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As the Queen's Diamond Jubilee is celebrated over the next month, much will be written about how she has 'never put a foot wrong'. But how do we know? What do we really know about how the Queen exercises her constitutional power? The answer is - astonishingly little.

The Queen's communications with Ministers are confidential. Documents held by the Queen and her 'Royal Household' are deemed not to be 'public documents' and are neither available through public archives nor under freedom of information laws. Up until recently, the only knowledge we have had about how the Queen fulfils her constitutional functions has been obtained through government documents which reveal communications with the Palace. Even this small chink in the castle wall of secrecy concerning the Queen has now been sealed up. In January 2011 new laws came into effect in the United Kingdom which ban access to such information in UK government documents for a minimum period of 20 years, plus the life of the monarch, plus another five years after his or her death. The documents held by the Royal Household may still be kept secret past this time for as long as the Palace desires.

The justification given for these extreme levels of secrecy is that it is necessary to maintain the neutrality of the monarch and public confidence in the institution of the monarchy. If this is so, then it suggests that as a matter of fact the Queen is not neutral and that the institution of the monarchy could not withstand even a modicum of public scrutiny. Surely the Queen, in fulfilling her constitutional functions in relation to her sixteen Realms, behaves in such a responsible and appropriate manner that her actions could withstand some public scrutiny? To suggest otherwise is an insult to the Queen and ought to be disturbing to the public.

While it is perfectly reasonable for government documents to be kept secret for a period of 20 years (recently reduced from 30 years in the United Kingdom), it is perfectly unreasonable that even after that period has expired, the public has no access at all to information concerning how the constitutional role of the monarch has been exercised. The exercise by the Queen of her constitutional role and its impact on the governance of each of her Realms is an important part of the history of those Realms. Such knowledge is also essential for the people to understand how their system of government actually works. To deny the people their history and an understanding of their system of government is surely wrong.

This issue is discussed in greater detail in an article in the 'Review' section of the Australian Financial Review on 25 May 2012, which is available here: http://afr.com/p/lifestyle/review/her_majesty_secret_jzTQ6ilMGt4yqjuvY1GL6N. It also draws on material that was obtained from archives and FOI requests before the new ban took effect, which shows that the Queen is far from a rubber-stamp. She has been an interventionist monarch who has used her soft power with great skill and effect. The extent to which she has exercised that power, however, is unknown and, at least for the time being, unknowable. In a democracy, can this really be justified?

Anne Twomey
16 May 2012