For Marriage Equality – Thank You

Wednesday 15 November 2017.  The results are in.  61.6% said Yes, 38.4% said No, .02% were invalid, 79.5% turned out, 20.5% were not interested.  133 Commonwealth electorates said Yes, 17 said No.

The question of whether we are citizens or foreigners has been answered.  To everyone who voted Yes, a great big THANK YOU.  I feel I can once again begin to become part of our commonwealth.

Most people voted YES

To those who voted No, please don’t succumb to despair.  We are not going to go away, but we can all try and share this place without rancour.  Draw upon our shared traditions of valuing intimate relationships, of the importance of being with the ones we love.  These are common traditions we define by our actions, and which institutions can support – not the other way around.

As I return home on my daily commute the train crawls through the surprising heartland of the No vote, Western Sydney.  I watch as the suburbs pass by, and wonder if this is now a foreign country?  No 38% here, but 70%, and more … do they all really despise us that much, I wonder, all too ready to Manus or Nauru us if given the chance?

But I resist.  That’s too simple.  It is time to end of this ‘foreigner’ bullshit.  What began with the political classes failed attempt to cast the Queen as a nasty foreigner in the 1990s has descended into a sort of cannibalism as the same political class eats itself in the current citizenship fiasco.  Their brazenness in claiming today’s victory as theirs is breath-taking, but true to form.

If there is any hope of redemption among our elected, it lies with Dean Smith, Penny Wong, Louise Pratt, Janet Rice, all from the supposedly red-neck outer states of Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland.  The centre of gravity is moving.

61.6% of you said Yes, we are fellow citizens.  We do have a right to this commonwealth.  We do belong.  That is powerful.  Even if you voted No, there will be space and time to reflect and maybe see things differently.  But now, it’s time to for all of us open our arms to all the other excluded, to undo the foreignising of the past 30 years.  For that, we all need to come together as equals in our diverse commonwealth.

Wednesday 15 November 2017 shows we can do that, if we choose to.

The union of two consenting adults to the exclusion of all others

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Vote Yes, because it’s our commonwealth too

‘Yes’ banners flying in Custom House Square at Circular Quay, Sydney | photo mrbbaskerville 30 August 2017

Today I voted Yes in the same-sex marriage referendum plebiscite postal survey.  So did my partner of nineteen years.  The day before we attended our daughter and son-in-law’s baby shower.  They are married.  A grand-daughter is on the way.

The words in the survey, just as in the poll above, asks if the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry.  But is that what the question really asks?  Or is it asking whether we are citizens or foreigners?  If the survey says No, who next will be subject to a ‘survey’ like this?  Your families, your friends, your neighbours, your colleagues.  What rights of a citizen will be given or taken away like this?  Australians All, it’s now in your hands.  Make your choice, Yes or No.  Are we citizens or are we foreigners?  Is it our commonwealth too?

‘Yes’ banners, corner of Alfred Street and Phillip Street, Circular Quay, Sydney | photo mrbbaskerville 30 August 2017

 

Ahistorical history on the run: Section 44(i) of the Australian Constitution

Recently there has been a lot of media hyperventilating about federal parliamentarians needing to check their citizenship status and declare they are purely Australian, without any taint of dual-citizenship.[i]  As usual, little of the pitchfork commentary is informed by history.

When the Australian constitution was drafted in the 1890s, allegiance was given to the Crown, not to a territory.  We all shared the status of British subjects, and a person born in Australia could be elected to parliament in Britain, New Zealand, Canada and other places, and vice-versa.  There was no need for renunciations or denunciations of allegiance.  Canadian-born Labor MP King O’Malley, for example, Minister for Home Affairs, a founder of the Commonwealth Bank and of Canberra among other things, could be a member of the federal parliament because he was a British subject, and therefore not the liege of a ‘foreign power’ in breach of Section 44.  There are numerous examples.

A lost world, bigger but now foreignised and forgotten.

Our world was so much bigger then.  Once upon a time, a person born in Australia could work, travel, study and live anywhere the Queen reigned.  Now we are confined to the continental high water mark.  The post-World War Two nationalist victories that are celebrated in orthodox Australian history books now seem like one big own-goal, and we clearly are not living happily ever after.

Certificate of Naturalisation, as used 1955-1970

Post-war nationalism began with the dominions adopting citizenship acts – Canada in 1946, Australia in 1948 and so on.  However, dominion citizens also remained British subjects.  But, that dual-world soon began to shrink.  Australia’s Department of External Affairs changed to Foreign Affairs in 1970.  Britain abandoned the Commonwealth for Europe in 1973.  Australia removed Australian citizens’ British Subject status in 1984.  The High Court ruled in 1999 that Britain (and all other countries) had become ‘foreign powers’ so a dual citizen became, under Section 44, subject to a foreign power.  For this ‘judicial-nationalism’, Section 44 was in interesting divertissement for years.[ii]  Indignant talk of vestigial, archaic, unjust, obscure and antiquated law buttressed the arguments of political nationalists and continued to underpin our shrinking horizons into the early 21st century.

The external becomes weirdly foreign: Canberra Times, 7 November 1970: 1.  Mr McMahon was born in Australia, and so never had to deal with being cast as a ‘foreigner’.  He later became 20th prime minister, following six former PMs born elsewhere in the Empire or Commonwealth and one in a ‘foreign’ country.

Media commentators have blithely advised “just amend s44 by referendum” so that dual-citizens are eligible to be federal parliamentarians.[iii]  It would just be an easy tidying-up.  They appear unaware that we’ve been living through an extended period of foreignising anyone and anything ‘not like us’ (whatever that is).

The chronology continues.  Through the 1990s republican nationalists cast the Queen as an indulgent foreign overlord, in the 2000s Little Australia nationalists cast boat people as invading foreigners, and in the 2010s the list has just gotten fatter and longer.  Foreigners are everywhere, infesting the homeland and now we have a Home Office to root them out and expel them from our pure heart land.  This week the bourgeois nationalists at Fairfax have resurrected the 1990s Queen-as-foreigner motif[iv], while the boofhead nationalists indulged in ugly schadenfreude at the number of federal MPs having to check their nationality.[v]  Today, King O’Malley would either be barred at the gates, locked-up on an (ironically) foreign island or chucked out.

(left to right) The Governor General Lord Denman, Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, Her Excellency Lady Denman and Minister for Home Affairs King O’Malley, at the formal naming and foundation of Canberra. All were born overseas, but none were considered ‘foreigners’. Image, still from NFSA 9382

The only people who seem to have much historical awareness are some letter writers and online commenters, who make the same point as I have in my second paragraph.  Some of them have questioned how New Zealand, Canada or Britain can really be ‘foreign’ cultures to us, ideas that likely smack of subversion for today’s authoritarian nationalists.  Their arguments echo those of CANZUK for creating new ties between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.[vi]  Technology now triumphs geography.  But should they be careful?  The new Home Office may already have spots reserved for them in Nauru and Manus.

The Crossroads, Kingston, Norfolk Island with former remote detention facilities in the background. Photo mrbbaskerville 7 June 2009

I think we are at a crossroads.  The old post-1945 nationalism of the Anglophone world is dead, or at least dying, along with its younger Neoliberal sibling.[vii]  It is a time to think differently as the Indo-Pacific returns to centre-stage.  A century ago, the whole British world had to re-invent itself amongst the residues of the Great War, and today, amidst more recent post-war residues spaces for another re-invention are opening.  New histories are needed for new futures.

To continue on as if nothing has changed invites a referendum to change Section 44 (just imagine, for a moment, the No case against ‘foreigners’ sitting in parliament), and more lofty legal interpretations of Section 44 that, effectively, maintain a stalemated nationalism.  Perhaps, instead of assuming Section 44 is the problem, we need to ask ourselves whether we have been so traduced by nationalist-induced fear of the ‘foreign’ that we are forgetting our own histories and foreignising our own past?  How else to explain a centralising, militaristic, authoritarian Home Office?

An old tradition of antipathy to militarised over-reach in British and British-descended cultures – now reduced to a forgotten/foreignised/museumised history in Australia? ‘The Common wealth ruleing with a standing Army‘, Frontispiece to Thomas May’s “Arbitrary Government Display’d, in the tyrannick usurpation of the Rump Parliament”, 1683, British Museum collections

Parliament could define the phrase ‘foreign power’, for Section 44 purposes, to exclude Commonwealth countries.  As well as honouring the original intent, it will also recognise our long, complex and continuing history of multi-generational migration between Commonwealth countries. Most of the reported ‘problems’ of dual-citizenship are intra-Commonwealth, suggesting a foreclosing amnesia about the larger world we once inhabited.[viii]

Perhaps that small change might even lead to reducing vitriol directed at people and things ‘not like us’, now fashionably tarred in high offices and the media as pejoratively ‘foreign’?  If not, I fear the day when all but those with a one hundred percent First Fleet ancestry will be denounced as foreign – and even they will be suspect.

Who, if any, are the ‘foreigners’?  Queen Elizabeth II with the Commonwealth’s women prime ministers: from Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina (left), from Australia, Julia Gillard (second right) and from Trinidad & Tobago, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, during the opening of 2011 CHOGM in Perth, 28 October 2011. Photo credit: John Stillwell/PA Wire

[i] Rosie Lewis, ‘MPs rush to confirm true-blue credentials’, The Australian, 19 July 2017; Tom Minear, ‘Greens Party loses another politician … Greens Senator Ludlum exposed as a Kiwi’, Daily Telegraph, 19 July 2017; Lorraine Finlay, ‘Greens resignations show a need to change dual citizenship requirements’, The Conversation, 19 July 2017; Alle McMahon, ‘Australian politicians born overseas jump to clarify citizenship’, ABC News online, 19 July 2017

[ii] John Kalokerinos, Who May Sit?: An examination of the parliamentary disqualification provisions of the Commonwealth Constitution, Faculty of Law, ANU 2000, https://www.aph.gov.au/binaries/senate/pubs/pops/pop36/kalokerinos.pdf , accessed 20 July 2017

[iii] Prof George Williams, quoted in Amy Remeikis, ‘MPs scramble to confirm citizenship’, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July 2017: 6; William Bowe, ‘Section 44 is a sticky wicket in need of reform’, Crikey, 19 July 2017; for a somewhat more nuanced article see Adam Gartrell, ‘Allegiance rule is a relic but we’re stuck with it’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 July 2017: 5;

[iv] Cathy Wilcox, untitled cartoon, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July 2017: 17

[v] Derryn Hinch, ‘I am not in allegiance to a foreign power and I have proof’, Crikey, 19 July 2017

[vi] CANZUK International, http://www.canzukinternational.com , accessed 20 July 2017

[vii] there are many examples to cite, just two recent being Ross Gittins, ‘History’s pendulum is changing course’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 July 2017: 18-19, which quotes The Economist magazine “the neo-liberal consensus has collapsed”; Bernard Keane, ‘The surprisingly quick death of neoliberalism in Australia is underway’, Crikey, 21 June 2017

[viii] Of the 222 federal parliamentarians in March 2017, 18 (8%) were born in a Commonwealth country and 6 (0.4%) were born in a ‘foreign’ country: http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/Parliamentary_Handbook/mpsbyplc , accessed 21 July 2017

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.

Eating our Coat of Arms: imagining a Commonwealth Cuisine

The idea of eating Australia’s coat of arms occupied some media attention over the 2013 Australia Day long weekend when a fast food chain marketed its ‘coat of arms burger’ (rather confusingly as ‘a new anthem that you eat’).  As is often the case in such discussions, ideas of what constitutes a coat of arms were rather hazy.  For this article, it means the whole design, known as the full achievement.

What was meant as edible in the above case was the supporters of the Commonwealth Arms, the kangaroo and emu (reduced to a meat patty).  It apparently did not include the black swan in the Western Australia quarter.  The lions in the New South Wales and Tasmania quarters, and the piping shrike in the South Australia quarter seem unlikely culinary items.  The wattle sprays usually depicted with Arms might contain foods such as wattle seed and wattle flour, but they weren’t included in the patties.

Coat of Arms of Her Majesty in Right of the Commonwealth of Australia, granted by Royal Warrant in 1912

Coat of Arms of Her Majesty in Right of the Commonwealth of Australia, granted by Royal Warrant in 1912

The Arms of the states and territories set out a veritable degustation: Queensland has sugar cane, wheat, beef, lamb and venison; New South Wales has wheat and kangaroo; Tasmania has apples, hops and fresh water; Victoria has kangaroo, olives and corn; South Australia has wheat, vines and citrus fruit; Western Australia has kangaroo and swan; Northern Territory has kangaroo, conch and cockles; ACT has swans and rose and Norfolk Island has kangaroo and laurel (bay leaf).

The inclusion of edible elements in national coats of arms is a feature of some three quarters of Commonwealth countries.  The Bahamas has a blue marlin and a conch; Barbados has sugar cane and dolphin; Canada has maple and rose; Cayman Islands has pineapple and turtle; Dominica has banana; Grenada has roses, corn and banana; Guyana has sugar cane and rice; Jamaica has pineapples and crocodile; St Kitts and Nevis has sugar cane and coconut; St Lucia has roses; Turks and Caicos Islands has conch and lobster; Kenya has chicken; Lesotho has crocodile; Mauritius has sugar cane and venison; South Africa has wheat; Namibia has oryx; Botswana has beef, sorghum and fresh water; Zimbabwe has fresh water and kudu; Zambia has maize; Tanzania has cloves; Ghana has cocoa; Seychelles has tortoise, coconuts and swordfish; Bangladesh has rice; Malaysia has pinang (areca or betel nut); Maldives has coconut; Pakistan has wheat and tea; British Indian Ocean Territory has turtles; Ascension has turtles; Tristan da Cunha has lobsters; South Georgia has venison; New Zealand has wheat; Solomon Islands has crocodile, turtle and shark; Tuvalu has mussels and bananas; Cook Islands has flying fish; Fiji has cocoa, sugar cane, coconut and bananas; Samoa, Tonga, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Cyprus and Malta have olive branches.  The United Kingdom has roses, shamrocks and thistles.

Coat of Arms of Her Majesty in Right of Tristan da Cunha, assigned by Royal Warrant in 2002

Coat of Arms of Her Majesty in Right of Tristan da Cunha, granted by Royal Warrant in 2002

This list does not included representations of sheep as wool or a golden fleece rather than meat, or of horses.  Deer, as a metaphor for venison is included, as are thistles and other plants mainly known only to ‘wild food’ connoisseurs.  There are occasional examples of edible national emblems outside the Commonwealth, such as the olive branches of the Israeli Arms, or US state seals and other emblems, but they are uncommon.  More usual are agricultural implements, especially in former communist state emblems, but they are no longer common.

There are two rhetorical questions often asked: are Australians the only ones who eat their national symbols?  Does eating national symbols show disrespect for the symbols and/or the nation they represent?

As this quick survey shows, Australia is far from being alone in having edible and culinary symbols and elements in its national Arms.  In fact, a very diverse and tasty ‘Commonwealth menu’ could be prepared that should suit many gastronomic tastes, drawing upon wild and farmed animals and plants, spices, herbs, seafoods and sweets.  Perhaps this is an opportunity for a budding restaurateur?

The issue of disrespect or offence is more complex.  Eating a nice swordfish steak does not immediately bring the Seychelles to mind, yet it is one of their national heraldic beasts.  However, if a dish is listed on a café menu as a country’s ‘coat of arms’, do we defile their sovereignty by eating it?  Another fast food chain recently withdrew its ‘Virgin Mary’ labeled dish of chips with tomato flavouring after complaints that it (the name) was offensive to Catholics.  So, is it the denominating of a national coat of arms or a religious icon as a ‘food’ that is the problem?  After all, kangaroo meat is freely available in supermarkets and butchers, but I never seen it marketed as ‘Dexter Supporter’, or any sort of coat of arms.  Should the namers of new fast foods be scorned for their lack of cultural sensitivity, or should heraldists ‘piggyback’ on their view that any controversy generated by such names is free advertising and good for their bottom line, as a means to educate the public about national and community symbols?

A confusing culinary message?   Image by Andrew Leigh, Cosmos, 2008: http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/opinion/fry-me-kangaroo-down/

A confusing culinary message?
Image by Andrew Leigh, Cosmos, 2008: http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/opinion/fry-me-kangaroo-down/

None of the media commentary suggested that being offended by the marketing or eating of produce that is also represented in national symbols should be against the law.  A civic space remains for public debate and comment – and therefore opportunities to promote heraldic knowledge and understanding.

Do we, for instance, by some sense of appreciation for culinary heraldry, come to understand something of another culture when we knowingly eat its symbols?  Do we, in some primal sense, absorb something in the same way a warrior might have once eaten his defeated opponent’s liver (or other organs) to both honour and ingest his warrior spirit?

What if we slice and eat a cake with a national coat of arms depicted in the icing? Perhaps respect is shown or offence avoided more by the way a ‘heraldic food’ is served and consumed than by the way it is marketed?  Is leaving most of the swordfish steak on the plate, or using the armorial cake in a juvenile food fight, really where offence is given – to the fisher, the farmer, the cook, the cleaner, the rubbish tip attendant? Similarly, is the not uncommon practice of placing a coat of arms in a floor pattern, where it is walked on every day, disrespectful?  There are no simple answers, and it is important to understand the context for these issues.

Heraldically, however, there is an interesting question of why does food, or food sources, feature so prominently in British-influenced national heraldry?  We might suppose that it would be a feature of Mediterranean, Chinese, Indian, South East Asian or Middle Eastern heraldry, of cultures where me imagine cuisines are so much more exciting and adventurous than our own.  It is a question probably more suitable for debating over a long, slow lunch, and I look forward to any reader’s thoughts on these gustatory ‘brain food’ delights.  Bon appétit!

(Originally published in The Australian Heraldry Society’s Members’ Circular, No. 158, January-February 2013)

References:

‘Coat of Arms Burger Launch @ Grill’d, Shafto Lane, Perth CBD’, www.Perthfoodjournal.com

‘Royal Bunfight: Monarchists warn Grill’d will roo its menu’, MX, 21 January 2013, page 1

http://www.franchise.net.au/news/grill-d-criticised-for-coat-of-arms-burger

‘Advance Australian fare’, The Cook and The Curator – eat your own history, 26 January 2013,

http://blogs.hht.net.au/cook/advance-australian-fare

‘Stay in Touch: With a happy face and a sandwich to go’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4th February 2013, page 14

http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/first-world-problems