Opinion: British monarchy pageantry is out of step with modern Australian values

Photo by Shann on Pexels
Sunday 18 September 2022

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

It could have been the popular HBO series so elaborate were its costumes and back-stories from antiquity.

We watched from our couches and yet, it involved us, too. This was our head of state after all - both the one not yet buried, and the one newly crowned.

We'd had no say in this recondite theatre, this glacial game of thrones.

Australia is a nation trapped in the vortex of somebody else's history.

Having refused to voice our own story, we've clung ever more doggedly to another's, thinly claiming our bonds even as time and truth strain them to breaking point and new alienations accumulate.

The fact Elizabeth II reigned for so long meant it is not since WWII, essentially, that ordinary Australians have born witness to the vast symbolic opera surrounding the death of a hereditary English monarch.

Three-score and ten is a fair chunk of time for any country to evolve - especially a liberal-democratic, multicultural nation. Consider the attitudinal awakenings in Australia in the last 20 years, let alone the 70 since 1952.

Back then, the predominantly ex-British population numbered under 9 million and the census openly validated "full-blood Europeans" over subsidiary categories such as "half caste", "Asiatic Jew", and "Negro". There were four Persian males in 1954 and just one Timorese, nationwide.

As for First Nations Peoples, many didn't count at all. Literally. The census data came with the coldly dismissive rider, "Exclusive of full-blood Aboriginals".

That deliberate (very revealing) practice ended with the 1967 referendum after which First Nations Peoples were no longer considered among the flora and fauna. Did they deserve an apology? Nobody thought to ask.

Australia knows better now yet such foul insults and countless atrocities are still to be assimilated into the explicit national story.

Meanwhile, the sovereign, as embodied by Elizabeth Windsor, has survived in Australia due largely to her ceremonial neutrality, and her extraordinary PR achievement of holding great wealth while projecting frugality, duty and modest comportment.

What sweet irony then if, in the end, it was not Queen Elizabeth's death itself which hastened the onset of an Australian republic, but rather the decidedly un-Elizabethan surfeit of ceremony by the Crown and its enthusiasts which her death invited.

After almost three-quarters of a century of constancy, Australians have been jarringly exposed to the full symphony of ancient monarchical tradition - layer-upon-layer of arcane ritual largely obscured by Elizabeth's extended work-a-day reign.

This is the historic significance of her death. It has shown how out-of-step such pageantry is with modernity, with the kaleidoscope of contemporary Australia, and with the selfless devotion Elizabeth herself modelled.

If, arising from this macabre hand-over, this palace 'coup de mort', a new distance comes to grip the Australian public, it will be no thanks to our pro-republican government, nor a fearless and questioning media.

Such public grief as there is has been husbanded by dull broadcast conformity and slavish government diktat.

It was as if the political class and our media were telling us how deeply to feel by elevating the event itself through the earnestness of their responses.

Both tailored their actions to suit a quaint national sentiment as though it is still 1952. Does this reflect the Anglophone antecedents of policy-makers, media proprietors, and news chiefs?

It seems likely, even if it is not the whole explanation.

The royal death automatically set in motion a string of pre-arranged yet little-known fiats - rulings that would not have felt out of place for a dead Soviet leader.

Parliament was suspended for an official 15-day mourning period (even though Westminster sailed on initially) replete with a snap public holiday to "allow" us to grieve - or is it compel? This would cause problems for hospital operating schedules, cancer treatments and countless other functions.

The deceased Queen who toured more hospitals than anyone would have been horrified to think of treatments to the ill being needlessly denied or delayed.

On top of these, there were ceremonies of proclamation, cannon fire, condolence books and church services. All of it non-negotiable.

The assumption was manifest. We were officially bereft.

While state-owned media stopped short of the Eastern bloc tradition of suspending broadcasts in order to play sombre dirges for days on end, its wall-to-wall black-tied coverage offered something of the same anaesthetising effect. Here was a story with just one angle, its paralysing sadness deigned universal, its gravity beyond question.

Even a week later, other stories were still struggling for purchase. News Radio's headlines on Thursday morning waited until story three or four to report the World Health Organisation believed an end to the pandemic was in sight. COVID-19 is the biggest and most deadly event so far this century. A possible conclusion should be just about unbeatable news-wise. But an end to the pandemic could not compete against word the Palace had settled on two minutes of silence for the funeral (rather than one presumably) - an event still four days away.

Further disappointment awaits. Australia, that great democratic social laboratory - the only nation with a continent to itself - now faces the embarrassment of being beaten to independence by member states of the United Kingdom itself, Scotland and Wales. Nationals of the latter are now openly asking why the Prince of Wales is not Welsh?

It's a good question. We should ask our own. When it's acceptable to the government that is. And the media.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  19 September 2022/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications