Joe Hildebrand: Queen Elizabeth flag burning protests show how free Australia is

Two days ago, as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese led a national day of mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, a handful of radical protesters took to the streets chanting obscenities and burning flags.


In fact, not only was it a good thing, it was a great thing.

Because no other act could better demonstrate the freedom and security we enjoy in our democracy.

Think about it for a moment: on the very day specially marked for the solemn commemoration of the passing of our Head of State, we have witnessed the desecration of our national symbol and the swear-laden celebrations of his death.

And yet, there were no riots, there were no deaths and no one was even arrested. Meanwhile, the rest of the country – some 25 million people – either respectfully marked the Queen’s legacy or spent the day peacefully with colleagues, friends and family.

There could be no greater publicity for the stability and freedom we enjoy in this nation. We are indeed the lucky country, and not just in the derogatory sense that Donald Horne first wanted to give to this expression.

Because it wasn’t just luck that brought us here. The modern, multicultural and democratic Australian state is both an accidental and a designed miracle, a tripartite product of constitution, convention and common sense.

We have inherited the best of the long-standing and convoluted British traditions of individual rights and married it to the democratic systems and safeguards of revolutionary America.

Like all countries, we have a history steeped in blood and steeped in prejudice, but the formation of our nation today has been a remarkably peaceful affair. Indeed, for the most part, it was delightfully dull.

And of course our relationship with those we’ve colonized or conquered – depending on your version of the story – has oscillated between ugliness and ignorance, but it’s probably better than it was.

Compare that to Russia, where 1,300 people were just arrested for protesting Putin’s war on Ukraine and his attempt to enlist 300,000 citizens – more like subjects – for his bloody cause.

Compare that to the world’s flagship of democracy, the United States, where poverty is rampant and rioting is almost ritualistic.

Compare it even to the home counties of England, where riots torched the capital just a decade ago.

Sure, we’ve had a few: Cronulla, Redfern, Macquarie Fields and more recently some lockdown anger, but we haven’t had anything on the scale that has visited other nations. No citywide destruction or nationwide chaos has crippled us.

There is a pretty sure way to gauge the stock of a nation state and that is a tally of those struggling to get in versus those struggling to get out. Australia constantly rates countless against none.

Indeed, the only nations that come to mind with equally benevolent and peaceful societies are Canada and New Zealand. And guess what we all have in common?

And that is the supreme irony of the protesters’ rants about the Crown and British history more generally. For all his faults and myriad atrocities dating back centuries, he brought us here. A place that is clearly flawed but as good or better than any other on earth.

And a place where they can today express their anger, protected by the rule of law and a tradition of freedom of expression, including the freedom to express hatred of these same institutions.

But there is no doubt that many people, overwhelmingly First Nations people, still suffer enormous intergenerational disadvantage and poverty as a result of colonization. It is not the fault of Elizabeth II, who in fact presided over the mass decolonization, but it is no less true.

And so the task before us is to find a way to remedy these evils. Not through an absurd system of reparations that would reduce all of history to an arbitrary trial of time travel, but by directing all our national efforts towards those who are still disadvantaged and ensuring that they have access to the same opportunities social, educational and employment opportunities that the rest of us enjoy.

Replacing our head of state, substituting one ceremonial role for another, will do precisely nothing to fix that. While I am by tribe and inclination an Irish Catholic Republican, I cannot for the life of me conceive of a cause more useless at this point in our nation’s history.

But what might work well is the creation of a First Nations voice in Parliament that will ensure that the policies of lawmakers and bureaucrats aimed at improving the lives of Indigenous people are actually informed by Indigenous people themselves.

If radical protesters are genuinely concerned with making a difference and improving the lot of our native brethren, they should focus their energies on this simple and achievable step instead of shouting into the void.

Whether it will succeed and if it works remains to be seen, we can only hope. But I can assure you that it will be much more effective than burning flags.

Originally published as Joe Hildebrand: Protesters burning Queen Elizabeth flag show we really are a lucky country

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