Eating people is wrong

7

I first entered the hallowed halls of a university a long long time ago. So long that my lecturers were monks in full monkish gear, there were theologians, we ate in a Refectory, wore gowns and mortar boards for graduation, and lived in “colleges” (well, some of us did, the wealthier ones); there were cloisters (sort of!) somewhere, and a tower where bells were rung for the call to prayers (no, made up the bells).
…Read more

Animal Farm

3

A small herd of pigs arrived on the farm a week or so ago. Destructive creatures, destroying the world they live in as if they had an alternative in mind. Haven’t seen them before, looks like they have moved out of the forest up in the hills to the East, and down on to the lower plains to pillage. Perhaps they will become adapted to the soft lotus-eating life down here.

On the occasions when those of us on the Left dare to question the rise and rise of libertarianism, neoconservatism, conservatism, drown-government-in-a-bathtub-but-promote-the-combination-of-church-and-state, corporations-are-people nastiness, we generally get told we are wishy-washy idealists who have no idea of human nature which is red in tooth and claw and the devil take the hindmost because there is no-such-thing-as-society.
…Read more

Bound for Botany Bay

3

Ah, Xmas, mistletoe, Xmas trees, snow, hot roast dinners with Yorkshire pud, plum puddings with threepences in. Could be at Manor Farm with the Pickwick Club could we not? Except we’re not. We’re in Western Australia in the 1950s. The temperature outside is 40 degrees C, inside hotter as the wood-fired oven cooks the roast chicken and potatoes. The “snow” is artificial, powder sprinkled on a northern hemisphere pine. The assembled family are sweating with the heat. The children are demanding to go to the beach but being told to shoosh because it was Xmas. Ah yes, the Dickens Xmas, the Prince Albert Xmas, just one of the many inappropriate things exported from Britain to its former colony in the south seas.

It would have been better for the Australian environment if, on 26 January 1788, the ships rounding the Heads into Sydney Harbour, had contained not English, Irish, Scots and Welsh soldiers and convicts, but settlers from southern Africa, Middle East, western China, or Chile.

Thing is the British soldiers, convicts, and later free settlers all brought with them a great deal of cultural baggage. It wasn’t just that the seasonal greetings and celebrations of Xmas were taking part in a totally inappropriate environmental setting, so was everything else. The heavy clothing that was worn, the inappropriate housing that was built, also would have been better discarded on the London or Liverpool docks. Those things, like Xmas celebrations, didn’t matter much, apart from generations to come feeling discomfort, especially in Summer. They were retained, like the monarchy, long past their rational use-by dates as a way for strangers in a strange land to cling to their heritage.

But there was other cultural baggage, unrecognised for many years, which was much more important and damaging. They were coming from a small island country which had, in no particular order: plenty of water; managed forests of deciduous trees; deep soils; island climate with the added impact of the Gulf Stream; no catastrophic events, notably drought or fire; a fear of “wilderness”; the removal of any animals perceived as a threat; the presence of a number of species which had, it would turn out, enormous potential to become pests in a new environment.

People were coming to a country where those things were not true, the reverse in fact, but they would perceive it through eyes conditioned to the natural world of Britain. Just as they brought hot Xmas dinners and three-piece woollen suits, they also began stocking the country with British animals so they would feel at home, could continue hunting. In came (almost unbelievably) foxes, rabbits, hares, sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, most of which would go on to become pests that would damage the environment on a catastrophic scale. In came willows, poplars, pines, oaks, elms, to replace the despised native trees cut down and burnt. Anything un-Australian was prized.

They would clear land whose thin top soil was only being held there by vegetation; pump water from streams that were only seasonal, from rivers whose flow was very irregular; stock land at high rates according to what a really good season could support, as if the good times would never end; plant monoculture crops over huge areas; pretend that eucalypt forests could be “managed”, initially by cutting down trees, later by use of fire; hunt and wipe out thylacines, and so on. [Oddly perhaps, they didn't bring with them the one practice, hedgerows, which would have been a plus in Australia]. Farming practices that had evolved over thousands of years to suit British conditions, were applied indiscriminately to a continent that hadn’t evolved to cope with them. But people were comfortable with retained Britishness in land management as in everything else, and so forests were cleared, land was overgrazed, rivers and irrigation basins were drained, topsoil blew away, species became extinct.

Things have gradually changed. Hot roast dinners have mostly given way to backyard barbecues, or salads and seafood at the beach. Houses are better designed for climate extremes (and are beginning to incorporate energy-saving and solar panels to make use of the Australian sunshine). Still have suits and ties of course (in spite of the efforts of one state premier in the 70s to popularise light “safari suits” for business wear), and still have the monarchy, but hey, some things take time.

Land management change takes time too. Oh a lot has been learnt about dry land farming, preparing for droughts, stocking rates, crop and stock varieties, working thin soils, being more efficient with water and chemical use, and so on. There has been a big development of wind breaks, equivalent in a sense to the British hedgerow. On the other hand forests and woodlands are still being woodchipped or cleared at high rates, with massive outcries at any attempt to slow down let alone stop it; irrigation, including, astonishingly, for crops like cotton and rice, is still full steam ahead, again with massive reaction whenever there is a suggestion it might be reduced; killing of native species goes on as frequently as it ever did; people are still talking nonsense about using fire and “thinning” to “manage” forests; and many farmer’s organisations are still hotbeds of climate change denial (change that will decisively demonstrate that we are not living in Britain). A long way to go, and no time.

Time we became un-British (well, except for cricket of course).

Pastime with good company

16

I recently, and somewhat belatedly, watched the Showtime tv series “The Tudors” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0758790/. Pretty good series, on the whole, and an excellent introduction to the reign of Henry VIII. It should, I reckon, be made compulsory viewing for the following people:
1 those who think religion should play a much bigger role in our society.
2 those who support monarchic/autocratic government
3 those who support laissez faire economics
4 those who think justice should be decided by public opinion not courts
5 those in favour of death penalty
6 those comfortable with huge wealth disparities
7 those against feminism
8 those against public education for all
9 those against science and medicine
10 those who believe in trickle down economics

There, I’m sure you guys can think of other lessons from history as we seemed doomed to repeat it.

Royal Progress

12

There are Australian people who express the kind of adoration for the royal family of Britain (and of Denmark more recently) that others reserve for footballers and celebrities and religious leaders. When I see or hear one of these mad people, trotted out by the media every time there is the faintest whiff of a Republic in the eucalypt-scented air, I wonder about their powers of logic, just as I do when I hear a creationist or climate change denier.

As best I understand it, at the very moment in 1066 that William of Normandy planted his flag in the corpse of the last Anglo Saxon King of part of England, god infused his DNA with a quality of royalness. So, from that moment to now and well into the 21st century (assuming young Willie manages to put a bit of DNA into Kate), a thousand years later, anyone having a bit of that DNA passed on through, what, 50 generations, gets to be the monarch of Britain and to be worshipped by ordinary people without the DNA. I’m sure you can see a flaw or two in the proposition. In the first place, leaving aside the whole god-royal DNA thingy which might just have a tiny problem or two, whatever the merits of William’s DNA, his offspring had only half of it, their offspring a quarter, and as soon as ten generations we are down to les than one thousandth of the essence of William. I will leave it to you to work out where we are after 50 generations.

But even that calculation of course makes the assumption that old Normandy Bill passed on his genetic makeup in an unbroken line down to our own dear queen and beyond. Anyone with even a smattering of recollection of the British Monarch-based history universally taught in Australia when I was a lad will recall the odd hiccup along that smooth unbroken line of succession. For most of the 1000 years the one who became king was the one not with the most William DNA but the one with the big battalions, and bigger sword. There are interlopers, and sidetracks, and dead ends, and usurpers to such a tangled web we weave that the chances of even the slightest bit of royal William the Conqueror’s DNA remaining are zero, zilch, non-existent, less than none. Remember, even in recent times, that our dear queen is a fluke, not meant to hold the royal sceptre, get the sacred oil put on her head. That if she had a brother her life would have been like that of sister Maggie, since lacking a y chromosome stops the royalness of the DNA becoming realised. Similarly her dad wasn’t meant to have a crown, being the younger brother and all, and only first sons get the full benefit of royal DNA. But then old Eddie fell for a scarlet woman, and since a woman who isn’t a virgin can’t act as a receptacle for royal DNA because having had intercourse with a non-royal pollutes her uterus (a belief still held by some breeders of sheep and cattle), old Eddie had to pass on his royalness to Bertie, via a secret handshake, and take his woman, and their rather unfortunate political allegiances, away from the land that William once conquered for Normandy.

The queen’s great grandmother of course, she who passed on, as well as royal DNA, an unfortunate gene that wiped out potential royals by making them bleed to death, only became queen as a result of the unfortunate and barren circumstances of her two predecessors. And their predecessors were only royal by a fluke after sailing in from distant Hanover. And all that only takes us back some 250 years. So I suppose the question for monarchists is, if you really think you are worshipping the current holder of a bit of DNA derived from chance events (Harold of course being bloody unlucky, really, to be dead) in the eleventh century on the south coast of England, how do you imagine that DNA got to young William?

But maybe you haven’t thought through the DNA stuff. Fine. Do you think instead that there has been some kind of legal and constitutional passing on of the kingship like an extended torch relay? That, you know, “the king is dead, long live the king” and so on. Again, I hate to remind you, same problem as the DNA. Remember (of just a few moments) “my horse my horse, my kingdom” etc, crown found on the battlefield, dead princes in tower, Mary dying before she could kill Lizzie, the ride to Scotland to announce that there was a kingship of England going if the king of Scotland wanted it, James driven out by a Dutchman, the phone call to the Elector of Hanover, you remember all that? So sure, the winning king each time rewrote the rule books to ensure that everything was now, in retrospect, legal and above board, and the succession had passed on properly, but we all know that is bullshit, yes?

So given all the extra-legal shenanigans of crown passing-on at times (and I haven’t even mentioned the gaggle of royal consorts from all over Europe, including H8′s six attempts to find a suitable batch of DNA to mix with his) what current monarchists seem to be saying is this. George 6, nice enough fellow, not sharpest knife in the drawer and never seen as foreman material, but scrubbed up all right when the stammer was gone. Pity no son, but you can’t have everything, and not being pro-Nazi a big plus. So King George, hands to QE2, hands to C3 (no, you don’t get a vote, wanna have your royal cake and eat it too?), hands to W5, hands to baby bump. There, that’s a proper legal succession with not too much dilution of Bertie’s blood eh?

But if this is the structure of the monarchist world, then what the hell is it about? Of 30 million people, was Bertie Wooster (sorry G6) really the one you’d choose to be the boss of your country if you had your druthers? QE2, ok, mostly harmless, but put her in a room with a thousand of her exact female peers and I bet you wouldn’t pick her out. And then C3. I mean, he’s um, well, nutty, not to put too fine a point on it. If he’s applying for a job with you as office boy against a field of three, do you think you’d give it to him? Of 60 million people, is he really the best and the brightest?

And then William. Nice enough lad it seems, but if he had swapped identities with a fellow student at St Andrews, would you have been any the wiser? Helicopter pilot, great, uniquely for a royal heir he has a trade, but is he capable of anything but driving a helicopter and impregnating fair lady?

So here’s this bunch of imperfectly ordinary, at times dysfunctional, extended family whose only claims to fame is inherited wealth, the ability to say nothing at length, and, somewhere on their persons, a tattooed royal barcode ready to be scanned when earlier lives draw peacefully to close.

Sorry, but what the hell is it about this system that brings apparently normal people to tears and hero worship? Why on earth would you want this gaggle of unemployable people given the job of heading up not just one country but many including some on other side of world. What the hell do you imagine the advantage is of worshipping this crew rather than electing, every five years, someone with talent and wit, from among your fellow citizens, to do the job, such as it is?

Am I missing something here?

It couldn’t be, could it, that monarchists still believe in that other aspect of kingship that old Billy passed down to his heirs, that the way to rule people was to put the fear of god into them. That kings were not merely a man among other men, primus inter pares, but were in fact god’s representative on earth, ready to make a preliminary judgement on whether people had been naughty or nice before they even got to the pearly gates. That kings could heal people with a touch or kill people with a gesture, and god was behind them all the way. That behind every good king was a good, or a bad, depending, god. That getting a crown wasn’t just like getting the ultimate Boy Scout badge for kingship, but, held over a head by a priest, was a signal to god that here was a new God Rep, ready to be sworn in to the heavenly gang. That the holy oil with which the priest anointed kings was, like the biscuit thingy at mass, actually a real thing with real powers. I mean our modern monarchists, in Australia, in the year 2012, couldn’t actually still believe in the divine right of kings.

Could they?

Note – This post was inspired by a challenge from Matt da Silva on completing a post on royalty at his blog.

I have had other goes at this family of Saxe-Coburg-Gothas and their Australian cheerleaders on this blog
here
and here
and at last here

The Right Dishonourable

4

At the height of the Ottoman Empire the method of succession was that as soon as the old Sultan died the eldest son of the chief concubine had all his half brothers killed so they could never be threats to his rule. England had a slightly more indirect process – the Wars of the Roses, for example, went on until there was only one possible king left, and there were numerous other battles, invasions, murders. In most countries indeed, at various times, potential kings battled it out with each other until the rivals were dead. And many of their subjects, especially if they had picked the wrong side. Same true for some countries after disposing of kings and becoming republics, notably Revolutionary France and the Soviet Union – jails full and bodies disposed of.

You could easily argue that while the emergence of democracies was a means of letting first the rich, then ordinary citizens, and finally women, vote to choose their leaders, an even more important advance of a democracy was in establishing a permanent structure of government which included a legal opposition (“His Majesty’s loyal opposition” in England to make it really official), an alternative government. Well and good, until some of the leaders elected by the people began to think that they should rule, in the interests of the people of course, forever, and in that circumstance having an opposition, an “alternative government” was not only unnecessary but might confuse the voters.

So in parts of the world governments began killing, jailing, demonising, silencing, opposition parties and leaders. Originally in countries including Germany, Chile, Argentina, Soviet Union, Indonesia, China. More recently in countries such as Malaysia, Russia, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Ukraine, Burma. Not democracies – a democracy could be defined as one which has free and fearless opposition parties, alternative governments in both name and reality.

This sort of thing didn’t happen in western democracies of course, including our own (although the aftermath of the Qld election is worrying). Governments didn’t like oppositions, but generally treated them according to the old adage “be nice to people on your way up because you will meet them again on your way down”. But more recently in America, quickly followed by here, the opposition parties decided they would turn the tables. Allowing for different systems, Republicans and Liberals have blocked as much govt legislation as possible, blocked appointments, attacked public servants, put gunsights on pictures of opponents, called for killing, tried to delegitimise the leaders of the governments, set up fake protest groups, screamed abuse and disrupted parliamentary proceedings, and, recently here, have tried to destroy the careers of the Speaker of the House, and one of the MPs, in order to bring down the government.

Same approach, in reverse, as from those dictatorships. Just as damaging to a democracy.

Give the order

2

You all remember Old King Canute taking his throne down to the beach, right – “Cnut set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes. Yet “continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”

Possibly true, possibly not. It was a thousand years ago, if it happened, and our media finds it impossible to recount accurately something that happened 1000 minutes ago. But if it wasn’t then it should have been. Should have been read out to every subsequent king and baron. Oh not the god nonsense of course, they did enough of that for themselves, but the idea that the most powerful person had no control over the natural world and its “laws”.

Certainly should be read out to Ms Gina Rinehart, richest woman in the universe, well, Australia anyway, and probably the one with the greatest hubris, now that Maggie Thatcher and Sarah Palin have left politics.

She was fairly private and low key until a couple of years ago. Then she emerged in the front of a crowd of well-dressed protesters, with professionally printed signs, bused in from a nearby office to stand at attention on astroturf. It was a very small crowd, but with the use of a camera carefully focussed just on the front row, managed to give the most inaccurate record of an event since US soldiers pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein in a pretence it was a sign of popular support for the invasion.

But I digress. There was Gina (was she holding a sign? I forget) chanting with the others “Whaddawe want? No taxes for billionaires. Whendowe want it? Now”. No, I made that up a little bit, a rough translation but capturing the essence of the event.

Made so much noise that day and other days through the media they won the debate, tax essentially dropped, prime minister dumped from office partly as a result. Power, sure, but not much different to the power the very rich have been exerting in this egalitarian society for 200 years.

And then I read this and suddenly we were into much more sinister doings. Into the American world of the Koch Brothers, and PACs, corporations as people, and the Heritage Foundation.

So it has gone ahead. Last few days have seen Rinehart taking the major shareholding in Fairfax, Plimer appointed to her boards. And the IPA, apparently also supported by her financially has, over the last few years, become ubiquitous almost daily across all the media of the ABC. Some of the details about this are available here and here and here.

So we are reaching a situation where Murdoch controls 70% of the Australian commercial media, Rinehart in effect will control much of the rest, and the IPA is ensuring that the ABC takes a strongly right wing view of every issue and climate change is scarcely ever mentioned.

So expect over the next decades, that these powerful people will ensure the election of an ultra conservative Coalition government, the media will release only information it wants released and will tell you what to think about it, that no action witll be taken on climate change in any way, and environmental protection and regulation will be smashed. I can see no way of stopping this no matter how many of us blog away in our small corners of this brown land. Twenty billion dollars versus twenty million people in a democracy? No contest.

But then in ten years time I have a picture of this lonely woman sitting on a throne on a beach. Behind her a gaggle of shock jocks and climate change deniers and mining CEOs and conservative politicians. One of them is saying “Give the order, O great Queen, and it will obey”. She is holding out her hand to the sea and commanding “climate stop changing”, but then she gets drowned by the rising water levels and I can see her no more.

La même chose

9

It’s one of those historic events that still, 630 years on, resonate with modern times and make your blood run cold.

In 1381 the so-called “Peasant’s Revolt” led by Wat Tyler massed tens of thousands of poor people protesting the new “Poll Tax” which, like our GST, made poor people pay as much tax as rich people. And against the essentially slavery conditions many of them worked under.

Richard II, then just a teenager, agreed in one meeting to a number of things the protesters wanted. Then in a second meeting the Mayor of London treacherously stabbed Wat Tyler during further negotiations. Tyler rode off, the king led the others into a trap and they were then dispersed. Tyler was dragged out of hospital and beheaded.

Then as Peter Ackroyd* recounts “A few days later Richard revoked the charter of emancipation [freedom of slaves, fair rent for land, punishment of the poll tax gatherers] he had granted to the crowd at Mile End, on the ground that it had been extorted from him by violence. He travelled to Essex in order to observe the aftermath of the now extinguished revolt. A group of villagers there asked him to remain faithful to the pledges he had made them a few days before.

His reply was:

“You wretches are detestable both on land and on sea. You seek equality with the lords, but you are unworthy to live. Give this message to your fellows: rustics you are, and rustics you will always be. You will remain in bondage, not as before, but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live we will strive to suppress you, and your misery will be an example to prosperity.”


A few months later “A parliament was called … where it was proposed that the state of bondage known as villeinage should be abolished.The Lords and Commons, their vital interests as landlords at stake, unanimously voted against any such action.” The leaders of the rebels were rounded up and beheaded (John Ball, as a major leader with Tyler, being hung drawn and quartered).

So a sad story. Just one of many attempts all over the world, through the centuries, to improve the lot of ordinary people, which has been met with brutal repression. And what struck me, reading the king’s words again, was that they could be used, unchanged, by billionaires and corporate leaders around the world today. And by their political front men (and women – not hard to imagine Thatcher making such a speech to the coal miners for example). The power relationships, and attitudes, in spite of centuries of “democratic advance”, remain unchanged in 2012, as seen in the Republican front-runners, the Cameron UK Government, the Australian Opposition.

* Peter Ackroyd 2011 “The History of England vol 1 Foundation” Macmillan, London

Counting out his money

9

What slogan is above the door of the free marketeer’s think tanks? No, it’s not “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”, you naughty people. It’s “Government small enough to drown in a bathtub”.

These people believe that “government” should leave banks and financial institutions alone, get rid of regulation, has no business in business, as it were, should “get out of the way” of private enterprise, and so on. Any suggestion that the “government” should do something about CEO salaries, risky investments, fees, interest rates, is met with the outrage usually reserved for apostates from a religion. And the outrage in turn is largely met with acquiescence by the media, themselves determined not to be regulated in any way. Faced with the unanimity of “think tanks”, media, and of course the financial institutions themselves, politicians from both “sides” have quickly jumped in to say “oh my goodness gracious me heavens to betsy why no of COURSE we wouldn’t want to regulate banks etc. Reckon we are socialists or something?”

So let’s think about this for a moment. Twenty two million Australians elect several hundred people from among their number to represent their interests. Each one has gained the confidence of tens of thousands (in the case of Senators hundreds of thousands) of people. And yet, these people, combining to form a “government”, are told, by a handful of people with a bizarre ideology, that they must not attempt to have any control over the organisations that not only serve the financial needs of the 22 million, but through their activities fundamentally control the economy of the nation.

That is forget the word “government” as used pejoratively by this little band of reverse Sherwood Foresters, instead say to yourself – these financial bodies are supposed to have no oversight by we, the people of Australia? Really? How did that come to be a thing?

Well it came to be a thing because the banks and the think tanks kept saying it, and a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth for all practical purposes these days.

Look, money isn’t a get out of jail free card. Oh, sorry, yes it is of course. Let’s start again.

Just because your major activity, your role in society, involves money, doesn’t mean you can do what you like. I mean, banks aren’t churches, are they?

In almost all other major kinds of activities in our society we, as a people, through our government, decide how we want those things to work. If you are in medicine, teaching, building roads, serving food, police, flying planes, and all the rest, you work within structures, within limits, for the good of society.

Once upon a time only the church was, as they say, a law unto itself. the reason was obvious, they had you over a barrel, in an explicit, and exquisite form of blackmail – try to rein us in and we will damn your soul to eternal hell, no white robes, harps, bunches of grapes or virgins for you. So they were left alone and for centuries did very nicely thank you. Still do pretty nicely actually with tax exemptions, and ability to make their own laws, and avoidance of laws on discrimination, and largely a freedom from discrimination. Nice work if you can get it and they got it.

And then a second group achieved a similar status floating above and beyond ordinary mortals – the media. Achieved in the same way – hey, try to control us, even look sideways at us, and we will hack our phone, have you on the front page of a fish and chip wrapper; or running the perp walk between serried ranks of cameras and blonds with microphones as weapons, outside your own front door every morning. Wouldn’t like that would you mr politician, we know where you live, and we know where your children go to school, oh, and we have a copy of that ill-advised video you and your wife made on holiday in Bali. Any questions? Right then, piss off and leave us alone.

And now the third of this unholy triumvirate. The blackmailing style the same, the weapons slightly different. Not being poked by imps with red hot pokers for eternity, or junior reporters with red hot microphones, but worse, much worse, blackmailed by the guys, and gals, with the keys to the treasure chest. You want us to do what? Cut CEO salary from $20million to $19million, pass on interest rate savings to home buyers, lend more to small business, reduce fees on breathing while in bank, stop playing risky games with dodgy financial brothers? Right, we’re out of here, got a place to go to in Panama, Liberia, Burma, Zimbabwe, no nonsense about regulation there, few dollars to the country’s president and you can do what you like. See ya.

No wonder solidarity from the media, playing similar games. No wonder support from libertarians who mistake a license to print money for a statement about human freedom. No wonder that other industries, seeing the way these groups have got away with murder as effectively as Al Capone, are adopting the same tactics. MIners, clubs, supermarkets, manufacturers have all been at it, when faced with royalty payments, or regulation of problem gamblers, or food labelling.

So time we the people told our representatives we want the bluff called. Want banks behaving responsibly before we count to ten. Nine, ten, knockout. And the blackmail? To hell with it. Do you really think a rich country with 22 million people can’t develop new community banks if the others pick up their notes and coins and go home? Some genuine competition from groups prepared to work with community for a modest return rather than against it for greed would quickly emerge. Competition, you see, remember that quaint concept? Bit old-fashioned, but then I’m just an old fashioned guy with an old-fashioned idea about millionaires.

And with that victory under the belt the government could then tackle the media, and then, gulp, the church. Let’s move from the 14th to the 21st century in one giant leap. And put the fear of god into these other wannabe blackmailers while we are at it.

Oh, and that sound you hear? Tents being folded in the night as the freemarket think-tankers, no longer a job to do blocking regulation here and no money to be earned from doing so, head for Zimbabwe and freedom.

And Justices for all

5

Look forget about the Monarchists for a moment. The ones with flags and funny hats and collections of Charles and Diana commemorative mugs; the ones who camp out for two days on the street to possibly catch a glimpse of a gloved hand waving from a speeding limousine; the ones who spontaneously sing “god save the queen” or are in tears at the thought that they have been in the same public space as a person of royal blood. Forget them, I say (and yes, I know it’s not easy), and let’s look at the question of Australian “head of state” in a different way.

Oridinary intelligent thoughtful people (ie not monarchists) can still sometimes remain opposed to the idea of a “republic” in Australia. They will say “would you rather have the Queen or George W Bush?” and I admit that it is a fair question (more widely they will refer to the presidents of African or South American banana republics, suggesting that we are better off with the queen in, now that bananas are cheap again, a banana monarchy). Even more generally they will say “well, we have to have a head of state, so it might as well be the Queen, because elected presidents have too much power” (essentially the argument John Howard used to win the unloseable referendum on the republic). And so the combination of mad-brained monarchists and the apparently rational “we have to have a head of state might as well be the queen” middle-of-the-roaders, dooms us to another thousand years of the French-Scottish-German British Monarchy.

Look from time to time (not a lot of time) I mull over this issue when there is some media eruption over the sacred nature of the monarchy and how when people marry into it they (usually, except Fergie) acquire the magic DNA during a kiss on the balcony and become imbued with royalness themselves. I think of trying to explain to people that they are confused between the presidential style of executive government (US, Russia, France, China effectively, and, yes indeed, South American countries) and the Westminster style (Britain, Japan, Australia, Ireland, India). In the former the President holds the dual roles of head of government and head of state so an election sees the instant transfer of the embodiment of the state and its continuity to the winner of the election. In the latter the prime minister is there at the whim of parliament, and can be overthrown at any moment by a vote of no confidence in parliament or party room. In these countries then the continuity of the state, the person who hands the keys to the prime ministerial residence to the new leader, and who meets other leaders of countries as the symbolic embodiment of their own country, has to be represented by someone independent of the normal election cycle. Sometimes this is a monarch (Britain, Japan), sometimes a person elected to the role (Ireland, India) – and only to the role, taking absolutely no part, and there being no mechanism to take part, in the political issues and battles of the day.

But I tend to get tired about half way through that explanation and give up. If people don’t understand that there is absolutely no proposal by anyone to swich from Westminster govt to presidential govt in Australia then there is no way of reaching them.

But during the recent royal visit, as the Queen wandered around curing sickness by touching people or merely by being seen by them, I had a blinding epiphany. Why do we need a head of state at all? Or rather, to be more precise, why do we need a head of state who lives in govt house and puts the queen up in her spare bedroom and sits in the head of state box at Olympic Games? It is always confusing things (remember the arguments about arch-monarchist Howard going to the Games in Sydney). Essentially these days the PM accompanies the GG to any occasion where “Australia” is meeting “some other country”. The last time the GG played any role in sorting out a dispute in the actual political process and government of Australia was 1975 when unelected John Kerr so spectacularly injected himself into politics and corrupted our democracy for a decade.

Otherwise the GGs constitutional role has been restricted to making a batch of scones and handing a pen to the incoming PM to sign the pathetic oath of office (in which they essentially just promise to be PM). Then they all have a glass of best bubbly and stand around making small talk for 5 minutes before the PM goes off and does some real work. If we really do need someone to do that then there are any number of candidates around the country. Little old ladies, little old men, living in small country towns could be slipped a few dollars for scone mix every three years and the new PM and ministers could drop in to sign a stat dec to say they are going to be nice to poor people and not wreck the joint. I am referring of course to Justices of the Peace. Pick one at random out of a hat or a computer, ask for a volunteer. They don’t have much else to do except witness documents for the peasantry, they could easily do the same for the new government.

If there was some kind of constitutional crisis – and it is hard to picture what it might be, other than some even more complex variant on the last hung election – then I reckon any country JP could set the two opposing leaders down in the front parlour with a glass of home brew and bang their heads together until common sense prevailed. If it didn’t (and I only say this given the nature of the current Opposition Leader) then a committee composed of the Speaker of the House, the President of the Senate, and the Clerk of the House could be called in like a football review tribunal to make a final decision.

There you go. No foreign Queen. No Governor General. No elected President getting uppity. And a huge saving of money.

Some of which a grateful nation could send my way.