Prince Philip: royalty remains central to Australian identity

Apr 15, 2021

With the death of Prince Philip on Friday the reaction in Australia’s media has been overwhelming. Stories about his humorous, and sometimes offensive, statements have been repeated ad nauseum and his service to the broader community in the Commonwealth lauded. This saturation coverage reinforces how powerful the image of the monarchy and a stable Britain is in the minds of the public and the mainstream media.

Even the ABC on the day of his death had a blanket coverage and on the following Sunday (10/4) it had a 40-minute production made in 2016 entitled “When Phillip Met Prince Philip” involving television presenter Phillip Schofield. The New Idea and other magazines of that ilk will have a year’s copy with his death and its aftermath, especially with the likelihood that Charles will be king soon.

The Age on Monday (11/4) carried an article detailing the coverage of the Prince’s death in other newspapers and the Sunday Herald Sun produced a 12-page commemorative souvenir it called “A Place in our Hearts.”

And on it goes with the commercial media and the ABC continuing a saturation coverage of the reactions to the Duke’s death, characterized above all by fawning commentary.

When the Dalai Lama dies, or James Hansen, the famous client scientist, will there be such an outpouring of grief, gratitude and coverage. Or is this coverage really because there is still a large portion of the mass media, and society more generally – and they are not necessarily the same – who still see Australia as being anchored in England, a cultural cringe if there was ever one.

A corollary to this is the acceptance that England is anchored in the monarchy as the rock providing it with stability as elected governments go in and out of office? Hence it can be a constant reference point for us.

Arguably America remains the most powerful influence on Australian popular culture because of the dominance of Hollywood programs on Australian mass media and Hollywood type programs made in Australia.

Politically, of course, the Five Eyes alliance still dominates the foreign policies of the government and the alternative government, especially now China is being marketed as the scapegoat for everything.  Yet American culture is always perceived as being “over the top” in contrast to the quiet solidity of English culture.

Yet Great Britain, especially England – because Wales, Ireland and Scotland increasingly fit into a different category – is still held in the hearts of many as an anchor of stability in a world becoming increasingly unstable and unrecognizable.

Australia has in theory been independent since 1901, but the influence of England is still very strong indeed. Here are only a few examples: the existence of Governors-general and Governors with their accompanying powers, the number of English vice-chancellors running Australian universities, the extent of English (and American) investment in Australia, and the number of English people at the top of Australian corporations.

These are less visible than the royal family. But they are more influential because the economic and political ties they bring with them have always had a much greater influence on the development of Australia than, for example, visits by members of the royal family, even where the symbolic power of the latter is very great.

When the Queen dies, I suspect the public relations storm will be even more potent than has happened with the death of the Duke. She has reigned for a very long time and for many people that in itself represents a sign of continuity in a world marked by so much change, change exacerbated by politicians and corporate heads constantly telling us we must roll with it.

The kind of conservatism that nostalgically always clings to the past is what the Queen symbolizes so strongly.  Especially so, because she is seen to be beyond politics as it were, giving moral guidance to the Commonwealth at times of crisis, and being accorded far too much majesty to enter the boxing ring that is contemporary politics in many Anglophone countries.

So, for many people the Queen’s position provides an anchor – with a heritage extending back centuries – allowing them to forget about the conflicting interests at work all around them. Somehow or other there exists an entire tradition of history and culture embodied within the royal family, and that is attractive to many.

The military connection is also relevant here with all members of the royal family – both male and female – in some way connected with the military, often in an honorary capacity, but sometimes also in active service. The symbolism of this cannot be underestimated as it creates the strong impression of them serving others and not just themselves, as the public believe of so many politicians.

But what relevance does this really have for Australia? It is true that the Duke did visit Australia many times and that he had/has great supporters among the political class.

But in an Age editorial of 12/4 the following recommendation is given:

“Whether the transition to a new head of state jolts Australia into finally taking the path to full independence – a position The Age has long supported – is no certain thing. But this event should trigger a full and frank debate.”

Surely the point is this: will the cultural cringe Australia manifests with England disappear if we become a republic. In what areas would we become more independent and what would be the forces that would produce this independence?

Of course, even with a republic, a “colonial” establishment will remain – entrenched in business, political, cultural and educational circles – that will determine the course of the country. But it may open the possibility for our colonial past to be recognized for what it was/is, and the enduring problems, especially with indigenous Australians recognized and acted upon. It might also, cause Australians to look at their place in the world, not dominated by the cause of American exceptionalism and belief in English stability.

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