Do NOT Boycott the Census

Crikey today published an article calling for Australians to boycott the census to be held on 9 August this year (Bernard Keane: ‘The 2016 Census is a high threat to your privacy – boycott it’, https://www.crikey.com.au, behind a paywall).  I submitted a response to the article, and reproduce it below for non-Crikey subscribers.  I urge people: DO NOT boycott the census.  Instead, take this opportunity to be counted as a citizen, and to be part of the common legacy we bequest to future generations.

Dear Crikey,

I am saddened to read your ‘boycott the census’ call.

Every citizen and resident has a right and a responsibility to be counted in the census.  We had a constitutional referendum in 1967, after a long campaign, to finally stop the exclusion of Aboriginal people from being counted.  In doing so we finally began treating Indigenous people as fellow citizens and equals.

Every same-sex couple has been able to exercise a right to have their relationship recognised since the 2011 census provided for our relationships to be officially recorded.  Despite the obstructionism of Christianists, the existence of our relationships can no longer be denied, thanks to the census, and our named census forms will one day be a monument to our relationships.

I have, since the 2001 census, always agreed to my named census form being retained and archived for access by researchers 99 years later, especially family historians.  It is one of the few bequests I can make.  I have also come to know many of my ancestors in ways otherwise impossible through the named census forms that were retained in the past, and I am thankful for that legacy.

By the way, such named forms are only available in Australia for the early colonial period.  Your claim that that citizens “provide copious, highly personal detail of themselves for indefinite retention and use by governments … is longstanding tradition in Australia” is nonsense, as any understanding of the history of censuses and their destruction in Australia will show.  The campaigns by historians for retaining named census forms in the 1980s and 90s was constantly attacked by officious ‘we know what’s good for you’ types, and unfortunately your crusade seems to adopt the same tone and language.

source: http://slwa.wa.gov.au/find/guides/family_history/australia/western_australia/census

Named census form, York District, Western Australia 1859 – should such historical records be destroyed for ‘privacy’? Source: http://slwa.wa.gov.au/find/guides/family_history/australia/western_australia/census 

I have enjoyed being a Crikey reader for some years now, but the semi-hysterical nature of the article smacks of a personal crusade rather than the informed opinion that has been one of Crikey’s strengths.  Claims of “sinister uses” and “targets” and “every Australian will be tracked down” and “forced to upload extensive personal information” is too melodramatic for me to take seriously.  Should I expect Keanu Reeves/Neo to come knocking?

Your claim that the census form contains “copious, highly personal detail” sounds like a claim made by someone who has never actually filled-in a census form.  For ‘copious, highly personal detail’, try filling in an income protection insurance application, especially the questions about your sex life.  The amount of personal information collected and misused by private corporations outweighs the alleged abuses you claim of census data.  I don’t remember you ever calling for a boycott of the incessant gathering and trading in other people’s personal data by private corporations, with their ever-increasing surveillance of us all for their own private commercial gain.  Indeed, in this article you seem to regard them and their “higher standards” as exemplars to be emulated.  I don’t even recall you ever calling for a boycott of Commonwealth agencies such as Centrelink or the ATO because of the vast amounts of personal data they amass – far more than any census form will ever record.

A whole collection of named census or muster forms, published for all to see.  Source: http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/blogs/musters-and-lists-new-south-wales-and-norfolk-island-1800-1802

A whole collection of named census or muster forms, published for all to see. Should this be banned?  Source: http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/blogs/musters-and-lists-new-south-wales-and-norfolk-island-1800-1802

As a citizen I chose to participate in the census.  As a consumer I choose to emulate your example, but to boycott the census-haters.  Sadly, that means boycotting Crikey by the only means I know how, returning each daily edition to sender, un-opened, and eventually not renewing my subscription.  It pains me to do this, and I will certainly miss my daily read, but I cannot support boycotting the census and in doing so surrendering my own citizenship, because that is all your boycott really achieves.  As a citizen I have a responsibility to be counted, and a right to have my named census form retained and archived as a permanent historical record of my continuing citizenship.  That is the right I chose to exercise.

The annual Australia Day Wars: this year’s winners

The phrase ‘a modern Australia’ is constantly used by some parts of the political class, implying any disagreement could only come from the most troglodyte of citizens. Allain de Botton wrote in The News: A User’s Manual (2014, page 11) “Societies become modern, the philosopher Hegel suggested, when news replaces religion as out central source of guidance and touchstone of authority … The news knows how to render its own mechanics almost invisible and therefore hard to question. It speaks to us in a natural, unaccented voice, without reference to its own assumption-laden perspective. It fails to report that it does not merely report on the world, but is instead constantly at work crafting a new planet in our minds in line with its own highly distinctive priorities.”

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With that in mind, the last two Australia Days, in 2015 and 2016, have witnessed pitched battles through the media, each of which could be conceptualized as surrogate battles between republicans and monarchists for control of the day. Battles, this is, fought within the political class (in which I include the media), to which the general public have largely been bewildered onlookers.

The signal event in each year was the Australian knighthood conferred on Prince Philip in 2015, and the Australian of the Year Award conferred on recently retired Lieutenant General David Morrison in 2016. There were other events and debates, but these two dominated the media coverage and are similar enough to allow for comparisons to be made.

In this post, I compare and analyse press coverage of the two battles to see if any winners or losers can be detected, and our bewilderment assuaged.

I collected items in the ‘mainstream’ media (Sydney Morning Herald representing Fairfax, Daily Telegraph and The Australian representing Murdoch, and Crikey, an independent online news outlet), published between 26 and 30 January in 2015 and 2016. The items include reporting, opinion pieces, and letters from readers, totaling 390 items in 2015 and 207 in 2016.

In order to remain consistent with the language of the 1999 referendum, items categorized as ‘Yes’ means they are supportive of a republic, ‘No’ means they are opposed to a republic, or supportive of the monarchy (not necessarily synonyms), and ‘Other’ means related to the issue, but without explicit or reasonably implicit alignment with either side. Typically, ‘Other’ items relate to the national flag, gender issues and/or commentary on personal characteristics or physical attributes. This category also includes Indigenous issues, which appear to have received much less media attention than before 2015.

This post does not pretend to be a scientific survey or analysis, and these results are presented here for interest and discussion rather than as proof of any particular argument.

Some analysis

  1. Inverse relationships between media writing and popular writing

In 2015, reporting/opinion writing was 55% for a republic, 45% against; readers writing was 46% for a republic, 54% against. The reader writing was almost an exact replication of the referendum result 16 years earlier, suggesting there had been no change in public opinion over that long period.

In 2016, reporting/opinion writing was 62.5% for a republic, 37.5% against; reader writing was 39.5% for a republic, 61.5% against. They were diametrically opposite of each other, suggesting a strong polarization over the previous 12 months, and a strong disconnection between media and reader points of view. Overall, there was a consistent ratio of about 1 media article produced for every four readers letters published.

  1. Honours and honour attacked each time:

In 2015, knighthoods per se, Prince Phillip personally, and Abbott as initiator of the knighthood, were all attacked as ridiculous for their ideological (monarchical) purity, especially among media writers.

In 2016, Australian of the Year Awards per se, Lt Gen Morrison personally, Turnbull as a ‘manipulator’, were all attacked as betraying an ideological (republican) position, especially among media writers.

In both years, reader writing did not necessarily follow the media line, but over the five-day period, tended to become more consistent with it. Whether that reflects the selection processes used in each media house for publishing readers letters, or the patterns in all letters received, is not able to be determined.

  1. Surprise factor each time

In 2015, the knighthood was announced on Australia Day, with no warning. It was a complete surprise. There was some preceding news from Opposition leader Bill Shorten about starting a republic debate the day before, but no obvious connection between the two events.

In 2016, Morrison’s statement committing to republic when accepting the Australian of the Year Award announced on Australia Day eve was a complete surprise. It had a more obvious precursor in the ARM release of 7/8ths of first ministers declaring support for a republic earlier in the day.

  1. Gender issue each time:

In 2015, there were attempts to blame Peta Credlin for either encouraging or not discouraging the royal knighthood, so moving attention away from PM Tony Abbott, and discouraging attention on the merits of the knighthood.

In 2016, Catherine McGregor was castigated for saying Morrison was a ‘conventional’ appointment, so moving attention away from the Australia Day committee, and discouraging attention on Morrison’s republic commentary.

Blaming Credlin was less successful in drawing attention away from the decision maker than disparaging McGregor, whose transgender status attracted more personal attacks. The archetypal Lucretia Borgia and Mata Hari figures were, it seems, quite consciously constructed by media writers, and as such they tell us more about the writers than the two women or their supposed nefarious influences. It was perhaps an unconscious parody in this context that Crikey titled its single editorial piece ‘Time to grow some republican balls’.

  1. Media writing patterns

In 2015, Fairfax published ‘Yes’ articles every day (7 ‘Yes’ over the period, 1 ‘No’); Murdoch was more sporadic, with 3 ‘Yes’ and 2 ‘No’ articles over the period; and Crikey carried neither Yes nor No articles, but 7 ‘Other’ articles.

In 2016, Fairfax again published ‘Yes’ articles every day (13 ‘Yes’ over the period, and 1 ‘No’); Murdoch was again sporadic, with 6 ‘Yes’ (all on two days), and 8 ‘No’ across all days; Crikey carried 1 ‘Yes’ article and 0 ‘No’ articles.

Comparing 2015 and 2016, Fairfax producing multiple ‘Yes’ articles both years, and a token ‘No’ article; Murdoch was more sporadic in coverage, with a larger volume in 2016 compared to 2015, but ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ roughly balanced until the final day in the period (30 January) when ‘No’ took the lead; Crikey produced nothing in 2015, one editorial only in 2016.

These patterns suggest Fairfax writers are committed and enthusiastic republicans, as are its readers (ARM Chair Peter FitzSimons says he’s a ‘Fairfax man’, and Fairfax sponsored a NSW Australian of the Year entrant); Murdoch sees its readers as more aligned to monarchy, but has to balance that with its owner’s republican sentiments (and it tends to use more cartoons and satire, less wordy arguments); Crikey aligns with the Fairfax position, but doesn’t really seem to regard republicans v. monarchists as a core interest of its readers.

  1. Letter writing patterns

In 2015, Fairfax published letters every day, 9 ‘Yes’, 11 ‘No’ and 30 ‘Other’ letters; Murdoch also published every day, 21 ‘Yes’, 38 ‘No’, 64 ‘Other’ letters; and Crikey also published every day, 17 ‘Yes’, 7 ‘No’, and 63 ‘Other’ letters.

In 2016, Fairfax again published every day, 12 ‘Yes’, 10 ‘No’, 22 ‘Other’ letters; Murdoch again published every day, 8 ‘Yes’, 56 ‘No’, 26 ‘Other’ letters; Crikey also published every day, 4 ‘Yes’, 7 ‘No’, 10 ‘Other’ letters.

Comparing 2015 and 2016, Fairfax published a similar volume of letters, roughly balanced between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, but with ‘Other’ topics higher; Murdoch published a larger volume in both years, but with a dramatic increase in ‘No’ and decrease in ‘Yes’ and ‘Other’ letters in 2016; Crikey published a low volume of letters, with ‘Yes’ and ‘Other’ falling, while ‘No’ remained steady.

These patterns suggest Fairfax letter writers are ‘rusted on’ to Fairfax, talking to each other, and perhaps avoiding direct confrontation through ‘Other’ topics; Murdoch letter writers may have been unsure in 2015, but in 2016 were firmly in the ‘No’ camp; and Crikey letter writers counter-intuitively switched from ‘Yes’ to ‘No’, but only because of fall in ‘Yes’ letters rather then rise in ‘No’. It is also worth noting that the two media in which letter writers changed views, Crikey and Murdoch, have more continental audiences (although no letters from WA, NT or Tasmania were published), while Fairfax letter writers’ addresses are mainly in the southeastern capitals. This would not be an auspicious sign for any advocate of constitutional change.

  1. The ‘Other’ category counts items that relate to the issue, more or less directly, but without explicit or reasonably implicit alignment with either side.

In 2015, the other issues were changing the flag, desirability of a republic, role of Credlin and her gender (cast as a scheming femme fatale controlling an implicitly de-masculinised and effete Abbott), the credibility of knighthoods, abolition of knighthoods, personal attacks on Prince Philip, and warnings of Abbott’s impending doom if he didn’t focus on ‘proper’ political issues such as the economy.

In 2016, the other issues were changing the flag, demands for a republic, conflation of demands for another republic referendum with equal marriage and Aboriginal recognition referenda, role of the Australia Day committee, credibility of Australian of the Year awards, personal attacks on Morrison, Turnbull’s ‘breaking hearts’ and treachery (implicitly a hollow man chasing power), complaining about Australian of the Year recipients hectoring and lecturing people with trendy ‘politically correct’ views, and sniping about gender issues (McGregor was cast as a hysterical queen undermining the sound republican Morrison).

Some conclusions

The most critical conclusion is probably that popular opinion moved strongly towards the monarchy between Australia Day 2015 and 2016, and even more emphatically after Australia Day 2016. Views hadn’t really changed much since 1999, but the public battle over Prince Philip’s Australian knighthood had a polarizing effect with the letter-writing public noticeably cleaving to the monarchist position.

The political class (in which I include the mainstream media) has moved decisively over the past twelve months towards a republic, while popular views have moved just as decisively towards the monarchy, suggesting a strong disconnection between the political class and the public. Some of this polarizing may come from a revival of the old, remembered divisions leading up to the 1999 referendum that people either do not want, or want to delay, re-visiting.   Such a conclusion is consistent with the trend in polling on the issue. Even the self-selecting Sydney Morning Herald readers’ panel, which on 30 January 2015 voted 72% for a republic and 20% against, had evolved by 30 January 2016 to 59% for a republic referendum now, 22% for waiting until the Queen dies to hold a referendum (who may vote Yes or No) and 14% supporting monarchy.

In both cases, these battles originated in the Prime Ministers’ Office. The knighthood was a personal decision of PM Abbott. The Australian of the Year Award was a decision of a body located in the Prime Ministers’ Office of PM Turnbull. In neither instance was the decision made within the traditional honours system, located within the Governor General’s household, of which the Order of Australia is the best-known component. The cumulative effect of the two battles has probably undermined public respect for the honours system generally through a perception of a blatant politicization of honours processes and outcomes. It is a clear illustration of why all honours must be kept separate from partisan politics.

In terms of the tone of the media coverage, the republican-aligned press was clearly surprised by the reaction in 2016. It did not recognize any near-identical flip side of 2015 reactions. The derisory responses to Prince Philip’s knighthood appear to have set the rules and tone for the counter-response to Morrison’s Australian of the Year Award. For example, in 2015 a Fairfax write described Prince Philip as “Phil the Greek … the most mocked and least useful member of the royal family who is not currently accused of sex orgies with teenagers”. In 2016, a Murdoch writer described Morrison as having a “…fierce, almost jihadist fanaticism in his eyes, the tightened facial muscles, what might be taken to be self-righteous vindictiveness lurking in his delivery”. Similarly, Abbott was mocked as a Quixote-like medieval knight, and Turnbull was derided as a Benedict Arnold-like traitor. Prince Phillip and Morrison, Abbott and Turnbull have had their defenders among the letter writers, many of who seemed repulsed by such insights into the vulgarity of political class thinking. The characterizations are demeaning and their purpose remains obscure (to outsiders, at least), but 2015 seems to have set a template for 2016.

The attacks on Credlin in 2015 and McGregor in 2016 point to a propensity to attribute the cause for perceived ‘failures’ by men in this matter (Abbott, Prince Phillip, Turnbull, Morrison) to cunning, sexually threatening women. This points to the primal emotions involved in issues around monarchy, identity and honour, emotions that go way beyond any black-letter legalism.

The ‘surprise factor’ is evident in both years. Making surprise announcements, especially on an “it’s done, get over it” basis, concerning identities, monarchy, honours and symbols will produce very negative reactions. This indicates the level of deep emotion involved, and the need for proposals for change to be preceded by long lead times with lots of public foregrounding and open discussion. Such changes cannot be airily cast as ‘simple’ constitutional matters. The surprise story of the premier’s ‘declaration’, released on the morning of Australia Day-eve, probably antagonized the monarchists and primed them for outrage that evening. It had vanished from the media coverage by the 27th (possibly to the quite relief of some first ministers), replaced by accusations of Turnbull’s betrayal of the cause, suggesting the declaration had a contrary effect to that intended.

Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, speaking to the National Press Club, reportedly separated Aboriginal constitutional recognition from republican issues, for which he was attacked as an apologist for Abbott. But there is no necessary connection, in the letter writers, between supporting monarchism and opposition to equal marriage, gender equality, Aboriginal recognition, flag changes or honours (despite some cranky Colonel Blimp letters). One Murdoch opinion writer referred to ‘jingo bandana republicanism’, a label illustrated by the response to McGregor’s critique of Morrison’s appointment: she was attacked by Fairfax republicans and Murdoch conservatives alike as the political class closed ranks around what this analysis suggests is regarded as ‘its’ cause. As FitzSimons said, “Morrison is one of ours”.

Opinion pieces on the last day of the survey were consistent in each media house: Fairfax writers defended the Australian of the Year awards, saying they should not be debased, and blamed ‘nostalgic’ monarchist reactionaries for the conflict; Murdoch writers all professed their true republicanism, but said the time is not yet right to pursue republicanism, it must wait for a while, and blamed FitzSimons for blokey impatience. The Sydney Morning Herald editorialized “The Herald knows the selection board will look closely at the 2016 process…” with all the confidence of an insider.

One final thought around the labeling of republican and monarchist among the media writers. It’s a labeling that harks back to the 1990s and its divisiveness. All the Murdoch writers professed their republicanism, all the Fairfax writers stuck to their stated editorial policy of republicanism. The only professed monarchists were among the letter writers. This whole analysis could be based upon a false binary of republican v. monarchist, when really the battles have been between republican factions (minimalists, direct electionists, jingo bandanistas) seeking to appropriate Australia Day to their cause. But, that’s an issue for another post.

So, who won the battle in 2016?

It could be said, in the annual Australia Day Wars, that the 2015 Battle of Philip was won by the red bandanas, the 2016 Battle of Morrison was won by the gold crowns. The battlefields have both been within the honours system, displaying an iconoclastic disregard for its integrity. The question now is on what grounds will the 2017 be battle fought, who will ‘win’, how will it be reported, who will report it, and will the Australian honours system be further demeaned by crude politicization?

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Vale Australia’s Third Knightage

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week announced the abolition of the third Australian knightage – or, as the jubilant Fairfax-Murdoch press complex and the even more triumphant social media opinionists shouted, he “abolished knights and dames”. What a man!

I have in earlier posts (Why Knighthood Matters in 21st Century Australia, Honours for the Honourably Challenged) supported the restoration of the knighthood level in the Order of Australia or elsewhere within the Australian honours system. I continue to do so. However, the enraptured celebrations of the Turnbullistas, and the square metres of media space given to the gleeful FitzSimons-Turnbull republicans to broadcast their support for this bold, brave move, have given me pause to reflect upon the nature of the latest abolition and the character of the responses to it.

The responses, as far as I can guage, fall into six main categories: the anachronistic, the nationalistic, the vulgar, the Abbott-hating, the derisive and the simply confused. It’s quite a raffish, larrikinish ensemble, and I’ll consider each in turn.

The anachronistic. Anachronism is one of the principle reasons given by the PM for abolition. Describing something as anachronistic means it is in the wrong time (like an 18th century clock in a 21st century room).  In the academic world it is a pejorative, but it is used in the vernacular to mean something like old-fashioned or out-of-date, although not necessarily bad. Apparently, it doesn’t apply to titles such as Adjunct Professor or Honorary Doctor, and it certainly doesn’t apply to the Melbourne Cup, won a few days later by Prince of Penzance (although I heard one sports commentator this morning, apparently desperate to stay in the new zeit, call it Pirate of Penzance!), with the jockey described in much of the press the next day as the Cup Queen of Queen of the Sport. Anachronism, it seems, can be quite desirable in some circles.

The nationalistic. This has perhaps been the most bellicose of the responses, with all sorts of claims about imperial honours, toadying to the palace and the general un-Australianess of allowing someone to have the uppity pre-nominal title Sir or Dame which is contrary to our legendary egalitarian (and I mean, legendary). The knighthoods were a level within the Order of Australia, and unless Australia is now an Empire, and they are awarded to imperial subjects in oh, I don’t know, say Manus or Nauru or Mawson, such claims are the ultimate in 1950s cultural cringe made by nationalistic Rip van Winkel’s still stuck nostalgically reading the Bulletin of the 1890s.

The derisive. In many ways a variant on the anachronistic and nationalistic strands, found especially in the medium of cartoons that can be relied upon to depict the characters in some sort of medievalist setting and, by implication, casting anyone not antagonistic to knighthoods as anachronistic and deserving of being cast out of the polis. The fact that these depictions and allusions bear little, if any, relationship to the actual medieval world is beside the point. This is the Medieval Australia we never had, but apparently must have now, to show the cleverness of the anti-knights, to have existing prejudices confirmed through a cartoon medium that always contains a sense of epicaricacy.  To be ahistorical is to be modern.

The vulgar.  Another variant on the nationalistic, and particularly favoured in the cold anonymity of social media commentary. Those not sufficiently opposed to knighthoods, those who received knighthoods, and of course Tony Abbott, are generally described in very short, often single-word sentences that, in a sort of unconscious anachronism, rely almost exclusively on a broad knowledge of terms popularly considered to be old Anglo-Saxon words for cursing and describing those who have annoyed or offended, and intimating physical violence will be used on dissenters.

The Abbott-hating. The focus of these responses was on characteristics attributed to the former PM, with nationalism and vulgarity heavily featured. A key element in these responses is the acceptable racism of Brit-bashing, in which a circular narrative positions Abbott as a foreigner because he was born in Britain, and because of that he must retain some sort of genetic loyalty to a foreign monarch, which means he is British and so un-Australian (any nationality can be inserted into this old formula). There is a strong whiff of American birtherism and Social Darwinism in some of these responses, which along with the nationalistic and vulgar strands points to the capacity for the internet to both connect closed minds and to keep them truly closed.  It is an ironic response in a migrant society.

 The simply confused. All of the above strands will be evident in these responses to some degree. It is characterised by the ad nauseam references to imperial honours, and illustrated in one Fairfax opinion piece that, on the one hand, actually said something sensible and even supportive of Prince Charles, but then, almost as if surprised by this, concluded he would have made a suitable candidate for an Australian knighthood. Prince Charles was made a knight in the Order of Australia in 1981! Never let historical accuracy get in the way of political rhetoric.  A Murdoch opinionist demanded to know why the Queen had to approve changes to the rules of the Order, in a casebook example of never letting actual knowledge about the Order get in the way on forthright opinionising.

These responses reveal much about the people who use these tropes. They suggest that the media savvy anti-knighthood warrior is one who is thoroughly and consciously modern (although in a post-modern world, does that make them already anachronistic?), who is truly, really, 100% Australian (with no qualms about living on stolen land), who is never short of a clever phrase, sharp response or derisory smirk to anything that offends them, who can easily hurl the rude or tasteless witticism at any time, who may have a special reserve of bile for Tony Abbott and/or any or all current or former elected office holders, and who, perhaps more than anything else, wears their mind-numbing ignorance of the Australian honours system or honours generally as a badge of pride.

Some things have not been evident in the responses, most notably any actual knowledge of the Australian honours system, any real signs of actual republicanism or monarchism, and perhaps most disconcertingly in a liberal democracy, anyone brave enough to stick their head above the parapet and question, let alone dispute, the abolition. The reported response from the leader of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy saying the abolition was simply revenge by a republican for 1999 may contain some shard of truth, but it essentially conforms to a rhetorical framework set up by the abolitionists in which such responses can be cast as fuddy-duddyism and turned to support their characterisations of those who don’t agree with them. Passion in the face of derision will only ever encourage the tormentor.

This post is not a defence of Tony Abbott’s approach to the Australian knightage. As Prime Minister, Abbott mishandled this whole issue from the beginning. The surprise announcement of their restoration, apropos of nothing at the time, was a bad omen from a man who had promised a ‘no surprises’ government. The quality of the early appointments seemed to overcome this surprise until another surprise, an Australia Day appointment of Prince Philip as a knight. Australia Day is the nationalist’s day, when they try and pretend there was no invasion in 1788, and so their online response at what they perceived as the hijacking of their day became the story du jour in the ‘old’ media, who needed to do little to turn such frothing content into printed words other than give instructions to some cartoonists. They had such fun with that that it became impossible for anyone to defend the appointment without also being subject to a self-righteous bollicking in the middle-class press.

By the time Abbott tried a tactical retreat on the issue by returning the right to nominate knights to the Order of Australia Council (from which it should never have been removed), he had inflicted a grievous wound on the third knightage. More than anything else, the interaction (or failure of interaction) between Abbott’s office and a content-hungry media revealed to the public the shemozzle within the political classes. The knightage had been dangerously politicized, worse in a way than the old honours-for-mates knighthoods of the 1980s that finally killed off the first knightage. The Order of Australia Council could have made recommendations for knighthoods after this point, but seems to have instead opted for silence.

Tony Abbott had a chance to invest some of his political capital, while it still existed early in his term, in a broad public discussion of the Australian honours system and how it could be improved (and there’s plenty to improve). That would have provided a context for introducing the idea of restoring knighthoods, and ensured a more reasoned discussion. Even if the outcome had not been a restoration then, it would have opened up discussion about appropriate means to honour achievement and merit in ways that are more inspirational than the current system and that may, one day, have provided a space for restoring the knightage. Rather, a hubristic moment was allowed to prevail over an opportunity for introducing a considered and enduring change that could appeal to tradition, to moderation and to the generations who had not experienced the ignominy of the end of the first knightage and were curious about the idea.

Instead, we have now had to endure the degrading spectacle of the mainstream and online media yet again participating in and shaping the hunt, well-blooded by the recent years of priming the leadership battles with which the political classes have been amusing themselves. Bringing down a prime minister is now passé, but nasty personal attacks on Prince Philip, criticisms and sly imputations that people such as Dame Marie Bashir or Sir Peter Cosgrove were just grubs with their snouts in the trough, and any number of ever-more bizarre conspiracy theories, especially online, really showed an ugly, callous and spiteful element in the character of our country and, indeed, in many of us.

Abbott’s method of restoring the Australian knightage proved to be unacceptable, and in this his cryptic personality played a role. However, the virulence of the anti-knights is cast from the same mould, as is the pseudo-casual and smug manner with which Prime Minister Turnbull dispatched the third knightage. If only one lesson is learned from this whole fiasco, it should be that neither politicians nor the media (that is, the political classes) should be allowed anywhere near the honours system, especially in shaping the system and its rules, or participating in the nomination or assessment components of that system, although they should remain eligible for awards. As it is, any chance to review and ‘modernise’ (in the current lexicon) the Australian honours system now seems to have been lost for another generation.

And what we are now left with? Dame Quentin Bryce, Dame Marie Bashir, Sir Peter Cosgrove, Sir Angus Houston and Prince Philip, and by implication Sir Ninian Stephen and Prince Charles (from the second knightage) none of whom were politicians, and who each have been recipients of the highest honour bestowed by the Commonwealth of Australia, have had their reputations questioned, their dignity trashed and even their physical appearance ridiculed by an ugly mob sharing the shadenfreude delights of the political classes, in our very own Australian virtual Place de la Revolution. That’s cause enough for national shame, but even worse is that the ugly mob was us. No-one defended our actual, living, feeling ‘knights and dames’. They were, by our silence, thrown to the arm chair revolutionaries, and we all played the role of Madame Defarge, click, click, click. By our silence we let it happen to them, and no amount of disruptiveness, agility, nimbleness or modernity will hide that.  It was an expression of sublime anachronism.

 Vale the Third Knightage.

Anzacery, or, Who Is Not Invited To The Great War Centenary?

I watched the commemorations last weekend broadcast from Albany in Western Australia marking the centenary of the departure of the first convoy of ships taking Australian and New Zealand troops to the war. The streets were filled with thousands of cheering onlookers as returned and serving army, navy and air force personnel paraded with banners flying and bands playing. The sun was shining, the old town was all dressed-up, the waters of Prince Royal Harbour and King George Sound were sparkling in a truly inspiring setting. It was all very rousing.

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But it all left me with an odd feeling. Something was missing, but what? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t the sunlit scene, the delight of the crowds or the pride of the marchers. It was something else, something about the way the images were being framed for the television audience, something about the story being told. I wondered if the townsfolk and the marchers knew how their participation was being presented?

Then flicking through the weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald two stories caught my attention. The first, a commentary on page 11 upon the Albany commemorations, noted that Banjo Paterson had been in the convoy as a ‘special commissioner’ reporting for the Sydney Morning Herald. Banjo was apparently an enthusiastic war correspondent for the paper, and wrote a typically evocative piece describing the departure from Albany. However, it was the final two paragraphs that caught my eye. Paterson’s reporting was ignored, his descendants had not been invited to the commemorations, and there were no official plans to honour or mark his connection to the anniversary. Good enough for a ten-dollar note portrait, but not for Anzac commemorations?

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Then on page 18 there was a report on a rarely-noticed event, the attack on a Broken Hill picnic train on new year’s day 1915 by two ‘Afghan’ cameleers that killed four people and wounded another ten. Local people wanted to commemorate the attack, but their requests for support from the official commemorative authorities in Canberra had been ignored. The local police, back in 1915, killed the cameleers, and the attack was reported in the press as a ‘Turk atrocity’. The local people’s retaliation including torching the German Club in Broken Hill, and preventing the fire brigades from extinguishing the fire.

Thinking back to the commemorations in Albany I began to pick at my unease. The dais from which the official speakers spoke was blazoned with the official “100 Years of Anzac” logo. I have been uneasy about this for some time, as it seems to cast the whole five years of war as a single event, almost predetermined, whose only real significance lay in its causing the creation of the Anzac story and, by implication, the birth of ‘the’ Australian ‘nation’. It follows, of course, that anything not connected to Anzac (especially this version) would not get a place in the “100 years of Anzac” story, and I began to see what was making me uneasy, and I began to see who was not in Albany.

The first, and most obvious missing historical actor, was any sense of British involvement. Australian Prime Minister Abbott once mentioned the British Empire in his speech, and New Zealand Prime Minister Key once referred to the Australian Imperial Force, but otherwise any sense that the convoy of a century ago was participating in a British imperial war, or that the departing soldiery had any sense of Britishness or being British subjects was completely erased from the event. When the laying of wreaths took place, there was eventually a call for the “British Ambassador” to take his turn. The whitewashing of Britishness from the commemorations was, to anyone with even a passing acquaintance of early 20th century Australian or New Zealand history (or current intra-Commonwealth diplomatic terminology), utterly bizarre and ahistorical.

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“100 Years of Anzac”, as well as being Britannically-amnesiac, also appears to have no interest in reconciliation with former enemies, except for a certain type of Turk. ‘Johnny Turk’, fighting from the trenches on the Gallipoli peninsula, has been reified as the noble adversary (perhaps has had to be) in order to explain the Anzac’s “loss” in that deadly battle. And, in the roll call of wreath layers was a Turkish diplomat. But, no one was called to represent those erstwhile enemies, the Germans (or the Austrians, Hungarians or Bulgarians). Ironically, that is who the soldiers in the convoy thought they were sailing off the fight. How the Ottoman armies later encountered by the Anzacs in Palestine and Mesopotamia will be represented is yet to be seen, but the historical inconvenience of the ‘Turk atrocity’ near Broken Hill doesn’t augur well.

turkey4h

The other missing actor from Albany was royalty. The Australian Crown was well represented by the Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove KC and the Governor of Western Australia the Honourable Kerry Sanderson AO, but in 1914 there was no Australian Crown, only a single unitary British Crown. The divisibility of the crown was an outcome of the war, but it was unheard off in 1914. Members of the royal family have been evident at war commemorations in Britain and Canada, but apparently have been subject to some sort of silent fatwah in Australia.

Army Aus 31a 2

The unease I felt watching the Albany commemorations picked up a similar unease I had felt watching two recent television series, Anzac Girls and The War That Changed Us, both shown on ABC. Both displayed very good production values and told entertaining stories, but at their heart they both conformed to the standard, orthodox, nationalist interpretation of the Great War that has prevailed since the 1960s.

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This interpretation could be called the ‘futilist’ view, and consists of five main points. One, the war was futile and had no actual purpose; two, the main protagonists were Australia (young, free, bronzed, Anzacs) and Britain (decayed, class ridden, pasty, Colonel Blimps) while the Germans and others were a bit of a side-show as ‘our boys’ valiantly fought the incompetent gin-sodden pommie generals; three, everyone on the home front was a pacifist trying to stop the war, either overtly or covertly; four, men only joined up for a ‘boy’s own’ adventure, they had no other meaningful reasons for doing so; and fifth, the few people who actually supported the war in Australia were hysterical imperialists who, by definition, were obviously not real Australians. It is a script straight out of British revisionist historian Alan Clark’s 1961 book, The Donkeys, with an Australian nationalist overlay.

GRG32_16_33_crop

This futilist approach leaves no space for any counter-narratives. It cannot account for, or even acknowledge, the shameful treatment of German Australians during the war. This national disgrace has never been faced, never accounted for, and still, I believe, forms a large but ignored historical scar. The centenary of the Great War could be a time to open our eyes to seeing this scar, to at least beginning a reconciliation and acknowledgement of our German Australian heritage. It could be a time to face the denigration and repression of German Australia that continued well into the 1920s. It could be a time of healing. It could be time when we might learn of any ‘honourable Germans’, like the Gallipoli Turks. It could be a time to question the war-time attribution of an innate Germanness to the royal family. However, the “100 Years of Anzac[ery]” seems it will be at best ambivalent about any questioning of the German-hating propaganda and rhetoric of a century ago. As the official slogan proclaims, “the spirit lives”.

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AntiwarMusic

The Anzacery of the “100 Years of Anzac”, it seems, is simply unable to cope with histories beyond the futilist view. It just can’t encompass Britishness, reconciliation with old enemies, royalty, a Turkishness beyond Gallipoli, even the descendants of Banjo Paterson. And this is the official commemorative body set up, funded and endorsed by the federal government in Australia. This is the official narrative of commemoration. What is unfolding before our eyes, it seems, and not unexpectedly, is a very limited and nationalistic version of history that, if not endorsed by the “100 Years of Anzac”, then it’s just not the true, real, actual history of the Great War (or rather, of the Anzacs).

It will be fascinating to see just who gets included and who gets excluded from this new official history, and even more fascinating to see the underground commemorations or anti-commemorations that arise among communities who don’t, can’t or won’t conform to the “100 Years of Anzac” official narrative. They might instead choose to mark the centenary of the Great War by trying to understand its consequences that we still live with today.

New-Australia-Map-3

References

Neil McMahon, ‘Poet sailed in to Anzac history’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1-2 November 2014, page 11

Damien Murphy, ‘First terror attack recalled’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1-2 November 2014, page 18

Damien Murphy, ‘Silver City Showdown’, Sydney Morning Herald News Review, 1-2 November 2014, page 28

‘Centenary of ANZAC: Albany Commemoration’, News, ABC1, 12:00-3:00pm, 1 November 2014, and blog

‘Anzac Girls’, Drama, ABC1, 10 October to 14 September 2014 (six episodes)

‘The War That Changed Us’, Documentary, ABC1, 19 August to 9 September 2014 (four episodes)

100 Years of Anzac: the spirit lives 2014-2018, official website

Alan Clark, The Donkeys: A history of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915, Hutchinson & Co., London 1961

The Royal Family attending Commonwealth Great War commemorative services in Glasgow and in Liege

Scotland Secedes, Australia Looses its Flag: More Media Absurdity

The people of Scotland will vote in a referendum on the 18th September 2014 on the question “Should Scotland be an independent country”. Should the “Yes’ case be carried, some Australian opinion writers have happily concluded that this will mean the Australian flag will have to be changed.

 

The Scottish Flag

The Scottish Flag

The Australian Flag

The Australian Flag

 

When Ireland left the United Kingdom in 1922, the Australian flag did not change. Why? Because the Union Jack displayed on the Australian flag does not represent a foreign country. It represents the union in Australia of people from Ireland, Scotland and England to create a new people. At first they were called British, then Austral-Britons, then Australians.

 

That uniting of three peoples that occurred here, not in the British Isles, made today’s multicultural Australia socially, culturally and politically possible. The Union Jack was the vexillological emblem invented in 1801 (thirteen years after British colonization of New South Wales began) to represent the union of the three kingdoms of Scotland, Ireland and England.

 

In Australia the people of those three kingdoms united with each other and with other peoples to form the new Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, and they chose the Union Jack in combination with the Southern Cross to portray both the success of that union and its future prospects under southern skies. Whether the date of adoption is 1903 or 1954 or any other year, the fact is that the Australian flag, as designed by Australian residents and adopted by Australian authorities, includes St Andrew’s Cross because of that history, not because any Scottish authority gave some permission for its use, a permission that could be withdrawn at any time.

 

An announcement of the adoption of the Australian-designed Australian Flag by Australian authority in 1901

An announcement of the adoption of the Australian-designed Australian Flag by Australian authority in 1901

 

Just as Ireland’s separation from the United Kingdom did not result in the Union Jack design, as used in either the Australian or British or any other flag, being changed by deleting the St Patrick’s Cross, so any separation of Scotland from the United Kingdom in 2014 will not lead inevitably to deleting St Andrew’s Cross from the Australian or British or any other flag.

 

I am a sixth generation ‘Old Australian’, as the current condescension terms it, with an ancestry that, from the time each stepped of the boat, is 42% English, 37% Irish, 9% Scottish, 8% Welsh and 4% Indian. They all arrived before 1901, and gave me a genealogy that is purely the product of Empire – a genealogy that is representative of many Australians (see 2011 census data ). I can never “go back” to anywhere, to any land of ancestral purity. I will only ever be ‘miscegenated’, for which I am ever thankful. To be Australian is to be more than some generic Anglo-Celtic- Subcontinental blend but at the same time it is not to forget any of those ancestries and how their fusion creates the whole.

 

The Scots are in the Australian DNA, and we have every right to care about the referendum and its outcomes, to look deeper than the Braveheart nationalism of Australian media opinionistas. Australia’s Scotland, as distinct from Scotland’s Scotland, as represented in the jack’s union of crosses on the Australian flag, stands for a sort of wholeness which nationalists either cannot understand or, if they do, to which they are antagonistic.

 

While I wish the Scots all the best in whichever course they choose in the referendum, I can’t help thinking that I would feel somewhat diminished by a ‘Yes’ victory that I can only see, from my partly Scottish-descended but not Scottish perspective, as a triumph for a myopic, excluding twentieth century nationalism.

 

In Australia, over several generations, the unity of three peoples opened the way to more people joining that union, that common wealth, and creating a new people. Without that original union could the success of the 1967 referendum, which metaphorically continued the expansion of that union, ever have been imagined or made possible? These are the patterns I discern, that is the future I want to continue, that I imagine will endure under the Federation Star.

 

The specifications for the Australian flag, including those of each of the four component crosses - St Andrew's, St Patricks's, St George's and the Southern.

The specifications for the Australian flag, including those of each of the four component crosses – St Andrew’s, St Patricks’s, St George’s and the Southern, and the Federation Star

White Australia was the great cul-de-sac in Australian history. Derisively championing the erasure of St Andrew’s Cross from the Australian flag is, on the one hand a fairly cheap shot at a prime minister who gauchely stated, in somewhat mangled phraseology, that while he did not seek to tell the Scots how to vote he saw a value and a freedom in unity; and on the other hand reveals a rather pathetic yearning for the comforts of that old white nationalism.

 

The only certainty in the gleeful assertions that the Australian flag will have to be changed if Scotland decides to secede from the United Kingdom is the romanticist desire to witness a satisfying humiliation of prime minister Tony Abbott. Schadenfreude is not an attractive emotion, even less so when displayed as ‘humour’.

 

Changing the Australian flag may or may not be an idea whose time has come, I don’t know. But trying to highjack the decision by the Scottish people on the future form of their state is about as contrived as it gets. Why not extend the logic by banning the use of the colour blue in the Australian flag on the grounds that it, too, seems to be derived from the blue field of the Scottish flag? Just as the humour is duplicitous, the argument is absurd.  Even some in the media seem to have realised this, with the Daily Mail Australia’s April Fools Day spoof of the whole story reprinted again this weekend.

 

'Scot-free' is how the Daily Mail describes this version of a post-referendum Union Jack

‘Scot-free’ is how the Daily Mail describes this version of a post-referendum Union Jack

Whatever the Scottish people decide on the 18th September, it will not provide any reason – logical, legal, political, rhetorical, vexillological – for tearing St Andrew’s Cross from the Australian flag, and symbolically ripping the idea of unity in diversity from the body politic of our commonwealth.

 

References in chronological order:

‘Tony Abbott criticized over comments opposing Scottish independence’, ABC News Online, 17 August 2014

Letters, ‘Don’t take the low road to Scotland’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August 2014, page 15

Letters, ‘Flagging problems with Scottish independence’, Crikey, 19 August 2014

‘Could the Scottish vote for independence lead to a change in the Australian flag’, The Australian, 19 August 2014

Letters, (no title), Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August 2014, page 16

Simon Leo Brown, ‘Could the Scottish independence referendum change Australia’s flag?’, ABC News Online, 22 August 2014

John Birmingham, ‘From Australia with Love: Double-o Credlin to the rescue’, Sydney Morning Herald News Review, 23-24 August 2014, page 40

Paul Harris,’Scot-free: Union Jack gets a Yes vote makeover: Secret Government papers reveal how flag will look if Scotland votes for independence'”, Daily Mail Australia, 24 August 2014, originally published 1 April 2014

Why knighthood matters in 21st century Australia

(inspired by snatches of a conversation I overheard between Alain de Botton and Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National Breakfast 26th March 2014, and written the next day)

 

The Prime Minister’s recent decision to resume nominating pre-eminent Australians to the Queen for the award of a knighthood or damehood within the Order of Australia has attracted the usual loud but confused and largely ignorant response from the political-media classes. Beyond the noise and movement, however, the ‘return’ of knighthood offers us, as a whole society, a comely mirror for reflection upon the role of citizenship in the early 21st century.

 

At its simplest, the resumption of knighthood (and within that collective noun I include both knights and dames and their partners) is the rational action of the state turning the example of modern celebrity to its own purposes. The pre-nominal title Sir or Dame confers upon its recipients a certain status that conveys a message to the citizenry at large that in the lived actions of these knights and dames can be seen the values of a ‘good citizen’. It also contains the message that every citizen can achieve this status, signified by the title, by how they choose to live their life, by how they choose to give back to their communities and society over their own personal advancement, because it’s the right thing to do.

http://www.indianewsbulletin.com/nri-asha-khemka-dazzles-in-saree-at-buckingham-palace-as-prince-charles-awards-her-damehood

Leading British educational entrepreneur  Dame Asha Kemka after her investiture in 2013: “I am finding it difficult to express how proud and honoured I feel.  I am immensely grateful to Britain for recognising my strengths and enabling me to achieve my dreams.  But I will never forget my Indian roots.”  Image and quote: http://www.indianewsbulletin.com/nri-asha-khemka-dazzles-in-saree-at-buckingham-palace-as-prince-charles-awards-her-damehood.

In this sense, knighthood is contrasted with the meaninglessness of celebrity in our times that is conferred through the media, by for example television programs marketed as talent, weight loss, cookery and other quests in which the celebrities are celebrated for little more than being celebrated. Their celebrity celebrates vacuousness. It is celebrity for its own selfish sake, is generally fleeting, and involves the celebrity being cast aside, as soon as their ratings begin to fall, in favour of a new celebrity. The private commercial interests of the media owners remain, of course, hidden in this vacuity.

 

This meaningless celebrity can also be seen in the practice, well known in academic circles, of external people, usually business people, being invited to lecture to students for a semester or some other short period and in return being granted the temporary title of Adjunct Professor. For the temporary academic, the true value of this is the possibility (often realized) of then styling themselves Professor Smith (or whomever) for the rest of their life, which they use to gain a certain professional cache within their own circles and, more importantly, promote their private commercial interests to prospective clients. Whether this devalues the expertise of an actual professor in the real academy is rarely, if ever, discussed in public.

 

As notions of citizenship have to evolve in the rapidly changing world of the early 21st century, the core values of knighthood, which are explicitly and traditionally about service to others, beyond the self, for a greater good, are the values that the state will seek, indeed needs, to articulate and promote in the state’s own self interest. These values support the ideals of social cohesion, and run counter to the fragmentation of those ideals that is inherent in the cults of mindless self-obsessed commercial celebrity described above. The strategic and controlled use of the crown and knighthood by the state is a clear example of the state learning from the example of celebrity, observing its strengths and defects, and then turning that learning to its own advantage through the ideal of knighthood as meaningful celebrity, or celebration full of meaning.

http://www.mikael-melbye.com/en/gallery/figures/index.php?pid=2

Danish artist Mikael Melbye painted this self-portrait in 2006 after he was appointed a knight in Denmark.  In revealing the insignia of knighthood in his portrait he invites the viewer to “encounter all that is not revealed right away”, an encounter far deeper than mere celebrity.  Image and quote http://www.mikael-melbye.com/en/gallery/figures/index.php?pid=2

The resumption of appointments to the Australian knighthood is a clear sign, for those who take the time to actually read it, that the state, always dynamic, is evolving in the new circumstances of the new century. It is the ultimate example of egalitarianism because every citizen can aspire to appointment through truly outstanding and inspiring actions. Such actions must clearly place the community and society above the self and the personal. The new knighthood speaks to the real meaning of commonwealth in the early 21st century. It illustrates the state’s need to use the crown’s status as the sole ‘fount of honour’ to harness the values encompassed by the ideals of knighthood to fostering a socially cohesive and dynamic society suited to the demands of the new century.

 

Of course some of the political-media class don’t like it. They forge words such as medieval, colonial, British and bunyip into weapons to hurl at their opponents, in substitute for any actual argument. The very idea of an Australian knighthood directly affronts their self-assumed right to mediate between the citizenry and its leaders. This is illustrated in claims that the Order of Australia is already much admired and perfectly egalitarian as it is, as though putting the title after the recipients name rather then before is somehow more ‘equal’! It remains a moot point whether, had the new knights and dames been required to only use their post-nominal letters of AK or AD rather than their pre-nominal titles of Sir or Dame, the equity criterion set by the gatekeepers would have been satisfied.

http://www.today.com/id/17854722/ns/today-today_entertainment/t/bow-his-demigodness-bono-knighted/

Irish citizen Bono was appointed an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2007, and is shown here after he received his honour at the British Embassy in Dublin.  Instead of the pre-nominal title of Sir, he can use the post-nominal letters KBE.  Image http://www.today.com/id/17854722/ns/today-today_entertainment/t/bow-his-demigodness-bono-knighted/

In their noisy objections they reveal they have long ago captured the higher levels of the Order – and it works perfectly well for them, promoting their own in a cosy self-deception of faux egalitarianism that lets them then lecture the rest of use for not being Australian enough. It also reveals a distinct lack of any critical thinking, an intellectual enslavement to quaint old ideas of 1990s Australian nationalism and its obsession with all things British that blinds them to the evolving character of citizenship, the state and the crown in Australia that is occurring all around them.

I’m no fan of the government’s policies on the environment or asylum seekers, and the method by which the prime minister made his decision will be open to question from within his own ranks, but the actual decision is exactly right for this time. The ‘return of knights and dames’, as some media commentators and some politicians insistently, deliberately and incorrectly term it, is actually a logical and rationale response by the state to the evolving ideas of citizenship in a culture that is awash with opinionated media ‘reporting’ devoid of any real meaning (or even reportage for that matter).

 

http://www.123rf.com/photo_5361099_word-cloud-concept-illustration-of-chivalry-knighthood.html

Malaysian artist Kheng Guan Toh created this word cloud for ‘knighthood’ in 2006, illustrating a depth of emotion inherent within the concept of knighthood that is capable of evoking a greater sense of connection through service.  Image http://www.123rf.com/photo_5361099_word-cloud-concept-illustration-of-chivalry-knighthood.html

The values of the contemporary knighthood that will now develop in Australia will have the capacity to provide both inspiration and aspiration to service beyond the self in the interests of a larger common good. It will provide a pathway to social cohesion in which service and duty provide an alternative to materialism and cults of individualism. It also has the capacity to provide, at least for some people, an ethical secular alternative to the exclusive and, in some cases, tainted morality of organised religion. It will enrich the Order of Australia by daring it to live up to its purpose as an ‘order of honour’

 

The prime minister’s decision is courageous, and I don’t mean that in any Appleby-esque way. Welcome Dame Quentin and Sir Peter, and those who come after you, in making the Australian knighthood a crucible for forging the inclusive, cohesive and inspirational citizenship we need for the new century. I support the resumption of the Australian knighthood.

Inevitability: There’s Nothing Inevitable About Australia’s Future King

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[1].

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?

Well, maybe some things are inevitable!

Well, maybe some things are inevitable!

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”.[2]

One of my favourite philosophers, the Canadian John Ralston Saul, argues that “Inevitability is the traditional, final justification for flailing ideologies”.[3]  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.”[4]

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.[5]  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.[6]  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!

John Ralston Saul's model of a civil society.  Source On Equilibrium

John Ralston Saul’s model of a civil society. Source On Equilibrium

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.[7]

This cartoon, titled 'Good Grief', appeared in a 2009 article on a republican website.  The article was titled 'The trajectory of the Australian republican debate', and included the statement "A republic is certainly not inevitable".  The cartoon, however, suggests an inevitable outcome.  Image Independentaustralia

This cartoon, titled ‘Good Grief’, appeared in a 2009 article on a republican website. The article was titled ‘The trajectory of the Australian republican debate’, and included the statement “A republic is certainly not inevitable”. The cartoon, however, by projecting present conflict backwards presents an inevitable outcome. Image Independentaustralia

Consequences

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[8].  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[9].  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.[10]

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.

Australia's previous Georgian era: King George VI framed in wattle blossom on a postage stamp issued between 1938 and 1945.  Will postage stamps still exist by the time our next Georgian period begins?

Australia’s previous Georgian era: King George VI framed in wattle blossom on a postage stamp issued between 1938 and 1945. Will postage stamps still exist by the time our next Georgian period begins?

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.

References

  • 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”&gt;Other Writings, 2004

[1] ‘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

[2] E.H. Carr, What is History?, Second Edition, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth , 1987 (originally published in 1961), pages 96-97.

[3] 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).

[4] ‘History Can Bite’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1st July 2000 (see also references).

[5] Hugh Mackay, ‘Why battlers gave it their kiss of death’, Sydney Morning Herald, 8th November 1999: 7

[6] 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

[7] Rick Feneley and Angelo Risso, ‘The king and I … minutes, and worlds apart’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24th July 2013, page 1

[8] 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.

[9] see, for an economic perspective on this conjunction, George Megalogenis, The Longest Decade, Scribe, Brunswick 2006

[10] A good illustration of the myopic nature of the political class is evident on the University of Queensland Republic Club (more toponymic irony) web page, which was carrying advertising for the Rudd government’s PNG Solution on 25th July 2013: UQ Republic Club