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

In Memoriam | Heritage at the Old Kings School, Parramatta 2002-2016

I hesitated to make this post one year ago, but now on the first anniversary it seems an apposite moment.  There are many good people working within the heritage system in New South Wales, often against overwhelming and depressing odds.  This story is part of our patrimony, to be remembered.

The days of ‘Yes Minister’ as an ironic statement from the enduring mandarin Sir Humphrey are long vanished.  In its stead is ‘Yes Minister’ as a statement of deference from a disposable short-term contractor.  The responsibility for the white-anting of public heritage management,  the dissipation of the NSW Crown estate, and the devaluing of heritage conservation as a proper role of the State and governments, has to be shared between those we have elected to high office, and we who elected them.  As one of the elect is reported to have said

The state government houses hundreds of back-office bureaucrats in prime … real estate with stunning views … historic, iconic and centrally located buildings are accessible only to government bureaucrats, with their heritage locked away from the public who own them … inefficient use of real estate … big government is a broken relic of a bygone era … we are to sell land in sites such as Parramatta.

Unwatched, the garden bough shall sway

This memorial notice is but another reflection on the continuing despoliation.

Unwatched, the garden bough shall sway,
The tender blossom flutter down,
Unloved, that beech will gather brown,
This maple burn itself away.[1]

[1] ‘In Memoriam AHH’, Alfred, Lord Tennyson 1849

Friday 22 April 2016 marked the final demise of the New South Wales’ state heritage agency’s life in the Old Kings School in Parramatta.  After just 14 years, and in recent years an alphabet soup of name changes, the once-great NSW Heritage Office has finally been interred in an anonymous office block beyond the railway line, its beautiful historic offices and their parkland setting cast aside as a mere extravagance.

Once was a library …

Once was a Heritage Council chamber …

I joined the NSW Heritage Office in 1997, moving with it to the Old Kings School in Parramatta on 17 December 2002.  The new Office was officially opened on 12 March 2003.  Three days later, Ben Chifley’s House in Bathurst was listed on the State Heritage Register.  I had worked on that listing, and it seemed an auspicious beginning.

It was a time of high hopes in the tardis-like Old Kings School, with its 1832 southern facades and 1906 northern facades encapsulating a fantastic early 21st century interior.  For the first time, there was a dedicated Heritage Library open to heritage professionals and the public, with a professional librarian on staff.  For the first time there was atmospheric Heritage Council Meeting Room from where the Council exercised its stewardship of a growing heritage estate in Australia’s oldest jurisdiction.

Time slows to standing-still on the 1832 facade …

… and the cloister falls silent on the 1906 facade

There were decent work spaces for a dedicated and professional staff of (mainly) young and enthusiastic public heritage officers.  Professional development, heritage education and community outreach were the order of the day.  Heritage had come of age, in that fantastically adapted heritage building that was itself a model and showcase of possible futures.  It was never empty, near quiet, always hosting public and community events, nourishing a living heritage as a part of a whole community.

The date stamp fades into cobwebbed archaeology …

Now, all is abandoned.

The Heritage Library, once an unparalleled collection of unique conservation studies and a source of expert research, now just an empty shell of vacant shelving.  The grand Heritage Council Meeting Room, once resounding with passionate debate, now fallen silent, only the sound of the wind to disturb the funereal gloom, or was that the walls whispering their memories while there was still someone to hear them?

Wandering the grounds of the Old Kings School, gardens bedraggled and overgrown, lawns rank and patchy, piles of pigeon droppings on the sandstone paving, autumn leaves swirling in unkempt nooks and crannies, it’s hard to believe that delegations from interstate and overseas once beat a path to this very place to see and learn the ways of an innovative and dynamic heritage system.

while the State of Things reveals a truth …

The garden wall where the emblem and the name of the NSW Heritage Office once proudly welcomed all, prised from the wall in 2007, just faint scars remaining.  Five short years, a golden age.  After that, nothing was the same.  I resigned in August 2008, my diary till then an endless round of staff farewells.  I thought my work was finished on my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the nomination of the Australian Convict Sites for inscription on the World Heritage List.  Luck and a remote Pacific island exile would prove otherwise.

Back in Parramatta, the beauty of ruins, their capacity to provoke the imagination, their embodiment in crumbling decay of the poetry of lives lived and yet to be dreamt.  But the melancholy and pain in the ruin of a great institution, so much so carelessly wasted. The windows of that lovely edifice stare blindly out, hooded as if ashamed of once visioning the shared patrimony of community, history, tradition, continuity, future.

The tender blossom flutter down …

Just 14 years, just 5 years.  The chill winds of the neoliberal revolution blow through the grounds of the Old Kings School.  As I stood in those dusty rooms and neglected grounds on that end-day on 22 April 2016, there are tears in my eyes, stung neither by mote nor impermanence but the tragic irony of mammon’s hand.

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.[1]

[1] ‘Ozymandias’, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

And today, one year later on 22 April 2017, the Old Kings School remains empty and forlorn, a wrecked monument to a monumental wreck.

… and a future marches onwards … Look on my works, Ye mighty, and despair

All photos by mrbbaskerville, 22 April 2016

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.”


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?


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.

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.


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.


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.


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).



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.

Honours for the honourably challenged

In early August 2013 I launched an ON-LINE PETITION (here) asking the incoming prime minister to review the Australian honours system.  The most interesting responses I received were along the lines “do we have one?”, “what’s an honours system?” and “I suppose we still use something British?”  This post is partly a response to these questions, and provides some other background information.

What is the ‘Australian Honours System’?

At its simplest, an ‘honours system’ means the ‘system’ (its not always particularly systematic) of various awards made to the citizens of a country to recognise meritorious or other outstanding service to the community.  They are generally divided (in British-descended societies) into civil, military and royal honours.  This post, and my petition, relates only to the civil honours.

The Australian Honours System commenced in 1975 when the Queen of Australia approved the establishment of the Order of Australia and the Australian Bravery Decorations.  Before 1975, Australians were eligible for and received British, or as they were then called, Imperial honours.  These began in Australia in 1869 when James Martin, the Premier of New South Wales, was appointed a Knight in the Order of St Michael and St George (an Order created especially for colonial politicians and public servants).

The Star and Collar of a Knight Grand Cross of...

The Star and Collar of a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Any Australian citizen can nominate any citizen or organization for an honour.  The federal, state and territory governments nominate the members of the Council of the Order of Australia that considers the nominations and recommends appointments.  The Governor-General, a State Governor or a Territory Administrator (or, if overseas, a High Commissioner or Ambassador) conducts the actual investiture ceremony, whereby a person is appointed to their honour.  Investitures usually take place in the autumn and spring of each year, usually in the relevant Government House.  A list of people honoured is issued every Australia Day (26th January) and every Queens Birthday (early June).

There are five grades within the Order of Australia, each signified by postnominals, or letters after the person’s name.  There are currently two knights of the Order of Australia (AK, Sir Ninian Stephen and Prince Charles) and no living dames (AD).  No new knights or dames have been appointed since 1984.  The next grade is Companion (AC), then Officer (AO), and then Member (AM), followed by the medal of the Order (OAM).

Ninian Stephen

Sir Ninian Stephen AK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are currently 55 different formal awards within the honours system, and these sites describe the current quite complex system used in Australia: It’s An Honour and Wikipedia

Some Issues

MeritThe Order of Australia was created as “an Australian society of honour for according recognition to Australian citizens and other persons for achievement or meritorious service”.  However, achievement and merit are not the same things.  Although merit is one of the two grounds for recognition, that merit is currently based on community esteem (through the community nomination system) rather than objectively achieved merit.  By ‘objective merit’ I mean merit achieved against a measurable standard, such as an Olympic gold medal, or a Nobel Prize in the arts or sciences, or appointment as Australian of the Year.  Community nomination provides the Order of Australia with its great strength of allowing the community to honour its own high achievers, but there is no guarantee that a Matthew Mitcham (Olympic gold medalist 2008) or an Elizabeth Blackburn (Nobel prize in medicine 2009) or a Mick Dodson (Australian of the Year 2009) will be recognized through the Order of Australia.

Matthew Mitcham, gold medal olympian - but meritorious enough for the Order of Australia?  Image Wikipedia

Matthew Mitcham, gold medal olympian – but meritorious enough for the Order of Australia? Image Wikipedia

The establishment of a new Order of Merit, based on measurable achievements in sports, arts, sciences and culture, would provide a better way to recognize meritorious achievement.  Such an Order would be based on a different logic to the Order of Australia, which could then clearly focus on community esteem as the basis for recognizing achievement.

 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  With constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples highly likely within the next few years (given all main political parties have given their support for a referendum on the issue), a significant symbolic marker would be the establishment of a new Order to recognize achievement in, by or for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Sir Douglas Nicholls was the first Aboriginal Australian to be knighted (1972), and the first to appointed a State Governor (1976).  Image SLSA

Sir Douglas Nicholls was the first Aboriginal Australian to be knighted (1972), and the first to appointed a State Governor (1976). Image SLSA

Whether Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would want such an Order created, what its name and rules would be, and so on, would a matter for discussion and preferably driven by indigenous communities.  The Australian Honours system, however, could provide a space that allows for such a new Order to be created.  The symbolism of creating such a new Order, especially if it takes place as an action arising from the achievement of constitutional recognition, would be a significant sign of the evolving maturity of the honours system and of the evolving place of Indigenous peoples within the broader Australian society.

 Heraldry.  The Canadian honours system includes the granting of coats of arms and other heraldic devices to individuals and corporate bodies.  Heraldry was introduced to the Canadian system in 1988 (when heraldic authority was formally patriated).  Heraldry provides a further nuance to the Canadian system as coats of arms are granted, not on the basis of achievement (through community nominations) or merit (through measurable standards) but on the basis of contribution to society (through a direct request to the Governor General).

The Canadian system has been very successful, using and developing visual symbols of beauty and identity that could also be available to Australians.  Canada’s heralds have created a new and exciting language of personal and communal symbols, using an ancient art form, which has been widely taken up by First Nations peoples, English and French speakers, and multicultural communities reminiscent of Australian society.  This capacity for promoting nation-building and social cohesion is one of the most innovative aspects of the Canadian honours system.

Heraldic honours allow a whole family to share an honour with the individual family member.  It also provides a companion to other honours that, unlike them, can be passed on to descendants as an inter-generational reminder of the original honouring in which descendants can take great pride.  Canadian heraldic honours are gender equal (that is, can descend from either parent to all children), and about 10% of all personal grants since 1988 have been to women.

The coat of arms of the Canadian Heraldic Authority, combining traditional Anglo-French design practices with Canadian native plants and animals and imagination.  Image CHA

The coat of arms of the Canadian Heraldic Authority, combining traditional Anglo-French design practices with Canadian native plants and animals and imagination. Image CHA

Heraldry also allows whole communities to be honoured and recognized, in a way that other forms of honours, with their focus on individuals, cannot.  This communal or collegiate aspect of heraldic honours means that community organizations, municipalities, public bodies and private corporations can be appropriately honoured.  Since 1988, 45% of all grants have been to such communal bodies.

The 2004 review of the British honours system recognized a need for collegiate or collective honours[1].  The Australian system is similarly focused on individuals, with no capacity for honouring achievement or merit by community or corporate organizations.  The inclusion of heraldry within the Australian honours system would make this possible.

 FederalismThe States used to have own honours systems, in a sense, within the Imperial honours system as they made their own recommendations for honours alongside the Commonwealth.  However, this independence was gradually lost with the creation of the Order of Australia, and the last State honours were recommended in 1989.

This paralleled a similar story in Canada where the provinces responded from 1966 by creating their own provincial honours systems.  By 2001 all ten provinces had their own honours.  This allows citizens whose achievements may never attract national attention to be honoured at a more intimate level, and for activities that may be significant in a local or even family context to be given proper consideration, especially when driven by community nominations.

Within the United Kingdom, Scotland retains its own honours in the form of the Order of the Thistle (established 1687).  The 2004 review of the British system concluded, after looking at the Canadian examples, that the British national honours system should be complemented with regional English, Scottish and Welsh honours to allow for a more equitable distribution of honours at the regional and local levels of society[2].  Encouraging State and Territory honours is consistent with Australia’s federal structure and should be encouraged for the same reasons as above.

The proposed new Order of St David in Wales.  Image BBC

The proposed new Order of St David in Wales. Image BBC

Too nationalistic?  The patriation of Australian honours since 1975 was driven by, among other forces, late 20th century nationalism and a drive for distinctively Australian symbols of identity.

One unfortunate side effect, especially it seems in recent years, has been a tendency for the awarding of honours to sometimes be an occasion for a certain xenophobia.  When Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar was appointed an honorary Officer in the Order of Australia in 2012, the Sydney Morning Herald letters page carried several letters complaining that this was an insult to Australians volunteering for charitable work, or that it was a cheap political point scoring exercise[3].  No-one disputed Tendulkar’s achievements or merit, but the undercurrent of bigotry was clear.  Our country was honouring a great sportsman, but some Australians were unable to see beyond his nationality or ethnicity.  Sixteen honorary appointments were made to citizens of other countries in 2011-12, such as Mr Sevee Charuruks and Ms Catherin Chua for restoration of the Sandakan war memorial in Sabah and assistance with commemorative services at the memorial.  None of these other appointments seemed to attract public opprobrium.  On the other hand, 5,900 Australians received appointments within the honours systems of other countries during 2011-12, with most coming from East Timor, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.  Words like hypocrisy come easily to mind, and sadly the honours authorities seemed to take no action to respond to the ugly reactions to the Tendulkar appointment.

Sachin Tendulkar being invested with the regalia of an honorary Officer of the Order of Australia.  Image SMH

Sachin Tendulkar being invested with the regalia of an honorary Officer of the Order of Australia. Image SMH

Not inclusive enough?  Another response to the Australian honours system was evident when the Queen’s Birthday honours list was announced in June 2013.  The Sydney Morning Herald letters page carried complaints that there were few ‘non-Anglo’ names on the list, while ‘non-Anglos’ make up a third of the population[4].  A check of the awards list shows a total of 607 awards within the Order of Australia were announced, of which 12% could be considered ‘non-Anglo’ names, although this hardly a scientific survey.  The annual reporting for the Order, as for other statistics in Australia generally, does not reveal the ethnicity of appointees (mainly because such statistics are not collected in the first place), and it is difficult to verify such complaints.

The most recent annual report dealing with the honours system notes that while fewer women are nominated for honours, those that are have a higher rate of success[5].  The appointments made for 2011-12, when 65% of all women nominated went on to be honoured, whereas only 56% of men were appointed, illustrate this.  However, women still only formed 30% of the overall appointments for the year.  Men received the majority of appointments in almost all 31 categories within the awards, with only the ‘Industrial Relations’ category achieving parity, and ‘Local Government’ and ‘Tourism’ categories having women outnumber men[6].  Overall, since 1975 women have received 30% of the appointments to the Order.  It is unclear whether or how these issues are being addressed, although the Council of the Order of Australia recently decided not to implement any sort of appeals system.

A recent appointee to the Medal of the Order of Australia.  Image Multicultural Community Centre

A recent appointee to the Medal of the Order of Australia. Image Multicultural Community Centre

The Council, as noted earlier, is composed of members nominated by the federal, state and territory governments.  At least one of the federal nominees must be an Indigenous person, and overall the membership currently consists of 12 men and 6 women.  However, one obvious exclusion from Council membership is any representation from the external territories, particularly Norfolk Island that has the same level of self-government as the ACT and NT.  It is not clear why membership eligibility stops at the continental high water mark.


As the British Empire broke up into separate countries during the second half of the 20th century, each newly independent country inherited the single system of Imperial honours.  See here for a useful history of imperial honours awarded to women in Australia.  Most patriated (that is, transferred authority over honours from the British crown to its national successors) the concepts and structures of the imperial honours system, but adapted and naturalized in separate national forms.  The foundation of the Order of Canada in 1967 provided the model for the Order of Australia in 1975.

Dame Nellie Melba was appointed a Dame of the British Empire in 1918, one of the first Australia women to be honoured with a damehood.  Image NGA

Operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba was appointed a Dame of the British Empire in 1918, one of the first Australia women to be honoured with a damehood. Image NGA

Between 1975 and 1992 the awarding of Imperial honours was gradually replaced in Australia by the awarding of specifically Australian honours.  The Queen of Australia still honours Australian citizens with royal honours such as the Venerable Order of St John.  These are the royal prerogative, or personal gift, of the Queen, and are neither part of the old imperial honours system nor recommended by any government agency.


For some comparisons with other honours systems with which the Australian system shares common origins and practices, see Canada (highest level companion), New Zealand (highest level knight or dame), United Kingdom (highest level knight or dame), India (no titles or postnominals, but a graded Order), Jamaica (highest level right excellent) and Papua New Guinea (highest levels grand chief, knight or dame).  Ireland after achieving independence from Britain, abandoned rather than patriated authority over honours, and currently has no honours system, but proposals for re-establishment are regularly made.

Canadian Honours.  Image Christopher McCreery

Canadian Honours. Image Christopher McCreery

Rather different systems of honours include the French (highest level chevalier, or knight), and Italian (highest level cavalierie, or knight) systems, to both of which are appointed a much larger number of people each year than in the Australian or other similar systems.  The United States has no overall honours system as such, but a bewildering array of medals and decorations are awarded by all branches of government and many government agencies. The Papal honours (highest level knight), influenced honours systems in the British Isles before Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 1530s, and so (along with the Imperial system) has a genealogical connection to the Australian system.  It still operates within Catholic communities in Australia, separately from the official Australian honours system.


The total number of people appointed to each grade in the Order of Australia over the 38 years since 1975 are AK/AD – 14; AC – 372, AO – 1,930, AM – 16,621, and OAM – 16,521.  About 42 Australians received Royal honours between 1930 and 2012.  I have not been able to determine how many of these appointees are still living.


Other useful links are It’s An Honour the official website maintained by the Prime Minister’s Office, and this page which lists further components of the honours system such as the Australian of the Year awards.  The Order of Australia Association also provides useful information.

Akram Azini of Western Australia, Young Australian of the Year 2013.  Image Zimbio

Akram Azini of Western Australia, Young Australian of the Year 2013. Image Zimbio


Support MY PETITION to the next prime minister of Australia, whoever that may be after the 7th September general election, for a review of the Australian honours system to address the issues I have raised, as well as issues raised by other people.

[1] Public Administration Select Committee, A Matter of Honour: Reforming the honours system, HC 212-1, House of Commons, London 2004, paragraphs 190-191, recommendation 18

[2] A Matter of Honour, paragraphs 56, 100-101, 174-175, 183-185, recommendation 11

[3] ‘Gong for little master knocks Indian media for six’, Sydney Morning Herald 17th October 2012; letters to the editor 18th October, 19th October and 22nd October 2012.

[4] Sydney Morning Herald, 11th June 2013, letters to the editor and cartoon.

[5] Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General, Annual Report 2011-12, Office of the Official Secretary, Canberra 2012: 42

[6] ibid, Appendix B ‘Order of Australia Awards’: 64-65

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


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.


  • 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

Happy 225th Queen’s and King’s Birthday Holiday

Today, Monday 10th June 2013, is the 225th Queen’s (or King’s) Birthday holiday in eastern Australia (Western Australia has the holiday in September or October, during the wildflower season).  It is Australia’s first and oldest public holiday, having been celebrated and recorded every year since 1788.

Captain Watkin Tench of the Marine Corps wrote the following description of the King’s Birthday in Sydney Cove on the 4th June 1788:

“Hours of festivity, which under happier skies pass unregarded and are soon consigned to oblivion, acquire in this forlorn and distant circle a superior degree of acceptable importance.

On the anniversary of the King’s birthday all the officers not on duty, both of the garrison and His Majesty’s ships, dined with the governor.  On so joyful an occasion, the first too ever [be] celebrated in our new settlement, it were needless to say that loyal conviviality dictated every sentiment and inspired every guest.  Among other public toasts drunk was prosperity to Sydney Cove, in Cumberland county, now named so by authority.  At daylight in the morning the ships of war had fired twenty-one guns each, which was repeated at noon and answered by three volleys from the battalion of marines.

Nor were the officers alone partakers of the general relaxation.  The four unhappy wretches labouring under the sentence of banishment were freed from their fetters to rejoin their former society; and three days given as holidays to every convict in the colony.  Hospitality, too, which ever aquires a double relish by being extended, was not forgotten on the 4th of June, when each prisoner, male and female, received an allowance of grog; and every non-commissioned officer and private soldier had the honour of drinking prosperity to his royal master, in a pint of porter served out at the flagstaff, in addition to the customary allowance of spirits.  Bonfires concluded the evening and I am happy to say that excepting a single instance which shall be taken notice of hereafter [the convict Samuel Payton’s attempt to rob an officer’s tent], no bad consequence or unpleasant remembrance flowed from an indulgence so amply bestowed.”

In one of the more formal rituals on the day Governor Phillip described the boundaries and named the plain around Sydney Cove as the County of Cumberland, in honour of the King’s brother Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland.  This was the first significant regionym (royal or vice-regal placename) bestowed in New South Wales, and the first and oldest sub-division of the colony.  He had also planned to unveil the name of the intended town in Sydney Cove but decided otherwise, although that name was rumoured to be Albion.

Landscape plan of Sydney Cove in April 1788, showing Government House where the Governor entertained the naval and military officers, and the camps where the convicts received their grog.  Image source National Library of Australia

Landscape plan of Sydney Cove in April 1788, showing Government House where the Governor entertained the naval and military officers, and the camps where the convicts received their grog. Image source National Library of Australia

The King’s Birthday was also celebrated in the colony’s other settlement of Sydney Bay, on Norfolk Island, where Lt Governor King recorded the following in his journal:

“Wednesday 4th June 1788, Winds NW, no surf at landing place, fresh gales and cloudy, began breaking up part of the ground on the NE side of the hill [Mt George, now Flagstaff] to sow wheat.  At sunrise hoisted up the colours in observance of the Anniversary of His Majesties Birth Day and gave each of the people some liquor to drink His Majesties health and at their request excused them from any work in the afternoon.”

Map of Norfolk Island (right) and Sydney Bay (left), c1790.  Image source Nationbal Library of Australia map-rm3460-v

Map of Norfolk Island (right) and Sydney Bay (left), c1790. Image source Nationbal Library of Australia

Back in London, on the other side of the globe, there were official ceremonies that were reported in newspapers across the kingdom, of which this is a typical example:

“Yesterday being the anniversary of His Majesty’s birth-day, who entered into the fifty-first year of his age, the drawing-room at St. James’s was one of the most numerous and brilliant perhaps ever seen at the British Court.  Their Majesties, the Princess Royal, Augusta, Elizabeth and Mary, Prince of Wales, Dukes of York, Gloucester and Cumberland, with all the foreign Ambassadors, Envoys, Secretaries, and Consuls, Duke of Orleans, Mons. de Calonne, and other foreigners of the first distinction; the Lord Chancellor, most of the Bishops, all the great officers of State, a number of the Nobility of both sexes, &c, &c, were precient.  Their Majesties, and the Princesses … came to the ball-room … at nine-o’clock, and the Princes and Duke of York a few minutes before them.

The King was dressed in a dark coloured suit, exceedingly plain, not even a diamond.

The Queen was superbly dressed in a blue silver tissue buoy, train and petticoat; the latter entirely covered, in waves, with deep fine blond lace; in front, finer stripes of blue satin ribbon, edged with diamonds; in the middle of the ribbon were roses of diamonds at proper distances, and pendant from each a tassel of diamonds; round the bottom a deep silver fringe; on each extremity on the top of the hoop was a large bow of diamonds; the stomacher one blaze of diamonds, and a large bouquet of diamonds placed on the left-side sleeve knots of diamonds; necklace and ear-rings equally superb.

Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, mezzotint by Thomas Frye, 1762.  Image source Tumblr

Queen Charlotte, the first queen-consort for New South Wales, mezzotint by Thomas Frye, 1762. Image source Tumblr

The Duke of Cumberland appeared in his naval uniform.

The King was surrounded by all his Ministers during the evening, but conversed mostly with Mr Pitt, Lord Sydney and Lord Howe.

Some of the illuminations, particularly at the west end of town, were splendid as were all the places of public amusement.”

Many of the newspapers also printed the ‘Ode for His Majesty’s Birthday 1788’, that included lines such as “What native Genius taught the Britons bold/To guard their sea-girt cliffs of old?/’Twas Liberty …/ The King’s, the people’s balanc’d claims to found/ On one eternal base, indissolubly bound/ … For lo, revering Britain’s cause/ A King new lustre lends to native laws/ The sacred sovereign on this festal day/ On Albion’s old renown reflects a kindred ray/”

George III as the colonists in New South Wales may have encountered him.  Image source Museum of Victoria.

George III as the colonists in New South Wales may have encountered him. Image source Museum of Victoria.

George III as the colonists may have imagined him.  Image source Museum of Victoria

George III as the colonists may have imagined him. Image source Museum of Victoria

But what does it all mean?

Historian McKenna argued in 2004 that the Sir Robert Menzies’ understanding of allegiance to the crown was a means of connecting contemporary Australians with enlightened and noble historical traditions, with a mystical past.  The constitution itself, in the mystical, shakespeareanesque language of its covering clauses and preamble, connected Australians to an ancient and mythological past.  Republicans see this as anachronistic, but overlook its profound appeal, its mythological language of belonging, what might be called a Dreaming.  For Menzies the crown was ‘an element of the spirit, a spiritual and emotional conception’.  Political scientist Judith Brett has written that the crown still fulfils the need to symbolise the foundations of the nation-state by something beyond itself, something broadly accepted and emotionally rich in symbols.  The foundations of this civic creed, as described by McKenna and Brett, flows through the readings of the King’s Birthday celebrations in 1788 in Sydney Cove and Sydney Bay and London.

The colonists, by the act of place naming, imagined into existence new places such as New South Wales, Botany Bay, Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, Norfolk Island, Sydney Bay, and Cumberland County.  This is how they imaginatively and intellectually occupied, historicised and inhabited the native spaces of the continent.  The first king’s birthday celebrations added further historical depth to these new/old places.  It was part of the revolutionary transformation of locally indigenous spaces into globally connected places.

Part of the history evoked in these new/old place names, and the serial royal birthday celebrations (as Tench indicated, this was the first of many to come), is a history of a direct mystical connection between peoples and their king, regardless of place or social status.  The king’s ethereality is enhanced by distance and absence, by being in a faraway place, present only in the symbolic representations of royal heraldry and royal portraiture.  For most colonists, his presence can only be imagined, rather than physically encountered as it was by the denizens of St James’ Palace (although even they encountered but a representation, a king ‘in a dark suit without even a diamond’ amidst the silken blue finery of his official birthday party).

The annual Queen’s Birthday holiday reveals, year after year, the enduring founding mythos of a sacred covenant between subjects and their sovereign that extends across time and space, ‘indissolubly bound’ as the Ode declaimed, and which remains at the heart of the society that has evolved in Australia.

Indeed, this mythos is contained in the preamble to the Australian constitution which states the people have agreed (through the Federation referenda of 1898, 1899 and 1900) to “unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown”.  A deep desire to retain this immemorial entanglement was again expressed by the people through the republic referendum in 1999.

Is it possible for a new civic mythos to be imagined, a fusion of indigenous and settler ancientness, another Dreaming that explains peoples and places across the continent and its isles?  Could it be argued that the Queen’s Birthday holiday, pregnant with possible futures, is the real Australia Day?

A re-imaging of the Queen's Birthday holiday in Sydney in 2013.  Image source Keystone Group

A re-imagining of the Queen’s Birthday holiday in Sydney in 2013. Image source Keystone Group

Watkin Tench A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, 1793; edited by Tim Flannery and published as 1788, Text Publishing, Melbourne 1996: pages 66-68

Philip Gidley King Remarks & Journal kept on the Expedition to form a Colony in His Majestys Territory of New South Wales …His Majesty’s Ship Sirius …, 24 October 1786 – 12 January 1789pages 150-151

Historical records of New South Wales, Vol. I, Part II, 1783-1789, Government Printer, Sydney 1889

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 5th June 1788

Chelmsford Chronicle, 6th June 1788

Mark McKenna This Country: A Reconciled Republic, UNSW Press, UNSW 2004, pages 98-101

The dedicated reader will find it useful to have a look at Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme & Power of a Common-Wealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civill, first published in London 1651, particularly Part II: ‘Of Common-Wealth’; and (regarding the power of place naming) Paul Carter’s The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History, Faber and Faber, London and Boston 1987.

Celebrating the Coronation Anniversary, Australian media style

Yesterday, 2nd June, was the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

In a blast from the 1990s, a couple of 1990s politicians launched a book with the marketing tag “bring our head of state home”.  It sounds like another of those great tag lines from the recent past, “a mate for head of state”.  They claim we are all Elizabethans now, which apparently means we are just waiting around for the Queen to die.  That was the cheery ‘happy anniversary’ from our political leaders and tabloid press.

In the coronation oath taken by the Queen back in 1953 she was asked “Madam, is your Majesty willing to take the Oath?”, to which she replied “I am willing”. The Queen was then asked “Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and of your Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?”, to which she replied “I solemnly promise so to do.” The Queen was then asked “Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?”, to which she answered “I will”.

The Queen was then asked if she would maintain, in the United Kingdom only, the protestant religion and the Church of England, which she promised to do.  The Queen then gave her oath in sight of all the people (vastly increased by being the first coronation to be televised) and before the altar of Westminster Abbey, kissed the bible and signed the oath.

English: Australian stamp, coronation of Queen...

Australian postage stamp marking the  coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Harold Holt, Australian Minister for Immigration and President of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, sat to the right of the Queen and participated in the ceremony. 250 seats were reserved in the Abbey for Australians, and another 7000 on the procession route through London. Coronation festivities ran in Canberra over several days between 31st May and 4th June, as well as in communities around Australia and its territories. The ‘Coronation Contingent’ of 250 representatives from the defence forces sailed on HMAS Sydney and HMNZS Black Prince, arriving in England on 5th May. All members were awarded the coronation medal on the 3rd June, and on 15th June took part in the Coronation Review of Commonwealth naval forces at Spithead, southern England.

Some good sources for more information are the ‘Royalty Guide’ issued by the National Archives, and the Australian National Memorial’s ‘Coronation Contingent’ page.  The coronation ceremony can be viewed here on YouTube.

Apart from the ‘bring our queen home’ book launch, the media has avoided any other Australian anniversary news such as the jubilee ceremony at Christchurch St Lawrence in Railway Square, Sydney (in the diocese of leading evangelical Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Dr Jensen, who complains that after 12 years of his episcopacy his church is still too narrowly English), the Perth Mint’s issue of a collector’s silver commemorative coin, the Royal Australian Mint’s issue of a commemorative 50 cent coin, Australia Post’s issue of two commemorative stamps, and the portrait of the Queen by Australian artist Ralph Heimans leaving the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra to be hung in
Westminster Abbey.

Reference:  Stephanie Peatling, ‘Political rivals set aside differences for republic’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3rd June 2013, pages 4-5

Prince Alfred’s tour in the summer of 1867-1868

One Hot Crown presentation

Click on the ‘One Hot Crown’ Podcast above to hear me  talking about Prince Alfred’s tour of The Australias (yes, that’s the plural) over the summer of 1867-1868.

This was the first royal tour in Australia, and it has largely been ignored by historians of Australia except for the novelty of an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the Prince at Clontarf, on the north shore of Sydney Harbour.

Brown bread, oysters and stout formed the picnic menu at Clontarf on 12th March 1868: photo taken on 12th March 2013 at Mt York Reserve in the Blue Mountains where it was proposed in 1895 to erect a statue of Prince Alfred.  Photo mrbbaskerville 2013.

Brown bread, oysters and stout formed the picnic menu at Clontarf on 12th March 1868: photo taken on 12th March 2013 at Mt York Reserve in the Blue Mountains where it was proposed in 1895 to erect a statue of Prince Alfred. Photo Bruce Baskerville 2013.

I argue in the talk that the tour has much greater historical significance that has been attributed to it, and outline my current attempts to write a history that uses the Crown, rather than any idea of the nation, as its organising principle.  I begin the talk by trying to position my work beyond the nationalist orthodoxy that I think has presented history in Australia as too mono-dimensional and myopic.

I think our history is much wilder, regionalist, communal and contingent than is presented in orthodox histories.  I think that the only historical constant is change, and that therefore nothing is inevitable.  Hopefully, some of this comes across in the presentation.

See The Lost Option for a more orthodox view.