The Crown down under

Is Australia still a sceptered isle?

Artillery Row

As midnight approached on Australia’s east coast, the country’s journalists were resigning themselves to a sleepless night, awaiting news from Clarence House. It had been the big story for hours already, accompanied on Twitter by endless speculation, opinionating and snide jokes about whether it was time yet to put on The Smiths. Journalists in the UK had already been informed of the Queen’s death. Yet on our national broadcaster’s dedicated news station, it was business as usual: sports reports, weather, local politics and a smattering of international news. 

Friday was a tough day to be a republican

By morning, of course, it was a different story. The ABC, like every other Aussie media outlet, was dedicated to mourning our monarch. That initial reluctance points to an ambivalence in Australia when it comes to the monarchy and, indeed, how we address our cultural heritage. 

The death of Queen Elizabeth II exposes an ongoing identity crisis for Australia. Like other former colonies, we have been long caught between the past and the future (often expressed here as the twin gravities of England and America). The end of the second Elizabethan era seems to offer a new tipping point towards the latter. Our recently elected Labor government already has an assistant minister dedicated to establishing a republic. King Charles III may not be our king for long.

Or perhaps he will. As Guy Rundle pointed out, Charles’s rapid accession after decades in the wings has happened too quickly for republicans to capitalise on it. Provided King Charles III isn’t an immediate disaster, it’s easy enough to imagine Australians losing a desire for a republic once swept up in coronation fervour. Republicans and, more broadly, those on the left often underestimate the importance of tradition and — more importantly — of myth.

To be fair, Friday was a tough day to be a republican. Online, many Australians struggled with the onslaught of memorialising from the cast of Hamilton to the AFL and everyone in-between. Many were shocked that Australians could have a scintilla of sorrow for the Queen’s passing — aren’t we supposed to be beyond any loyalty to the mother country? Wasn’t the Queen personally responsible for the ills of colonisation and the gross injustices persecuted upon our nation’s First Peoples? Surely ordinary Australians didn’t care about such an oppressive anachronism? 

These takes tend to either exaggerate or diminish the Queen’s importance. Given her 70-year reign, it’s hardly surprising that she has been associated with governments and institutions whose actions now appear reprehensible. If she was culpable, it was not through her personal actions so much as being part of a machine whose workings have been largely dismantled. Just as her powers were symbolic, so is the blame apportioned to her. 

Every symbol is to be contested, and there are many Australians now who want the machine of monarchy not just dismantled but destroyed. There are others who, whilst acknowledging the horrors overseen by institutions bearing the Queen’s seal, see value in an icon who represents — however imperfectly — an idealised, mythical sense of who we are and who we have been.

The death of the Queen has made the monarchy visible

In turbulent times such as these, it is understandable that tradition might take on a new importance to Australians — more than half of whom identify as having British heritage. The notion of a monarch might be divisive, but Queen Elizabeth II — by virtue of her longevity — has played an important and symbolic role in our nation’s character for decades. Many Australians have defined ourselves by our loyalty to or our defiance against her. She has been a constant matriarch — our relationship at times as conflicted as any familial tie — whose presence has brought meaning (contested as that meaning may be) to millions of Australians.

For many Australians, the death of the Queen has made the monarchy visible in a way it hasn’t been for many years. Even the Jubilee failed to shift the sense that the Royal Family was a distant soap opera, whose dwindling viewership had fractured into Team Kate and Team Meghan. Now Australian life is about to change in small but prominent ways — our currency, our public holidays, the fact QCs are suddenly and seemingly forever KCs — that will remind us of our enduring ties to the Crown.

As such, whilst the monarchy has long been seen as the last dusk of a faded Empire, it is now an agent of change and renewal. Aged seventy-three, King Charles III is hardly a young monarch, but the ideals he embodies feel very different to those of his mother. He may prove to be a king who exemplifies a new kind of national identity to his subjects — one that manages to balance tradition and progress. He is, after all, as passionate about the environment as he is classical architecture. For democracies that feel increasingly riven by partisan politics, he might offer a sense of self that transcends the election cycle.

A symbolic head of state is a lightning rod for shared ideals. What those ideals are may shift and may be contested. That matters less than the sense that they are shared. The sorrow that many have felt today is less to do with simple nostalgia for a past rife with injustices, and more about the loss of something shared across many generations. Whatever you thought of Elizabeth II, she was our queen. Perhaps the real value of a symbolic head of state is that ability to orient ourselves, to provide context, to insulate against fads and demagogues. At times, that connection to the past will be a source of shame, at other times a sense of comfort. 

In Australia, the conversation about who we are is ongoing. It will — and should — involve the creation of a First Nations Voice to Parliament, allowing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to provide perspective on the issues that affect them. For many Australians, the monarchy has long been a part of our shared story, even if its role in the next chapter is yet to be decided. 

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