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Australian larrikinism is a royal myth


Queen of HeartsQueen Elizabeth's first visit to Australia in 1954 as a pretty young woman was, by all accounts, an occasion most auspicious. Of the Australian population, then around 7 million, an estimated 70 per cent made the time and distance to partake in festivities.

In 1954, 'White Australia' policies were functionally intact, women parliamentarians were incredibly few, Aboriginals did not enjoy any legal equality, and homosexual expression was illegal. Non-ballerina women, if rumour is to be believed, curtseyed. The migrants who constitute and parented a large portion of the population — myself included — had not yet arrived in Australia.

It was the year Menzies borrowed the words of Thomas Ford to describe his monarch-worship, 'I did but see her passing by, and I will love her 'til I die.'

From all I can deduce, 1954 in Australia was a provincial and suffocating place bent on sports, Mother England, and marginalising, well, pretty much everyone. Yet Australia today, as the Queen herself noted upon her arrival last week, is a vastly improved place, economically as well as culturally.

She rightly attributes the international flourishing of Australian arts to a thriving and open democracy.

This democratic ideal is threatened by flaccid cultural attitudes.

I was present at Occupy Melbourne while it was embanked at City Square in Melbourne. I spent time speaking with articulate, positive, welcoming folks working towards small-scale, community-based changes. Some were angry, others excited to be a part of something bigger than themselves. All had individual grievances, but were committed to positive change and political engagement.

The violation of their dignity and rights that saw police brutally remove them from public space was supported by a public agenda of dullness, epitomised by the parochial leadership of the City of Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle.

Dullness sounds innocuous, but from it blossoms contempt for imagination. Public opinion that is not measured by reason or compassion can be tyranny; its affects were registered here as state brutality.

My mother has the 1954 royal tour book at home, which she says is worth keeping. And it is worth keeping — as a relic of our history. She remembers a royal visit in 1963, when she was a small child, and the royal carriage rode down her street.

These memories are expressly emotional. Similarly, I will remember being one of about 30 spectators at the Greco-Roman wrestling at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Fond memories do nothing to legitimise the structural obscurity and obsoleteness of the monarchy in Australia, any more than they do that of Greco-Roman wrestling.

The political structure in Australia might appear natural to us inside the context of our history, or at least to those Australians who share that particular history. But if we could extract ourselves from this context and look at Australia now, we would register incongruity in the figure of our Queen.

There is a myth we repeat to ourselves, that Australia is a larrikin nation. The only evidence of larrikinism I can see on a daily basis is a love of swearing (I am on board) and a certain predisposition towards pub brawling (I must reserve myself here).

We are not a nation of provocateurs, but one of conformists.

India is a republic in the Commonwealth. Gay marriage is legal in South Africa and Mexico City. We enjoy great liberties, but our 'larrikin streak' seems reserved for ridiculing and silencing the progressive politics that bring about such freedoms.

Occupy Melbourne activists might come close to the real, anti-establishment larrikin, though I doubt many participants care for indulging a national mythology.

Is it that we are too lazy, or just too dull to imagine a collective future that is different to our present? I hope it is the former, but the latter is evidenced by our selection of political representatives and by our ambivalence towards participatory politics.

The fact of Queen Elizabeth being a very nice lady doesn't negate her inherited privilege, her arbitrary powers, and the fact that her reign isolates many Australians, including those more recently arrived and, most significantly, the first nations.

As Paul Keating argued through the '90s, an Australian republic is not a radical concept. Representative politics is not radical.

Committed republicans get a bad wrap — granted, some of the republican conversation is dominated by blokey and aggressive voices, leaving critics to suggest there are more pressing political concerns. But what, in a democracy, could be more pressing than a representative leadership structure? 


Ellena SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer and the immediate past editor of the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Queen Elizabeth, Occupy Melbourne



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Existing comments

"We are not a nation of provocateurs, but one of conformists" ...
Methinks you haven't been belted by a corrupt policeperson spurred on by a corrupt official ... most larrikins have.

Greig Williams | 28 October 2011  

If the author of this article thinks that the atmosphere of 1950's Australia was so bad, then why were most people very happy as a nation at that time.

To say our culture has improved today is nonsense. Today we have foul language, pornography, disgusting behaviour, the murder of babies, divorce,contraception, laugh at and hate the Social Reign of Our Lord, Jesus Christ for materialism, the destruction of the traditional family which is so important to lead a happy and secure life

Trent | 28 October 2011  

Thank you for your article. I don't see much of the cheekiness in Australian society now that was there when I arrived as a migrant in 1950. Australians used to recognise with a laugh the see through clothes of the Emperor. Now I think that as a society we have become the Emperor, anxious about how we look and perform in the world arena. We are not so ready to laugh at the weird mob we are and can be in a world of serious readiness for economic contest and war . Our politics, economy and religion lack the imagination and reason to let the "fair go" be the simple ethic for graciousness that does not prefer self-importance.

I'd like to see us recover our soul and our sense of humour.

Alex Nelson | 28 October 2011  

Yes, Australians are some of the worlds' most obedient and conformist people. For example, the Government of South Australia decided to do something good and decided to give about 500 Million plus to cricket and AFL industries. Some may argue that cricket and Football are “sport”. I fail to see how watching football or cricket is healthier than to watch a movie at home.

Here we have some of the richest sporting industries receiving hundreds of Millions in government charity, but the same Government has “lacks funds” to fix dangerous roads, do some active bush fire prevention work or maintain rural hospitals. It seems in a real democracy, it would be impossible to give this type of charity to the mega rich.

In most truly free and democratic countries we would have protest in the street. In Australia, nothing does happen as the media is also depending on the same Government charity dollar. It seems easy to justify to give a few hundred Millions to “sport” than a few dollars to hospitals. Is seems nothing is new since the Roman emperors decided that “bread and games” kept the peasants happy.

Beat Odermatt | 28 October 2011  

Beautifully and astutely said, Ellena. Its way over time for the Republic of Australia with a new constitution inclusive of our First peoples and Human Rights

Vacy Vlazna | 28 October 2011  

At last, an author not intent on over-inflating Australia or The Church!

Indeed, this is a conformist and quite dull nation-state where even the joke of 'The Lucky Country' gets missed and trotted out as a Truth, along with another shocker, that Australia invented the word 'mate' and only in Australia does 'mateship' exist, born in the forelock tugging years of WW1 and the mindless battles at Gallipoli, now rebadged as a Christian action of 'giving' and self sacrifice, trotted out to school children preyed upon by the Great Baptist's school chaplains.

God, but what puke-making self-satisfied world is produced as a result, devoid of imagination beyond naming every new roadway as Bradman Avenue, or after some other sports boof of more recent days.

Part of our malaise can be seen on proud display in the minimalist ambitions of those from ARM, who want 'change' without disturbing a single facet of Australian life.

Possibly an agreement could be reached to drop cucumber sandwiches from the new presidents afternoon tea party menu but that's about all they'd be prepared to savage I suspect.

Up the Real Republicans!

You are a real savage Ellena, on yers.

Harry Wilson | 28 October 2011  

My group of small boys grades 1 through 3, with all the rest of the boys from Morpeth. C.of E.Grammar school, went to a large oval, maybe in Newcastle to be present while the Queen visited, very briefly. All the school children of the area were gathered there for a very brief and distant glimpse of her Majesty. It rained and everyone got rather wet. My hat, we wore proper hats in those days, well it was quite ruined. I don't remember that there was anywhere to sit nor do I remember any food, but there must have been some provision made for the boys by the school. My main memory of the occasion is my panic on briefly losing one of the very active small boys. Was it worth it,organizing large groups of children for a momentary view of the queen? I have no idea but in those days large gatherings of children for royal visits was expected. We were a distant part of the empire. The Queen, did what was expected. She smiled and waved. And we did ours, we gathered and cheered. A festivity?. More like a duty, something to be endured, maybe for everyone. That was before TV.

Eleanor Berg | 28 October 2011  

I see the conjunction of the Royal visit with the Occupy [Your City Here] protests as signs that boring, pragmatic liberal democracy is losing legitimacy at both extremes,[*] to fantasies of consensual utopias - whether an idealised past that never was (benevolent monarchy) or an idyllic future that will never happen (anarcho-socialism). The one social system that has brought solid, lasting improvements to the lives of ordinary people, with a minimum of persecution and repression - the idea that you take a vote, elect people to govern for a limited term, and abide by their decisions during that time even if you disagree - has failed to capture imaginations, and so has lost legitimacy. [*] Ironically, both the monarchists and the wildlings seem to find the fictitious Shire of JRR Tolkien's Hobbits a social model to admire...

Rod Blaine | 28 October 2011  

Hi Trent. I was six when the 1950s began and so 16 when they finished. I was never so glad to see a decade gone. Where I lived we were cold and poor, and as Catholics we did as we were told. “Just put up with it” was our guiding principle. Like Samuel Beckett I thought I had little talent for happiness. Actually I had the talent but everywhere I went at school and church especially I was told that the things that seemed to offer happiness were all evil.

Almost everything that now makes me happy came to me after the 1950s. So don’t tell me I was happy then. I wasn’t.

Then came the 60s and 70s with John XXIII and the Vatican Council and questions and hope and wide horizons. There was poetry and the invitation to THINK FOR MYSELF.

Then we got John Paul II and Benedict XVI, two popes intent on restoring the 1950s. If you want them you can have them. But don’t tell me they are a good idea.

Larrikins of the world unite! It is not just Australia as a whole where they have gone missing.

Graham English | 28 October 2011  

I agree! Aussies are conformists, flacid and boring when it comes to looking at a past institution such as the monarchy. The fact that there are republicans amongst the 'pollies' (or so they say) doesn't seem to help at all! In Labor, they are held back by the famous party "discipline", they are unimaginative, and prefer to join in with the champagne, flags, etc.

In Canberra, I was surprised to see that while the Queen was here, nobody even remembered she was actually here! And yet, the TV showed many people waving flags. Most of them were school kids, so I still believe we are the most republican of all the States and 1 other territory!

Australia has changed Trent! It is much more sophisticated than when I migrated here (it even drinks WINE!), at least we have eadible bread, exotic dishes, and Anglo-Aussies get there tongue around names in foreign languages! Quite an achievement!

as for the drop in manners, language, respect for religions, that's another matter, a personal one that parents have to address!

Keep on writing Ellena!

Nathalie | 28 October 2011  

Flaccid, dull and boring conformists. Young woman you have it in four words. Where is the intellectual rigour that debates issues without name calling and politicising Listen to all those important issues being aired in the public arena and its rare to get a reasoned or reasonable discussion Perhaps that's how Hitler came to power

GAJ | 28 October 2011  

We were having a conversation around the dinner table last night...it's as if you were eavesdropping! Your article is a succinct and accurate article of how we perceive life in Australia right now!

Marg | 28 October 2011  

Small correction - it was in 1963 that Robert Menzies uttered the words "I did but see her passing by...," and by that time, Australia had changed enough for most people to be heartily embarrassed by it.

Carolyn White | 28 October 2011  

I was a teenager in WA in 1954 and got out of town when the Queen stuff was happening. We had freedom, music, sport and the frequent arrivals from Europe. I worked at Customs Fremantle where people set up stalls on the wharf with fresh fruit for the people as they arrived. My father who worked in migrant canp regularly brought people from the camp to our home for the evening meal. We socialised with the new arrivals. And I had the freedome to travel to NSW & Vic by ship on my own at 18 because my Mum had kept my bank book and I could afford the trip. I learned a lot, more freedom then than the young ones have now.

margaret o'reilly | 28 October 2011  

Thank you, Ellena. I suppose a touch of larrikanism helps to show that the emperor has no clothes. If that's what it takes, bring on the larrikans and a mature recognition of the inherent inadequacy and inequity of monarchies, and the failings of a monarchical Church. Mature people, whether larrikan or not, should use their God-given intelligence to question the status quo. I had hoped that some of this spirit would show itself in Australia following the courage of ordinary people exhibited in the Artab Spring and the beginnings of the 'Occupy' movement. You argue convincingly that we in Australia have a long way to go. I hope you're wrong for the sake of my grandchildren. Pieces like yours will increase the chances of Australians opening their minds to necessary change.

Peter Johnstone | 28 October 2011  

Good article Ellena, but I think you overestimate the significance of the monarchy for most of us. Had it not been for the media, few people would have know that QE2 was in Australia, and any case I think few people care one way or the other. Australia is already a de-facto republic where the effective head of state, the GG, is appointed for a term, not born into the job for life. It might not be the type of republic that most of us wanted when Howard sabotaged the debate and the ARM caved in to the lowest common denominator, but it's better than the UK where the monarchy props up a whole system of inherited privilege. But I agree with you and other posters, that we are a nation of conformers, unwilling to think, and too ready to seek a 'strong leader' who promises an easy life, wide-screen TVs, and no difficult decisions. As for Trent's 1950s 'when most people were very happy', may I suggest that whatever 'happiness' there was then was linked to the rapid improvement in material wealth funded by wool and grain exports and made possible by historically high levels of immigration? For in the 1950s that I remember, there was no shortage of foul language, pornography, disgusting behaviour, abortion (mostly back-yard), divorce, contraception (mostly ineffective), anti-religious sentiment, sectarianism, or xenophobia.

Ginger Meggs | 28 October 2011  

I felt like a larrikin in the anti-Vietnam war marches pushing a pram down Collins Street and singing subversive songs. They were heady days as we were united in one cause. Maybe Australians are less of larrikins now as there are many, many more reasons for protest. Great article Ellie, keep up the larrikinism.

Mary Manning | 28 October 2011  

Ellena, whilst I agree that we may be as a nation “ dull and boring conformists” at times, there are many people I know across the country who spend a great deal of their time on progressive issues, and would love nothing more than seeing a truly independent nation with an Australian as our head of state. I do take exception to Harry who seems to think the ARM has its own minimalist agenda when in fact it is a single issue advocacy organisation that wants to promote debate and seeks to advocate for whatever the Australian people want – not to dictate the course of action!

LynP | 29 October 2011  

Elena Savage opines about matters in 1954 which she did not experience and in respect of her conclusion she quotes no evidence . Her conclusion is wrong . In 1954 Australians were generally better off than now , the gap between rich and poor was smaller then and we had taken in many hundreds of thousands of migrants,very many of whom( my own in-laws amongst them) would disagree with ES's assessment of the mid 1950's ,including her dismissive words about the monarchy- and hence of our constitution, of which the Queen is a major element.A very large number of post WWII migrants supported the monarchy and the stability it represented.

b o'keefe | 30 October 2011  

Thank you Ellena for reactivating my memory banks. I was a 20 year old teacher at a country school when Queen Elizabeth first visited Australia in 1954.Dutifully we lined up our pupils together with many others at the local oval, waving enthusiastically at the gracious young Queen and her handsome Prince as they passed by- somewhat swiftly- in their open Land Rover.

But what a change in Australia since then.... a trebling of population,, a multicultural society, television, undreamed of communication through mobile phones and the computer, a Catholicism energised and altered by a dramatic Council, a teaching methodology far beyond the chalk and talk of the 1950’s, and an increased wealth and health and equality for so many more of our people.

While there is yet much to be improved in our Australian society, and a different set of problems to be overcome, this near octogenarian will continue to ‘rage at the dimming of the light’ without wishing for a return to those good old days.

Brian | 01 November 2011  

Australia today is very obedient and compliant - a large part of this goes back to the changes under Keating both as Treasurer and PM; we can no longer simply open a bank account - we need 100 points of ID; we can't do so many of the things we took for granted as recently as, say, 1979 - and all those changes came under Keating, the same man who wants to become president. I don't think so!

Lloyd | 10 November 2011  

Although this was 6 years ago - 'Occupy Melbourne activists might come close to the real, anti-establishment larrikin'; how on Earth are people pushing for more government intervention 'anti-establishment'? The only 'anti-establishment' groups are actual anarchists and libertarians - people who want the government to stop sticking its nose in places it does not belong

Edward | 31 March 2017  

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