As tributes to a future king go, it is decidedly modest: a small Plexiglas enclosure, filled with red dirt and a few dry tufts of grass. But the new Prince George Bilby exhibit at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, dedicated over the Easter weekend during an official visit by the nine-month-old heir to the throne and his parents, William and Kate, has a fitting purpose: saving an ancient and not obviously useful species from extinction.
The bilby, a nocturnal, desert-dwelling marsupial that eats whatever it can scratch out of the ground, has been under threat for decades due to habitat loss and wild predation. If it survives, it will largely be thanks to its inherent cuteness. Soft and furry with oversized ears and a long snout, the animal has become a favourite plush toy in Australia, and sales of its chocolate likeness now rival those of bunnies at Easter, with some of the proceeds going to conservation.
Not so different, then, from the young prince. In his first foreign trip, a three-week tour of New Zealand and Australia, George has already proven himself a potent weapon in the royal family’s dogged campaign for relevancy in the 21st century. His debut, a play date at Government House in Wellington with a hand-picked selection of commoners—the babies and parents were meant to exemplify New Zealand’s diversity and included a same-sex couple, a single mom and a Maori child—made global news. Crowds have gathered in the thousands in weather ranging from chill rain to blistering heat, hoping for just a glimpse of the diapered dauphin. His parents, the duke and duchess of Cambridge, have been showered with odd and remarkable baby gifts, including a cloak made from possum skins, a tiny vintage leather flying helmet, a child-sized inflatable zodiac and a large surfboard decorated with a photo of Sydney’s famous Manly Beach. When the royal couple speak, it seems to be mostly about their son. “He is obsessed with wombats at the moment,” Kate divulged to a well-wisher during a tour of the Blue Mountains, a scenic area south of Sydney that was ravaged by bush fires last year. Taking in a seaside life-saving demonstration in the Australian metropolis, William told two young lifeguards that George is “well-behaved but a little bit noisy,” and is “chewing a lot of things.” And, in more formal remarks to the Sydney press, the second in line to the throne speculated that his son’s first word might well be bilby, since koala is rather difficult to master.
With memories of their fairy-tale nuptials and Kate’s micro-catalogued pregnancy fading as quickly as William’s hair, the unwrapping of George has given the world’s media a new royal celebrity to obsess over. “Happy family: How Will, Kate and Prince George are stealing hearts worldwide,” reported NBC’s Today Show. People magazine advised readers on how to “get the look” of his nautically themed play-date outfit—at full designer price, or discount alternative. “Prince George continues to be royally adorable,” E! Online gushed.
But, along with the explosion of fluff and circumstance, there are indications that his popularity might be adding momentum to a deeper trend. A Nielsen opinion survey for Australia’s Fairfax media has pegged support for making the country a republic at 42 per cent, its lowest level in 35 years, with 51 per cent now labelling such a move “unnecessary.” (At the movement’s height back in the late 1990s, 57 per cent of Australians favoured severing ties to the Crown.) And the cohort most likely to be fans of the royal family is 18- to-24-year-olds—with just 28 per cent saying they are in favour of switching to a domestically grown head of state.
Rachel Bailes, a 21-year-old spokesperson for the Australian Monarchist League (AML) told Maclean’s she is more typical of her generation than one might think. The daughter of staunch republicans, she first became fascinated with the royals after doing a school project on the death of Diana, princess of Wales, and went online and enrolled in the royalist group at age 14. The AML now boasts that almost half of its members are under the age of 40. “I think it’s part of a generational shift,” says Bailes. “In the ’70s and ’80s, people were kind of shying away from the past, but my friends are all very enthusiastic and patriotic about holidays like Anzac Day [a national day of remembrance] and Australia Day.” The fascination the world once had with Diana has now been transferred to her eldest son and his wife, she says. And the arrival of George has only stoked the fervour. “I think it’s because he’s a human symbol that the monarchy is always renewing and refreshing,” says Bailes.
For the first time in decades, Australia has a prime minister who openly embraces the Crown. Tony Abbott, who was born in London to an Aussie father and an English mother, has called himself an “incorrigible anglophile” and counts his time at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar among the greatest days of his life. In the years before he entered parliament in 1994, he headed up a group called Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy. Following his majority victory last September, he made a point of reverting to the old oath of office, swearing allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II, rather than the Australian people. Portraits of the monarch were quietly re-hung in government offices in the capital, Canberra. And late last month, Abbott went a step further, moving unilaterally to reinstate the knights and dames to the Order of Australia, describing the titles as “an important grace note in our national life.” (Among the first to be elevated was outgoing governor general Quentin Bryce, who did a quick turn and accepted the title of dame just months after publicly expressing her support for the concept of an Aussie-born head of state.)
The rapid retreat from republicanism has also been in evidence in New Zealand, where, until recently, polls suggested 44 per cent support cutting ties to the Crown after the Queen relinquishes the throne. Prime Minister John Key, who in January floated the idea of holding a referendum on removing the Union Jack from the upper corner of the national flag, was front and centre during the royal visit. So much so that David Cunliffe, leader of the opposition, felt moved to publicly complain that the prime minister was unfairly hogging all the Will, Kate and George photo-ops in an election year.
The head of the Australian Republican Movement, David Morris, remains unconvinced that the royals are really as popular down under as the recent poll suggests. “What we’ve had is a change in the way the media celebrates them. They’ve gone into overdrive.” he says. “It’s celebrity worship.” He admits that support for the cause has become “dormant” in recent years. Following a failed referendum on the issue in 1999—the “no” side triumphed 55 per cent to 45 per cent—public fatigue set in, and political champions backed away. “The issue got stuck,” says Morris. Still, he points to the widespread backlash against Abbott’s decision to reintroduce titles—it has ranged from bemused to derisive—as being more indicative of the country’s true egalitarian ethos.
It’s hardly the first time Australians have gone gaga over a visit by the Windsors. Back in 1983, Charles and Diana undertook their first official tour together, bringing infant William along for a six-week jaunt around the southern hemisphere. A quarter of a million people turned out in Brisbane to greet them, and the public and press went wild for the pretty young princess and her baby. Charles’s letters home from the period, quoted in Jonathan Dimbleby’s quasi-official biography, The Prince of Wales, capture a man who didn’t much care for rubbing shoulders with the masses. Classical music and literature “help to preserve my sanity and my faith when all is chaos, crowds, cameras, politicians, cynicism, sarcasm and intense scrutiny outside.” But he did take a father’s pride in William’s first photo-op, crawling around on an Auckland lawn. “He performed like a true professional in front of the camera and did everything that could be expected of him,” wrote the Prince.
The fact that quirky, distant, unpopular Charles still seems intent on taking the throne when his mother—who turned 88 on April 21—finally gives way, remains a great solace to Antipodean republicans. “The assumption has always been that having Charles as king will be the lightning rod,” says Morris, although he personally has never seen the point in waiting for the changing of the guard.
But in the interim, Will, Kate and, now, George, will continue to burnish the old firm’s brand. Could a few more years of still young and vibrant touring, or perhaps another baby, stave off evolutionary progress? This current crop of royals has even its fiercest opponents wondering. “I’m forever amazed at how people who say very little, and do very little, can have such great PR,” says Morris.
Cuteness might be the answer.