What might we at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies say on the passing of Elizabeth II, Queen of England, Australia, the Commonwealth?
Following the total-media-event we have all endured across recent days, dear reader, you would be forgiven if your immediate response was to hit delete or run screaming from your computer screen.
We did consider saying nothing at all. Yet here in Australia in this past week I’ve been especially agitated, gripped by the sense of inhabiting an unfolding uncanny moment — one needing some kind of rumination. Along with the banal, narrow framing of so much of the reportage on royal mourning and renewal, we have simultaneously been presented with a stream of striking, disturbing reminders that an unresolved settler colonial identity lies at the heart of this nation. These reminders include:
- the announcement that the Queen’s death would be marked by federal parliament rising for 10 sitting days — a longer period of leave than the British parliament is taking, and which puts in jeopardy the passing into legislation this year of various priority reforms of the new Albanese government
- the lowering to half-mast by government directive of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags recently given new, permanent prominence atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge
- the declaration of a public holiday as a day ‘day of mourning’ to mark the passing of Elizabeth against the backdrop of a decades-long campaign by First Nations communities to have 26 January similarly marked
- a Welcome to Country ceremony by Ngunnawal commencing the proclamation ceremony for King Charles III at Parliament House, Canberra
- the cancellation of a Melbourne Writer’s Festival panel scheduled to debate the future of the monarchy in Australia
- the passing of Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Palawa, Yorta Yorta legend Jack Charles, a man whose life story enacts, directly responds to, and powerfully transcends the brutal practices of colonial power in Australia
- the opening of a three-month-long coronial inquest into the police killing of Warlpiri teenager Kumanjayi Walker following the exoneration of the police shooter
- the second death in custody of an Aboriginal man in Victoria in a month, at Loddon Prison, Castlemaine
- Carefully managed and increasingly muted political debate over a referendum to establish a First Nations Voice to Parliament
- Patrick Dodson’s recounting of his visit to Buckingham Palace in 1999 with other First Nations leaders to raise the plight of their communities in the lead-up to the republic referendum. They were, Dodson recalled, immediately taken aback by the Queen’s genuine engagement and interest, ‘We were treated properly, like human beings’.
These disjunctures point to contradictions that often go unremarked, and are regularly veiled by the workings of settler consciousness and attitude of innocence in Australian cultural and political life.
The Australian government has seemed keener to do protocol more earnestly and more steadfastly than the Brits themselves. In similar vein, as well as earnest attempts to follow the script, the Australian Broadcasting Commission has despatched no less than 27 journalists to cover the royal funeral.
Rituals stand apart from and are always in tension with elements of everyday life — that is what gives them their special charge. They also gain social and emotional force from being unquestioningly reproduced, from our compliant participation in them. Yet, despite the flood of spectacular images of mass gatherings and emotion, even in Britain the royal pomp and ceremony increasingly appear as quaint heritage, as disconnected from the cultural sources from which most people draw meaning.
The disjunctures continue. The workings of contemporary global colonial-capitalism are a world away from the feudal system that established British monarchical power and whose outer signs now thrill and sadden the monarch’s subjects. Members of the royal family have been shrewd and aggressive navigators of their own expanding wealth through participation in global markets, including some ethically dubious transnational fundraising. The royalty industry, in turn, is central to British tourism. Royal pomp fuels economic activity, while at the same time providing a distraction from structural inequalities and unravelling social and economic conditions. Living with these contradictions suits Britain very well.
‘Not my King’ protestors on the streets of London have being making some of these observations in shortform. Their being moved on by police while tens of thousands of others join the kilometres long queue to file past the Queen’s coffin reminds us of the crucial role of royal rituals in the work of social order — if Queen Elizabeth was a source of ‘stability in a changing world’, it is the devotion of the citizenry that holds things in place. Meanwhile things are unravelling all around.
Calls for the abolition of the monarchy, for the King to account for the brutalities and injustices of colonisation and pay reparations for slavery and dispossession, as well as the likelihood that Jamaica — and surely in time Australia, and others — will become republics indicate that the passing of Elizabeth is also a moment of possibility. Will the Commonwealth hold, and if so, in what shape? How might the royals go about redeeming their current status as tarnished celebrities?
Charles has distinguished himself with passionate views on the environment, climate change, agriculture, architecture, and at times for his sensitive interest in the circumstances of Indigenous communities. So, at this time of death and renewal we could entertain a wild possibility, that as he wrestles with his conundrums of relevance King Charles III might actually be drawn to undertake his own special postcolonial truth-telling.
Back here in Australia, tracking a journey to becoming a republic is by comparison a relatively straightforward proposition. Much more difficult is the question of what new kinds of rituals might enable us to confront the settler innocence that glosses these contradictions, and that in turn could help create a new orientation to this place, its histories, and its place in the world.
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