier Reef and spent half an hour at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. All of these images of the good life in Australia would no doubt have been welcomed by the Department of Immigration which at this time was keen to 'Bring out a Briton', despite the British government's own desire to prevent people from leaving the mother country.
Above all, the Queen saw children. There were displays of youngsters en masse in almost all of the major cities. Children danced, sang, performed gymnastics and presented flowers everywhere the Queen went. Children represented the future human potential of the nation and here again, as with the coronation, was the motif of youth the youthful nation presenting itself to the youthful Queen, herself the representative of what was promoted as an ancient institution.
We must remember that in 1954 it was not only Australia on show, but that the Queen herself was also on display. In political terms, the particular relevance of the Queen's first visit was set by the Statute of Westminster, issued in 1931. Prompted by the governments of Canada and South Africa, the Statute gave the Dominions of the British Empire the chance to establish themselves as independent nations of equal status to Britain. This formal independence changed the role of the Crown, which now became the foremost symbol of unity among the independent peoples of the British Commonwealth. However, successive Australian governments did not see fit to ratify the Statute until 1942, when British power east of Suez had collapsed at Singapore and the fear of Japanese invasion gripped the Australian nation.
Official war artist Ivor Hele was given the opportunity of a lifetime when he was commissioned to paint the Queen opening the third session of the twentieth Parliament on 15 February 1954. Hele, an artist with a strong sense of history and a talent for portraiture, was ideally suited for the commission.
The 1954 visit gave Australians the chance to the reconnect with Britain and for Britain to witness scenes of loyalty from Australia. These fulsome expressions of loyalty must have provided great comfort for some in London who feared that Australia was being lost to the Americans and may have given some illusory hope that the British Empire was still a force in world politics. Two years later the Suez crisis underlined the loss of British power and highlighted American ascendency. From that point on, Britain and Australia were clearly subordinate allies of the United States in the Cold War confrontation between communism and capitalism.
That conflict was something that the Queen didn't see during her tour, but it was widely present in Australian society. Chifley's Labor government had crushed the striking miners of New South Wales in 1949 and Menzies tried, unsuccessfully, to outlaw the Communist Party of Australia in 1951. Although this attempt failed in the short-term, the communist issue split the labour movement, ensuring that the 1950s are popularly remembered as a period of Menzies-inspired liberalism. To some, the 1950s appear like a 'golden age' of prosperity, although it would be harder to cast the period as a 'new Elizabethan age' as some contemporaries described it. The 1954 tour was a high-point of royal adulation in Australia. Despite the continuing relevance of the constitutional monarchy in Australia's political system, the last royal tour in 2000 generated far less enthusiasm. It is difficult to imagine a visit of 1954's scale, excitement and fervour occurring in today's Australia.