By Anne Twomey

Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Sydney

Queen Elizabeth II is primarily thought of as the Queen of the United Kingdom. But she is more than that. She is a woman of many Crowns and head of state of fourteen ‘other Realms’.     

What are the Queen’s ‘other Realms’ and how were they established? 

When Princess Elizabeth was born in April 1926, there was but one indivisible Crown. But later that year the Imperial Conference recognised the equality of the Dominions (which means self-governing nations of the British Empire) with the United Kingdom and that Governors-General were no longer representatives of the British Government. They were instead to be advised by their Dominion ministers. It was a short step, at the 1930 Imperial Conference, to the declaration that the King was to be advised directly by Dominion ministers in the exercise of his powers in relation to a Dominion. The change in the source of responsible advice to the monarch established the divisibility of the Crown. 

Hence, when Princess Elizabeth was only four years old, the man she called Grandpa England, otherwise known as King George V, wore separate Crowns for each of the Dominions of Australia, Canada, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa. The separate nature of those Crowns became most evident upon the abdication of his son, King Edward VIII. As the abdication took effect in different Dominions on different dates, during the period 10 to 12 December 1936, some Dominions had Edward VIII as their King while others had George VI. Any remaining claim to an indivisible Crown was exposed as illusory.      

Like an accordion, the number of Crowns would expand and contract as the winds of change passed through. British colonies gained independence, becoming Realms, expanding the number of Crowns. Later, many would reassert this independence by becoming republics.   

When Elizabeth II acceded to the throne in 1952, she was Queen of the ‘British Dominions beyond the Seas’. In 1953, the term ‘Dominions’ was dropped and she became ‘of Her other Realms and Territories, Queen’. The Queen started her reign in 1952 with seven Dominions. Four of them – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom – continue as Realms with the Queen as head of state. The other three – Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Pakistan and South Africa – became republics.   

Since then, eleven former colonies in the Caribbean and the South Pacific attained independence and remain Realms of the Crown (Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu). But another sixteen former colonies became Realms and later transitioned to a republic (Barbados, Fiji, Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, Kenya, Malawi, Malta, Mauritius, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rhodesia, Sierra Leone, Tanganyika, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uganda). While there are outliers, the African and Central Asian Realms moved first towards a republic, with what may be a Caribbean wave gaining momentum now.   

What powers and role does the Queen have in relation to her Realms? 

Each of the Realms is an independent country that is no longer tied constitutionally or politically to the United Kingdom, although some retain residual links, such as continuing use of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council for appeals. The powers of the Queen in relation to her Realms are therefore quite limited.   

In relation to Australia, for example, the Queen can appoint and remove vice-regal officers, upon Australian ministerial advice, and has a minor residual role in relation to honours (eg the title ‘Honourable’ for Ministers and judges). Nearly all vice-regal powers are directly vested in the Governor-General or State Governors and are outside the Queen’s direction or control. Technically, the Queen still has a power to give assent to reserved bills and disallow laws at the federal level in Australia, but this can only be done upon the advice of Australian ministers and these powers are now treated as redundant.   

Beyond that, the Queen’s function is largely symbolic – sending messages of congratulations, condolences and support, making occasional visits, opening significant buildings and supporting charitable patronages. When visiting Australia, statute grants the Queen certain powers that are otherwise conferred upon the Governor-General by statute.  

In practice, the role of the Queen and her Private Secretary has been to give support, provide a friendly ear and occasionally counsel vice-regal officers facing difficulties. For example, when there was a military coup in Fiji in 1987, the Queen publicly supported the Governor-General as the ‘sole legitimate source of authority in Fiji’, making it difficult for the coup leader to consolidate his power. 

It was only after the Governor-General proposed that the Queen give effect to a constitutional change that would entrench the rights of indigenous Fijians over those of Indo-Fijians, that the Queen’s support wavered. Her Private Secretary persuaded the Governor-General to resign and then declared that his resignation marked the termination of the Queen’s role as head of state. In this case, the Queen exercised a personal prerogative to terminate her Crown, without acting upon ministerial advice. 

The Queen’s role in her Realms behind the scenes remains opaque because of the application of strict secrecy laws in the United Kingdom. We are not allowed to know what she really does and how she exercises her soft power of influence.  

Thanks to a court case in Australia, however, we now have access to the correspondence between the Australian Governor-General, Sir John Kerr and the Palace in 1975 concerning the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. It revealed that while expressing sympathy and support for Kerr’s difficult position, the Palace consistently urged caution and restraint. Contrary to the imaginings of some of the more politically influenced commentators, there was no encouragement or authorisation given to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. Kerr neither gave advance warning nor sought permission for his exercise of the power of dismissal. 

We also know from the records of a former Queensland Governor that the Palace counselled him not to dismiss the Queensland Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who was clinging to office in 1987 even though he had lost the support of his party, which comprised a majority in the lower House. The Governor was encouraged to stay his hand pending a vote on confidence in the Queensland Legislative Assembly. The Governor followed this wise counsel, and the Premier resigned the evening before the House met. 

There are undoubtedly important tales to be told about the role the Queen played in relation to crises in her other Realms, such as Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rhodesia, Grenada and various controversies in South Pacific countries, such as Papua New Guinea where at one point there were two people claiming to be Prime Minister, and Tuvalu where the Governor-General and the Prime Minister sought to dismiss each other.   

One day we may be able to make a full assessment of the Queen’s role in relation to her Realms, but that will not be until at least five years after the Queen’s death when documents may become available under a Freedom of Information request. In all likelihood, it will be longer, until after an official biographer has been given first access to the documents in the Royal Archives. In the meantime, we can do no more than speculate about the role the Queen has played in her ‘other Realms and Territories’.