Speech at the Berowra Community Commemoration of the Life of Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth Memorial Service

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Delivered at the Berowra Community Community, Civic and Interfaith Memorial Service at the Hornsby RSL on Sunday, 18 September 2022.

Queen Elizabeth II is mourned all over the world.

Not only because of who she was but because of what she represented:  a set of ideals and values which are perhaps more fragile and yet more important today than at any time in our history.

First, the Queen represents the ideal of monarchy – which encompasses the values of duty, service, honour of  leadership above politics, of dignity, tradition, continuity, stability of grandeur yet a certain understatement

Second, she represents her family. She was a living link between all of Australia’s monarchs: from George III to Charles III, to what might ultimately be William V and George VII.  And in particular she was a link to her late parents George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, figures of great courage and character. In recent years, thanks largely to the miniseries the Crown, which in Walter Bagehots phrase “let daylight in on magic”, so many of us feel we know the Queen and her family intimately. We feel we better understand her and her sense of duty.

Thirdly, and perhaps most movingly, Queen Elizabeth represents her generation.  It is why I have said losing the Queen has been like losing a beloved grandmother – except that she was essentially everybody’s grandmother. 

The Queen was a living link with the wartime generation – our Greatest Generation – who put country before self. It was a generation whose values of service, modesty, quiet dignity and thrift reshaped the world for the better. The generation who came through  the Depression and War to rebuild the world with hope and optimism for the future.

We have, in a sense, lost our anchor to that world and those values. And now we are cut adrift like a cork bobbing on a sea.

What made Queen Elizabeth’s generation so important was a sense of moral clarity which is often lacking today. 

It was a generation in which more people were less formally educated yet wiser. 

A generation in Great Britain, Australia and the Commonwealth, that stood alone against that greatest of evils, the perverted science of Nazism.

A generation where a genuine commitment to faith was the norm. As one of my correspondents wrote “ Much has been made about the Queen’s Christian Faith. But what I appreciate was less that she was a Christian believer and more that she did not pay lip service to her King. She seemed to fear God, and when a great person fears the Lord, even the smallest people are safe in their presence.”

It was a generation which had more in common with each other because of the shared experience of the privations of the Depression and War. 

That shared experience was demonstrated by the Queen and her family during the War. It remains even today a source of  continuing popularity and legitimacy for the ‘Monarchy’.

When London was heavily bombed during the Blitz it was suggested that the Queen and Princes Margaret be evacuated to Canada. But the Queen Mother would not have any of it.

“The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave without the King. And the King will never leave,” she said.

The strength of George VI in those days – neither a strong man like the European dictators, nor a well man, but a man of character – set an example that inspired people across the four corners of the Earth. 

The stoicism of the Royal family in those days represented the Gritty British never-say-die attitude common to Australians as well.

These then are the values that the late Queen represented. And it why her death had such an effect on Australians. 

Her passing is more than just the death of our sovereign. It is the end of an era.

What then was the life that we give thanks for today.

Queen Elizabeth was never meant to be Queen. 

She was born the eldest daughter of the Duke of York, the equivalent in today’s generation of Princess Beatrice. 

Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born on 21 April 1926 at 2.40 in the morning at her maternal grandfather’s London Home 

Home schooled by her mother and Governess Marion Crawford, Elizabeth later took the tutelage from a master at Eton on constitutional history and French. 

It was the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, in 1936, when she was just 10 years old, and the subsequent accession of her father George VI that made her the heir to the throne. 

Following the example of her outstanding father she declared on her 21st birthday: “My whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service”.

It was a promise that she kept until the end. 

It is hard for us to imagine what it must be like at age 10 to have a responsibility like the Crown thrust upon you. To have no choice in the matter and to know that you will have to discharge those duties for life, even into your mid 90s and right up until your death.  It makes the Queen’s flawless service all the more extraordinary.

During the war, Princess Elizabeth played her part serving as a mechanic in the British army.

The Queen also assumed a number of honorary Military roles later in life, including in the AIF.

She was:  Captain-General of the Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery, Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Australian Engineers, Royal Australian Infantry Corps, Royal Australian Army Ordnance Corps, Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps and Air-Commodore-in-Chief of the Australian Citizen Air Force.

Princess Elizabeth married Prince Phillip of Greece and Denmark in 1947, Britain had not yet completely recovered from the devastation of the war. Elizabeth therefore required ration coupons to purchase the material for her gown.

The wedding service was broadcast to Australia by BBC radio, part of a global audience of some 200 million. The Royal couple had four children, Charles, Anne, Andrew, and Edward. The Queen had 8 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren. Prince Philip died in 2021 aged 99. They had been married for 73 years.

When Princess Elizabeth’s father George VI died in 1952, she acceded the throne as Queen Elizabeth II. At age 25 she became Queen Elizabeth II, our longest serving Sovereign.

She was crowned on 2 June 1953 at a Coronation Service in Westminster Abbey. There the Queen swore an oath to govern the peoples of Australia and her other realms “according to their respective laws and customs.”

The Queen was an exemplary monarch, who always and appropriately relied on the advice of her Australian Prime Ministers. 

Queen Elizabeth visited Australia on 16 occasions.

She became the first reigning monarch to tour Australia with her first royal visit of 1954. 75% of the Australian population came out to see the Queen on that tour.

On that first tour a stone’s throw from here The Sydney Morning Herald records that on 9 February 1954, at Hornsby Station, ‘the Queen and the Duke came onto the observation platform to wave to the crowds’.

The Queen’s visits to Australia often incorporated significant milestones, including the opening of Sydney Opera House in 1973, and Australia’s bicentenary celebrations and the opening of the new Parliament House in 1988. Her most recent visit was in 2011.

The Queen’s interest in Australia and Australians was deep and abiding. Those who met her were invariably impressed by how well-informed she was about Australia and its people. She sent messages to the nation at times of tragedy and natural disaster as well as for times of hope and celebration.

Her majesty took particular interest in Indigenous Australians and always included indigenous events in her visits. In 1999, a group of prominent indigenous leaders went to London to update her on indigenous issues in Australia. That prominent group included my friend and colleague on the other side of politics, Senator Pat Dodson, who as part of that delegation remarked that they had a better hearing from the Queen than they had ever had from any official in Australia. He reflected recently “I think for the first time in our lives, we were treated properly. She treated us as human beings.”

Her Majesty was patron of nearly 30 Australian organisations as diverse as the Australian Medical Association, Australian Racing Museum, Mothers’ Union in Australia, The Returned & Services League of Australia Limited, The Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, The Scout Association of Australia and both the YMCA and YWCA.

The Queen always encouraged excellence and service whether it was as Sovereign head of the Order of Australia or through the Commonwealth-wide Queen’s Young Leaders Award, inaugurated in 2014, and presented to Glenorie local Emily Milton Smith who, at age 29, became the youngest Chief Commissioner of Girl Guides NSW in its history.

The Queen was our longest serving Sovereign,  a reassuring constant in a changing world, which included the tenures of: 16 Australian Prime Ministers, 16 Governors-General, 11 Governors of NSW 19 Premiers of NSW, 15 British Prime Ministers, 15 American Presidents, and 65 different Melbourne Cup winners.

At her death she was Sovereign of Great Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and 10 other Realms.

During her reign, Her Majesty has seen the British Empire become the British Commonwealth and countries like Mozambique, which had no connection with the British Crown, joining a free association of nations dedicated to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The success of the Commonwealth is one of her great legacies.

In the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, many members of our community have reached out to me to share stories of their personal encounters with the Queen as well as the impact she has had on their lives. 

Broadcaster, Horticulturalist and Beecroft resident Graeme Ross AM is from a long line of horticulturalists. Graeme’s great-uncle Tom Hay was Head of the Royal Parks in London under Queen Elizabeth and her three predecessors. Tom, like Graeme, was awarded Queen Victoria’s Gold Veitch Medal for his service. Graeme’s aunt was the first female President of the Royal Horticultural Society. 

Despite growing up in Australia, far from his great-uncle’s legacy, Graham too felt gardening’s calling. In 1984 Graham travelled to London to film the Chelsea Flower show, hosted by the Royal Horticultural Society, and attended by the Royal Family. Soon after he received an invitation to Her Majesty’s Gala event at Chelsea. From there Graham had the pleasure of filming Her Majesty dozens of times, including the entire Royal Family when Australia created the spectacular ANZAC commemorative display of 5,000 poppies in Chelsea. Graham was honoured to film the Queen’s private Garden at the rear of Buckingham Palace in 2012, the first non-UK BBC crew to do so. 

Berowra resident Les Renfrey was a young officer in training at the RAN College, he helped line the streets of Melbourne during Her Majesty’s visit during his 1954 tour. 

Ros Renfrey, and her late sister, attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace during a working holiday in England in 1963. Ros recalls receiving a warm and kindly smile from the Queen.

Penny Becchio’s father, Darrell Shaw of Asquith, was an acting Police Inspector at Phillip St Station. Darrel was tasked with guard duty at Government House during Queen Elizabeth’s 1970 Royal Tour. Penny remembers her father’s excitement relaying  the story of his encounter with the Queen : Her Majesty had been out wandering the gardens, when she very graciously wandered up to Darrell and his co-workers and chatted to them, enquiring about their work and families.

The Queen was wonderful at putting people at ease.

And so as we contemplate a world without Elizabeth II.

We give thanks for her life and service.

We pray for the life, the good health and the long reign of King Charles III. 

We exclaim: “God save the King. Long Live the King”. 

May he be inspired by the life and example of his late mother, whose memory shall be a blessing to us all.

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