Tuesday 23rd July 2013. The Duchess of Cambridge gave birth to a little prince, the heir to the heir to the heir of the Australian Crown. As usual, there were plenty of nationalists falling over themselves to offer their dubious congratulations to the ‘young couple’, and then opine in their most serious tones on the inevitable fact that he will never become King of Australia.
It’s inevitable, they insist. Never. Oh, really? They are such Very Serious People, the political class, so much collective gravitas. Perhaps we should all just accept their view?
Meanwhile, in historyland…
British historian and historiographer E.H. Carr, familiar to generations of first year university history students, wrote “Historians, like other people, sometimes fall into the rhetorical language and speak of an occurrence as ‘inevitable’, when they mean merely that the conjunction of factors leading one to expect it was overwhelmingly strong. … In practice historians do not assume that events are inevitable before they have taken place. They frequently discuss alternative courses available to the actors in the story … Nothing in history is inevitable”.
One of my favourite philosophers, the Canadian John Ralston Saul, argues that “Inevitability is the traditional, final justification for flailing ideologies”. At the time (2004) he was arguing against the assertion that globalization is inevitable, and notions that history (and therefore society) is dead, replaced by the markets and commercial self-interest. Globalization was an idea, he argued, that gave governments an excuse for not dealing with difficult issues and not using the powers of the State for the common good: they made the ‘inevitability’ of globalization seem credible. Traditional counter-balances such as social standards, human rights and royal dynasties were downplayed by western governments in favour of commercial tyranny and corporate absolutism. The idea of inevitability was consciously wielded to shut down anyone who argued or thought differently.
Australian historian Dr Shirley Fitzgerald had similarly argued in 2000, in the annual History Lecture at Government House in Sydney, that the ‘knowing’ that history brings has become regarded as a dangerous thing. “History is not about the past. It is about understanding causation. That nothing just happens, that everything is socially constructed and nothing is inevitable. Not even the marketplace. That everything can change and that things do change because men and women act. That is why history is out of fashion in the new economy … because it is a potentially dangerous tool for developing a critical capacity to analyse, and therefore to act.”
These papers were written before the GFC in 2008 and the political crises that followed. Their arguments now appear remarkably prescient.
So, what is it that Australian nationalists are trying to achieve by routinely and constantly stating that it is ‘inevitable’ that neither Prince Charles nor Prince William nor Prince George will ever be crowned King of Australia? What is the evidence they cite for this assertion?
The self-delusion of inevitablism
Well, they don’t actually cite any evidence. Mainly because there isn’t any. Back in 1999 when the referendum to abolish the Australian Crown was defeated, a notable reaction from the nationalists was the claim (and this has only become more astonishing with the passing years) that, although the majority of votes were cast against the proposal, the majority of voters actually supported dumping the Queen: “Most Australians are republican in their disposition. They accept the inevitability of our eventual split with the British Crown…” wrote social commentator Hugh Mackay. Claims of such support ranged from generalizations such as ‘many’ or ‘most’ or ‘a majority’ to enumerated proportions such as 75% or 91% of electors supporting a republic. By some magical psephology, voting to keep the Queen was interpreted, for those too dumb to understand what they had done, as actually confirming the inevitability of dumping her!
Saul’s statement that inevitablism is the sign of a flailing ideology rings true. He argued that grand economic theories rarely last more than thirty or forty years. The ideological strands that were brought together in the 1960s under the banner of Australian republicanism, although political rather than economic, formed a loose doctrine that reached its zenith in the 1990s. A major strand was a sort of ‘Australia for the Australians’ type of banjo nationalism that harked back to the xenophobic White Australia nationalism of the 1890s-1910s. The Queen was cast as a beguiling grandmother figure who was really an insidious foreigner endlessly thwarting the liberation of an Australian national consciousness. By 1999, we had had nearly forty years of this ideological march towards the inevitable triumph of The Republic. The referendum, however, revealed that the inevitability trope was actually a sign that banjo republicanism was already a declining force. Major cheerleaders of the ‘Queen-as-tricky-foreigner’ proposition, such as the Sydney Morning Herald, still tend the flame, as reflected in their page one story on the royal birth, with its forced faux-ockerisms of prince Whatisname and Wazza.
There is nothing inevitable about the fall of the House of Windsor in Australia. One of the real legacies of 1990s Australian republicanism was to legitimize a condescending, Brit-deriding, ‘little Australia’ way of thinking; an ideology that made a certain anti-English xenophobia acceptable. But once the xeno-cat was out of the phobic-bag, the bag was all too easily appropriated by far right crusaders such as Pauline Hanson and all to easily rebadged and turned against indigenous peoples, migrants, gays and lesbians and multiculturalism in favour of redneckery and jingo. Wazza and Whatisname were in, Walid and Wei were out.
That was 15 years ago, and nothing has changed. A straight road can be mapped from the Regent Hotel to Hanson’s Fish Shop to Tampa to the PNG Solution. That road was not inevitable, but the conjunction of republican anti-Britishness, conservative Asiaphobia, and social mistrust of the globalization narrative formed a potent zeitgeist with a vicious undertone. The launch at the Regent Hotel had unintended consequences, consequences that illustrate the deceptive capacity of inevitablism. There used to be a time, not that long ago, when we used to say Australia was a country without borders. It was the smallest continent and largest island on the planet, girt by the wide blue sea. The invention of borders by the political class has a history, but that invention was never inevitable.
Nationalist republicans will continue to talk about the inevitability of their victory, utterly failing to see that its strange outcomes are being realized right now. Manus Island. Nauru. ‘Solution talk’ in response to the confected asylum seeker ‘problem’. There is no asylum seeker problem, only a political problem entirely created by the political class that, in its increasingly hysterical and brutal responses, reveals its fundamental philosophical failure and moral bankruptcy.
We’ve boundless plains to share
Supporters of the Australian Crown, however, cannot be complacent and assume that the continuation of the House of Windsor in Australia is inevitable. They must continue to advocate for the crown. They must encourage discussion of our shared humanity regardless of ethnicity or borders; of ideas about a crown that can embody us all as citizens of one indissoluble commonwealth; of a royal house whose multinational, multiethnic lineage reflects the multicultural character of all Australians. They must challenge myopic sentiments that insist ‘little Australia’ is in some bizarre oedipal relationship with ‘mother Britain’ that a simple change of the head of state’s postcode would resolve. They must harness the great potential inherent in the birth of child who is both an ordinary boy and our future king.
At a time when society is becoming increasingly atomized but also repelled by empty materialism, the crown provides a social and cultural symbol, standing apart from the political class, that its supporters can present as part of the foundational mythos forming part of our community’s roots and part of the glue that binds our society to a future in which we can all share. I say part, because the other part of the ‘roots and glue’ equation has to come from Australia’s other body of ancient traditions and rituals, those within indigenous Australia. These are not new ideas, but they suggest alternatives to the current nationalist orthodoxy that supporters of the crown can use to find a route that leads away from Manus and Nauru, not back to the Regent Hotel and the fish shop, but forward to boundless plains and open seas.
Elizabeth II will be succeeded by Charles III, he will be succeeded by William V, and he will be succeeded by George VII. This orderly succession of sovereigns embodies and projects back to our whole community at least three generations into the future and connects it to a millennial past. The hereditary character of that embodiment reflects a fundamental, even primal, sense of the inter-generationally renewing structure of a successful society. Such a legacy is not inevitable, but it is highly probable that the line of succession will continue in the Australian Crown. The downfall of the crown can only come if its supporters fall into the same inevitablist trap as its opponents.
If the crown’s supporters decide to act and work to make it so, we all, sovereign and citizens, can together steer a course towards a future in which all Australians can truly recite and mean those lines in the national anthem:
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.
- Fitzgerald, Shirley, History? You Must Be Joking, Fifth Annual History Lecture for the History Council of NSW delivered on 29 June 2000 at Government House, Sydney, History Council of NSW, Darlinghurst 2000.
- Saul, John Ralston, Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, Penguin, Harmondsworth 1992
- Saul, John Ralston, The Unconscious Civilization, Penguin, Ringwood 1997
- Saul, John Ralston, ‘The Collapse of Globalism and the Rebirth of Nationalism’, <a title="Other Writings” href=”http://www.johnralstonsaul.com/eng/articles_detail.php?id=6%E3%80%88=eng”>Other Writings, 2004
 ‘Republicans congratulate royals couple on baby’s birth, repeat position’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23rd July 2013 (online edition only); ‘Birth brings uncommon joy: We celebrate whether or not prince ever reigns over us’, The Australian, 24th July 2013
 E.H. Carr, What is History?, Second Edition, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth , 1987 (originally published in 1961), pages 96-97.
 John Ralston Saul, ‘The Collapse of Globalism and the Rebirth of Nationalism’, Harper’s Magazine, March 2004 (see references below for link to this article).
 ‘History Can Bite’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1st July 2000 (see also references).
 Hugh Mackay, ‘Why battlers gave it their kiss of death’, Sydney Morning Herald, 8th November 1999: 7
 for 75% see ‘A Failure of Leadership’ (editorial), Sydney Morning Herald, 8th November 1999: 22, for 91% see Andrew Robb, ‘Spare us the recriminations’, ibid: 23
 Rick Feneley and Angelo Risso, ‘The king and I … minutes, and worlds apart’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24th July 2013, page 1
 The (ironically named) Regent Hotel in The Rocks was the site of the launch of the Australian Republican Movement on 7th July 1991; Pauline Hanson ran a fish shop before entering politics; PM John Howard’s reaction to the Tampa, a Norwegian ship that rescued drowning asylum seekers in 2001, was the basis of the ‘Pacific solution’; PM Kevin Rudd’s ‘solution’ to asylum seeking in 2013 was compulsory deportation and detention in Papua New Guinea.
 see, for an economic perspective on this conjunction, George Megalogenis, The Longest Decade, Scribe, Brunswick 2006