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

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


In fact, it wasn’t just good, it was great.

Because no other action could better prove the freedom and security we enjoy in our democracy.

Think for a moment: on that very day, specially marked for the solemn celebration of the death of our head of state, we witnessed the desecration of our national symbol and curses on the occasion of her death.

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

There could be no greater advertisement for both the stability and the freedom we enjoy in this country. We are indeed a happy country, and not only in the pejorative sense in which Donald Horn originally meant this phrase.

Because it wasn’t just luck that brought us here. The modern, multicultural and democratic state of Australia is a marvel of both chance and design, a tripartite product of constitution, convention and common sense.

We have inherited the best of Britain’s long developed and intricate traditions of individual rights and combined them with the democratic systems and guarantees of revolutionary America.

Like all countries, we have a history drenched in blood and riddled with prejudice, but the actual formation of our nation was a remarkably peaceful affair. Indeed, for the most part it was delightfully boring.

And, of course, our attitude towards those we colonized or conquered – depending on your version of history – fluctuated between ugliness and ignorance, but it is undoubtedly better than it was.

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

Contrast this with the world’s flagship of democracy, the US, where poverty thrives and unrest is almost ritualistic.

Compare this even to England’s home counties, where riots burned down the capital just ten years ago.

Sure, we’ve had a few: Cronulla, Redfern, Macquarie Fields and more recently a bit of anti-lockdown anger, but we haven’t had anything on the scale that other countries have visited. Neither citywide devastation nor nationwide chaos knocked us down.

There is a fairly reliable way to estimate the capital of a nation state, and that is by counting those who are struggling to get into it versus those who are struggling to get out of it. Australia constantly scores countless points against none.

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

And this is the supreme irony of the protesters’ declamations about the crown and British history in general. For all her mistakes and countless atrocities committed over the centuries, she brought us to this place. The place is clearly imperfect, but as good or better than any other on earth.

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

But there is no doubt that many people, overwhelmingly indigenous, continue to suffer enormous disadvantage and poverty from generation to generation due to colonization. It is unlikely that this is the fault of Elizabeth II, who actually led the mass decolonization, but this does not make her any less true.

And so we are faced with the task of finding a way to cure these ailments. Not through an absurd reparation scheme that would reduce history to an arbitrary time-shifting lawsuit, but by directing all of our national efforts towards those who are still disadvantaged and ensuring that they have access to the same social, educational and work opportunities that the rest of us enjoy.

Replacing the head of our state, substituting one ceremonial role for another, will definitely not fix anything. Although I am by tribe and inclination an Irish Republican Catholic, I cannot imagine a more useless undertaking at this stage in the history of our country.

But what might work is the creation of a “Voice of First Nations” in Parliament that will ensure that the policies of legislators and bureaucrats to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples are actually informed by Indigenous peoples themselves.

If radical protesters are sincerely interested in making a difference and improving the lot of our Indigenous brothers, they should focus their energy on this simple and achievable step, and not shout into the void.

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

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