01/25/2012

When Queen gives you a gift, should you pay for it?

Queen and pm
Queen Elizabeth greets Australian PM Julia Gillard -- a self-confessed republican -- at Government House in Canberra. A row has erupted over gifts the monarch presented to dignitaries. (Reuters)

When you receive a gift from someone, would you expect to pay for it?

Of course not. But that’s exactly what Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard insisted was happening during Queen Elizabeth’s tour of the Commonwealth nation last year, and it has caused something of a diplomatic row with the Palace.

It is customary during royal tours by the Queen that she hands out momentos of her visit to dignitaries. During her 11 days in Australia in October, she gifted silver boxes or framed photographs of herself to about 40 people – including the PM -- to the tune of about $16,000.

When there was a question about who paid for those gifts, the reply from Gillard’s office was: "It has been long-standing practice for the Australian government to meet the cost of gifts presented by the Queen when she is in Australia."

Not surprisingly, that unleashed a storm of criticism from the citizenry, most loudly from the increasingly republican-minded populace who were already on the hook for about $1 million in tour costs.

"On their own they are reasonably small costs in relation to overall government expenditure," said Australian Republican Movement chairman Michael Keating. "But if people are unhappy about these quite bizarre costs, if we want to stop kowtowing and giving these funnily funded gifts, we want to get to the real issue which is becoming a republic."

The next round in the verbal jousting came from Buckingham Palace, which insisted: “The Royal Household pays for gifts given by The Queen -- not Australian taxpayers."

But Gillard’s office insisted it is not mistaken, that it was Australian government that picked up the tab for the gifts.

In an about-face, the Aussies have now received notice from the Palace that the costs of the gifts would be absorbed by Royal Household.

"The Australian Government has always paid for gifts from both the Queen and the Prince of Wales as the heir apparent," a Gillard spokesman said in a statement. "The Palace advised ... that on this occasion, the Australian government will not be asked to meet the costs of the gifts presented by the Queen."

Apparently, some protocol wires have been crossed. And if this is some sort of royal tradition, it looks like it has ended. As it should have.

Canadians will be pleased to know that as far as this Commonwealth country goes, the old standard of the gifter paying the freight applies. A spokesperson for the Department of Canadian Heritage says the Royal Household pays for gifts given to Canadians by members of the Royal Family.

The Queen was last in Canada for a nine-day visit in 2010, visiting Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Ontario, including taking in Canada Day festivities on Parliament Hill. This year, her heir apparent, Prince Charles, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall will be touring the nation to help the Queen mark her Diamond Jubilee.

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