Nobody was expecting much from public debate, and we seemed to get less than even that. By the time we had a Senator telling another Senator to go back to Pakistan, we should have known that we’d reached a new low point.
The public discourse about the death of Queen Elizabeth II passed through several phases quickly. First, we heard that she was under observation. Then we heard she was dead. We moved quickly to how the death of a 96 year old who recently lost their partner was actually an example of a failure of pandemic policy. And then rapidly to who could write the most tasteless shitpost on social media.
‘It’s never an appropriate time to discuss [the Republic, colonialism, random political topic]!’ claimed people who routinely took every opportunity they could to discuss the Republic, colonialism, and random political topics. And yet every critical comment of the monarchy–no matter how balanced or reasonable–was met with a flood of trolls throwing any shit that was ready to hand. An Indigenous academic noting the Crown’s ongoing role in dispossession was met with an appalling wave of transphobia.
And then there were the usual ‘free speech’ clowns who felt that it really should be a ‘no holds barred’ approach to what public figures say. A flurry of opinion pieces were drafted after the Rugby League issued a one match ban to an Indigenous player in the women’s league for her comments about the Queen’s death. Unsurprisingly, the discussion was framed in the most abstract possible terms–‘The Rugby League is censoring an Indigenous woman!’–and yeeting all the friction about the content of the situation: ‘this dumb dog dies Happpy fkn Friday’. I still think a penalty is excessive here, but I don’t think a penalty is manifestly unreasonable.
Was I stupid for thinking that a death would reduce the toxicity in public debate? If you’re confronted by human realities of death, loss, and grief, do you temper your politics and recognise social obligations towards each other?
I think it’s one of the worst aspects of Australia’s asylum seeker policy debate. Each death of an asylum seeker hits me hard. If we want the system of ordered, regional frameworks, how do we stop the worst outcomes? How do we ensure that we retain dignity within the system? No matter our politics, we should have found it revolting when political figures trivialised self-harm as a mere political stunt.
Or the fact that quite a large section of the Australian public accepts Indigenous deaths in custody as simply a fact of life rather than a failure of the State. I remember how badly sections of the media and public figures treated the families of people who had died in custody, as if their loss was very sad but… and then some horrific claim to minimise the loss would follow soon thereafter as if they somehow deserved to die.
And if this is how political and media elites behave in response to the deaths of the disenfranchised, maybe I was just extremely stupid to think that the politically engaged public would somehow respond better in response to the death of a political figure.
By ‘better’, I don’t even mean ‘grieve’. There was this legendary cryptid in Australia’s political debate that somebody, somewhere, had demanded that everybody grieve the death of the Queen. It was a cryptid cousin of the similarly nebulous claim that somebody, somewhere, had claimed that ‘Everybody who mourns the Queen is a racist’.
Better is a critical public response that isn’t fuelled by bad faith or jingoism. Better is a public discussion that recognises that there are a range of reasonable viewpoints here, and that different backgrounds are going to inform different responses. Better is a rational political culture that recognises that some people are going to have irrational, emotional reactions and will need help to articulate their feelings.
Because I can’t help but feel that Australia missed something here, and it was a public discussion where monarchists and conservatives should have been on the front foot to shape something vibrant and flourishing.
No matter how much we want to subscribe to Enlightenment values of public rationality in government, there is something fundamentally irrational about State power. We simply cannot reduce power to an algorithmic set of rules. Try as we might, nobody has found a good way to devolve power within a structured set of rules. The question will always be what we do with that irreducible irrationality.
Our system of government–as Bagehot correctly noted–leans into it and makes the irreducible element semi-mythic in quality: the dignified parts of the constitution that capture the imagination of the public. Here are the parts of our political system that fundamentally do not make any sense, and we give them to a person who in no way deserves to have them and wields them by virtue of their parentage. And we say to that person: ‘Here you are. Here are all the emergency powers that we cannot rationally devolve. You exercise them at will but we kindly request that you only exercise them if we have a catastrophic, existential crisis of government where our system of democracy will fall over if you don’t hit the hard reset button.’
When you have rising dissatisfaction with democracy, democratic institutions, and the public space, we had this opportunity to reconnect the public with the dignified parts of the constitution. An opportunity to ask our political leaders if they were leading with dignity. An opportunity to ask each other if we are holding our politicians to high standards of dignity.
The public debate surrounding the death of the Queen made me think that political culture was probably a lot worse than I had realised. If even the death of a person doesn’t make people engage in some kind of quiet contemplation about our social framework, what will it take?