By Andrew Martin
After reigning for seventy years, Queen Elizabeth II died at the age of 96 at her Scottish estate on 8 September. The death was not unexpected and plans for the occasion of her death had been formed decades ago. Her life can hardly have said to have been cut short, yet the mainstream media almost universally has painted it as a great tragedy of global significance.
There has been saturation media coverage in Australia of every superficial facet of the royal family, their apparent anguish, suffering and stoicism in the face of adversity. It has been completely nauseating. Not since September 11 have the media embarked on a such a barrage of brazen ruling class propaganda. It has become a sort of mania.
Almost all mainstream institutions and most of the political establishment in our society have backed the idea we need to mourn the death of the queen and support the new king, Charles III. In England, major industrial trade unions such as the RMT which represents rail workers, the CWU (communications workers) and the TSSA (transport workers) all called off strikes to pay their respects to the queen. The divine right of kings and queens seems to take precedent over everything.
We are constantly reminded that the queen was a stabilising influence on democracy, yet in Australia, parliament has been suspended for a week to mark the death. The Australian Labor Party is at great pains to demonstrate its faith and obedience to the royal family and has called a national day of mourning public holiday on 22 September.
Rather than seeking to use the opportunity to discuss whether Australia would be better served as a republic, Labor are demonstrating their fealty to tradition. It seems it is not shifting far from its British counterparts who are showing no signs of bucking from their traditional total obeisance to royalty. After 223 years of being British subjects, it seems the people of Australia will have to wait a little longer before they can tread their own path.
Prime minister Anthony Albanese has refused to be drawn into answering questions as to when Australia will become a republic. It is assumed that if Labor win office again they may introduce legislation for a referendum in their second term. Given the power of the mass media, the wall to wall media coverage of all things royal means that it will take a concerted effort of campaigning to shift public opinion. In a Roy Morgan Research SMS poll, taken after the queen’s death, 60% of people in Australia prefer to remain with a monarchy.
Royal mania has completely gripped England. The queue to see Queen Elizabeth in her coffin was over 5 miles long with wait times of up to 24 hours. The BBC is giving live updates of the queue. Imagine this sort of coverage was given to events that actually mattered! The conservative forces of the ruling class in England are desperate to shore up this bastion of reaction.
The same is true in Australia. Sky News, the Liberal party and all the right-wing shock jocks have already figured out their talking points well ahead of any referendum on a republic and typically they manage to turn everything on its head: “the constitutional monarchy serves us well and represents all of us”, “electing a President means a greater concentration of power”, “being part of the Commonwealth strengthens our ties with Britain which we need for our protection” etc, etc.
Thankfully there is resistance to this tide of reaction and it is spearheaded by voices from the Australian indigenous community. The most outspoken and sharpest voice for indigenous recognition has been from Greens senator Lydia Thorpe who, when being sworn into parliament, referred to the queen as our coloniser. In an interview with the Washington Post, Thorpe stated: “The queen and her family represent the colonial system, which has created havoc in this country against First Nations people.”
For Thorpe, the queen’s death highlights the role colonialism has played in the dispossession of her and other First Nations peoples from their ancestral homelands. The voice of the oppressed has long condemned royalty.
Appealing to the workers of Ireland not to welcome King George V in 1910, the socialist James Connolly wrote:
What is monarchy? From whence does it derive its sanction? What has been its gift to humanity? Monarchy is a survival of the tyranny imposed by the hand of greed and treachery upon the human race in the darkest and most ignorant days of our history. It derives its only sanction from the sword of the marauder, and the helplessness of the producer, and its gifts to humanity are unknown, save as they can be measured in the pernicious examples of triumphant and shameless iniquities.
Every class in society save royalty, and especially British royalty, has through some of its members contributed something to the elevation of the race. But neither in science, nor in art, nor in literature, nor in exploration, nor in mechanical invention, nor in humanising of laws, nor in any sphere of human activity has a representative of British royalty helped forward the moral, intellectual or material improvement of mankind. But that royal family has opposed every forward move, fought every reform, persecuted every patriot, and intrigued against every good cause. Slandering every friend of the people, it has befriended every oppressor. Eulogised today by misguided clerics, it has been notorious in history for the revolting nature of its crimes. Murder, treachery, adultery, incest, theft, perjury – every crime known to man has been committed by some one or other of the race of monarchs from whom King George is proud to trace his descent.
We will not blame him for the crimes of his ancestors if he relinquishes the royal rights of his ancestors; but as long as he claims their rights, by virtue of descent, then, by virtue of descent, he must shoulder the responsibility for their crimes.
Through the virtue of descent the royal family has been able to acquire a vast fortune. No one knows exactly how rich the royals are, but it is estimated that the holdings of the crown estate, the Duchy of Lancaster and Duchy of Cornwall are together worth £17 billion. Their wealth is mostly derived through centuries long ownership of property, land and even parts of the seabed around England.
This wealth was never acquired in a benign or peaceful way. The declaration of English empire was first made by Henry VIII in 1532. Through the combination of military violence and the establishment of rapacious joint stock companies the tentacles of empire spread throughout the world. The British monarchy was central to the expansion of the slave trade. It was intrinsically tied to the Royal African Company which was established by the Stuarts and City of London merchants.
The Royal African Company’s primary purpose was to buy and sell slaves. It’s fortunes were also predicated on the theft of indigenous lands in the Americas and the establishment of colonies in the Caribbean. British capitalism got a head start due to this brutal global trade.
The Crown Jewels and other ceremonial treasures are emblematic of the royal family’s link with colonialism. The most valuable of jewels, known in India as the Koh-i-Noor, stolen by the East India Company is valued at $591 million and it is just one of 2800 stones set in the crown made for King Charles III’s grandmother. Queen consort Camilla will now wear the crown, but there is a campaign in India to have their treasures returned to them.
There are thousands of other relics that make up the treasures of the Crown Jewels, each with their own story of theft, murder and extortion. These are in addition to the many treasures of the British Museum which display the empire’s conquests of the world. The reverence for the royal family conceals the full weight of history’s judgement – that this is a family that has actively participated in the carving up of the globe, stealing its spoils. Neither are their crimes in the distant past.
The ancestral remains of many indigenous people still lie in British museums or in graves, some that are unmarked. The practice of collecting the remains of what the British considered subjugated people continued well into the 20th century. Some of these remains are skulls and other skeletal parts, and some are whole. They have been auctioned off and considered as trophies.
These remains include resistance fighters such as Pemulway, a Bidjigal warrior from Botany Bay, who’s head was preserved in spirits. Pemulway led a valiant resistance to colonialism leading raids and at one point marching with 100 warriors right into Parramatta.
Aboriginal people continue to this day to campaign for the return of the remains of their ancestors. It is the dispossession of indigenous people that is the starkest reminder of the real legacy of the royal family and the brutality of colonialism. Australia continues to have the highest incarceration rates of indigenous people in the world.
In the Northern Territory indigenous incarceration rates are four times the Australian average for adults and five times higher for children, with indigenous people accounting for 85% of the prison population. The problem is getting worse. The number of indigenous people in prison has risen by 34% in a decade.
Western Australia also retains a frontier mentality with extremely punitive prison sentences. A basic tenet of the justice system is that a person should only be held in prison if they’ve committed a criminal offence. In WA, the High Risk Serious Offenders Act overlooks this principle and is able to detain anyone who is deemed a risk to the community – allowing for pre-emptive detention.
This law has been used to terrorise aboriginal people holding them in remand long after their prison sentences are completed. In one case, Peter Garlett was imprisoned for three years and six months for stealing $20 and a necklace. Yet Garlett was not free even after this lengthy spell in prison, due to these laws. According to the WA government’s own advice a further 700 aboriginal prisoners could continue to be detained because of these laws.
The rates of removal of indigenous children also remains the highest in the world and the problem is getting worse. Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders are ten times more likely to have their children removed from them. According to the 2021 Family Matters Report, 21,500 Indigenous children are in out-of-home care, with 79 per cent permanently living away from their birth parents.
The report highlighted the impacts of poverty, homelessness, intergenerational trauma and social exclusion that aboriginal people experienced. A full 84% of government spending in child protection was on out-of-home care. Very little investment is made towards prevention or providing support for families in need. Despite all the talk of closing the gap, the reality is the situation for indigenous people is worsening.
It is no surprise then that Australia has been the last U.N member to adopt the UN declaration of rights of indigenous people and it is stalling implementing any measures that would give indigenous people real and meaningful justice. The government could implement reforms, but what has it done? Its primary achievement so far has been to establish a senate select committee, the Joint Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (JSCATSIA) to inquire about how the declaration has been implemented internationally.
It has already been criticised as being a dead-end that will rail-road indigenous people into accepting outcomes that deny them sovereignty. Tellingly, the chair of the committee Mick Dodson excluded Lydia Thorpe from being able to participate. While excluding the most outspoken voice for indigenous rights in parliament, Dodson has co-opted Melissa Price, the former Liberal Minister for Defense and Industry to be the committee’s deputy chair.
The committee also has included Natasha Griggs, former MP for the Country Liberal Party and current administrator for the Australian Indian Ocean Territories (a colonial posting if there ever was one). Another addition is the new head of the Australian Institute for family studies, former Liberal minister Dr Sharman Stone. Another is former Liberal MP and administrator of Christmas Island Barry Haase who once told refugees it was their own fault they were imprisoned. These are hardly social justice warriors.
Dodson is the only indigenous person on the committee and not one single person on it has any record of ever taking a stand for indigenous rights. The intent of such a committee is very clear. It is a colonial white-wash designed to paper over polices of dispossession that continue. The ALP through Dodson has destroyed what may have been an opportunity to redress the many grievances indigenous people hold. The Labor party have performed this manoeuvre because they know the government will not withstand any test of accountability.
The ALP have shown their true colours by placating themselves so gratuitously towards the British crown and their gestures towards indigenous people amount to empty hand-wringing.
Little wonder then that Lidia Thorpe was moved to say, writing for The Guardian:
It is insulting that the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has called the 22 September public holiday a “National Day of Mourning for Her Majesty The Queen,” when First Nations people have called for 26 January to be acknowledged as a Day of Mourning since 1938.
We called for a Day of Mourning so that this country could understand how we’re still affected by colonisation today. We’re not grieving a singular human life, we’re reeling from the violence that is the legacy of the monarchy.
Unless the government can come to terms with the legacy of previous colonial governments it will continue to receive the ire of those who truly speak for indigenous people. Measures such as constitutional recognition and the voice to parliament can only be seen as window dressing for a successor regime that is only making things worse for indigenous people.
It’s time to listen to those who are leading the struggle for indigenous rights and establish a treaty that gives aboriginal people sovereignty over their ancestral homelands.