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British past or American future?

Aussies have some soul-searching to do this Jubilee

Artillery Row

When Queen Elizabeth II toured Australia back in 1954, we all came to see. It was the first time a reigning monarch had visited our island. More than three quarters of Australia’s nine million subjects glimpsed her in the flesh and finery at least once. Our Prime Minister Robert Menzies said this fervour revealed the “most profound and passionate” feelings of loyalty and devotion to the throne beating in the heart of every Aussie. More than that, it proved that our shared dedication to the Queen was the “cement” of our entire society.

How times have changed. From where I’m standing (about 115 degrees east), the Platinum Jubilee is a very distant spectacle. True, there won’t be many public buildings sans illumination this weekend, but bunting and street parties seem as unlikely as snow in the Nullarbor Desert. Ask an Australian if profound and passionate devotion to the throne beats in their chest and, at best, they’ll laugh in your face.

This week, our new Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese marked the impending jubilee — and his recent accession — by appointing an Assistant Minister for the Republic, effectively rebooting our botched attempt to ditch the monarchy back in the late 90s. Never before has a government official been dedicated to the republican cause. The timing is unlikely to be coincidental.

When another, less progressive Prime Minister — Tony Abbott — announced he was bringing back knighthoods, he was widely (and rightly) mocked, not least because he immediately knighted Prince Phillip. It was a sycophantic gesture, yes, but more than that, it telegraphed that Abbott was out of touch with the electorate. He wasn’t a conservative so much as a regressive. His days in power were clearly numbered.

Labor Prime Minister John Curtin cut the apron strings in 1941

It would be nice to think that this rejection of the past represented a new maturity on the part of Australia. That we had thrown off our colonial status and grown into a bold and independent nation. There can be no doubt that our shift away from Britain is tied to the process of decolonisation. As we face up to the shameful treatment of this nation’s first peoples, there has been a shedding of place names that celebrate the British agents responsible for past atrocities. Many of our cities will likely change their names in the years ahead to reflect the original inhabitants. Presenters on our national broadcaster already refer to Melbourne as Naarm. As we look backwards for blame, it should be little wonder if the British today are found guilty by association — or heritage.

This reconciliation with our nation’s past is crucial to its future, but it’s hard to argue that Australia is any more independent now than it was 70 years ago. What has happened instead is a shifting of allegiances and a wholesale transference of one set of cultural touchstones for another.

Australia has long been caught between the pull of the old world and the new world. Labor Prime Minister John Curtin cut the apron strings in 1941, declaring that “Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom”. And yet, little more than a decade later, eight million Aussies still flooded the streets in the hope of glimpsing our monarch. From 1945 to 1972, more than a million ten pound poms (or “New Australians”) were lured to our shores to make sure we were populated with the “right” sort of people. It was, at heart, an act of racism (this was the height of the White Australia policy), but underlined the deep ties felt to exist between our country and Britain. Today, we might be the most ethnically diverse nation on the planet, but more than half of us claim British ancestry and more than 80 per cent of us are from European heritage.

There is a political polarity to this push and pull. At the turn of the century, famed conservative PM John Howard propagated a new national mythology that entrenched our connection to Britain. This was partly a reaction to the previous PM’s attempts to move us closer politically to our geographical neighbours. According to Howard, we were a nation born on the shores of Gallipoli, as our young men died in the service of the empire. By contrast, the left has traditionally looked to America to lead us away from the motherland — hence the Labor Party’s missing vowel.

Back in 1952, it wasn’t worth asking an Australian if they felt more British than American. Our culture was saturated by that of the motherland. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation imported the cream of the BBC’s output — and, free of repeat fees, showed it so persistently that several successive generations of Aussies grew up watching The Goodies, Doctor Who and Fawlty Towers. Our broadcasters spoke with RP cadence. When the first wave of Australian rock bands won airplay, it was with covers of songs broken in by English groups.

In 2022, we are a nation obsessed with America

Our own pop culture developed in the shadow of these imports, well into the 1980s. While the commercial TV networks increasingly featured more glossy American programming, the impact of those shows was oddly muted. Australian sitcoms such as Mother and Son felt more of a piece with The Good Life than Good Times. Hit dramas such as A Country Practice or Police Rescue owed more to All Creatures Great and Small and The Bill than they did Little House on the Prairie and Miami Vice. British programmes were often clever, sometimes stuffy, but overwhelmingly familiar, a reminder of our cultural wellspring. American programmes were exotic and captivating, if frequently crass. They were fun, but they weren’t like us.

Here in 2022, we are a nation obsessed with America. US politics, extreme as it is, frequently gets more attention than our own. Made viral by social media, American political movements and ideologies move freely across borders, be they #BlackLivesMatter or Trumpism. There are few issues in which the Australian left doesn’t fall in lockstep with their American comrades (on the trans issue, the UK is derisively dubbed TERF Island), while many neocons on the right look enviously at America’s failed healthcare system. If only we could be more like them.

But is the instability and extreme partisanship of American democracy really something to aspire to? Australians have largely bucked a Western trend in losing faith in democracy, partly because our current system — constitutional monarch and all — works pretty well. In an age when right-wing populism is on the march, ditching a symbolic head of state for a homegrown Trump feels like trading blanks for live ammunition.

From Australia, the Platinum Jubilee arrives with the whiff of past glories. Our society is no longer cemented by a loyalty to the Queen. If young Australians talk about the monarch at all these days, it’s to complain about how poorly Meghan was treated or to gush about the girl from Twilight playing Princess Di. But to abandon our past brings its own dangers. I want to see an Australia with a clear idea of its own values and culture, one that is mature enough to acknowledge our historical and cultural ties to Britain — and the guilt and obligations that come with them. If we seek to excise Britishness from our national identity, we should also acknowledge that it has long-served as a buttress against American cultural imperialism. 

Britain might be our past, just as America might be our future. But it’s worth asking if that’s a future we really want.

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