I was arrested at a visit by then Prince Charles to Alice Springs in 1977 for handing out press statements on Aboriginal living standards. I avoided jail, but the less fortunate Albanese government has been imprisoned by royal protocol and constitutional custom.
It was November 1977. The Prince of Wales, now Charles III, was visiting Alice Springs. One of his afternoon functions was to pay a visit to the Old Timers Home to open a new wing. The home was run by a church body to give old Northern Territorians peace and dignity in their old age.
White old Northern Territorians, that is. But outside, alongside the side fence, and leading down towards the Gap was an assemblage of mattresses and makeshift humpies and open fires. About a dozen elderly Aboriginal folk camped there, visited occasionally by relatives with food. They took water from the nearby Todd River, or sometimes in a bucket after climbing the fence and going to a tap on the lawns of the home next door.
I was on leave of absence from The Canberra Times working with the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress. I suggested to the Congress director that he put out a press statement inviting journalists accompanying the person then known as Prince to compare how Australians looked after elderly and frail Aboriginal and non-Aboriginals Australians.
Old Timers Home had good buildings, regular visits from doctors and nurses, and easy access to fundamentals of health such as good food, water and physically comfortable surroundings, as well as a splendid and well-watered garden.
”On the other hand, old Aborigines at the Old Timers Camp lack access to all of these facilities. They are forced to a rely on a tap or the river for water, have only the most basic shelter, and have no facilities or equipment,” the statement said.
I walked towards the press party, mostly Britons, and began handing out the statement to bored journalists watching the Prince’s meet-and-greet in the Todd Mall. The Prince was ten metres away and I was not facing him, or moving in his direction. Suddenly I was felled by a wedge of three cops, and, with a fourth lest I escaped, hustled to the police station. The press statement was grabbed from my hands and crumpled up by number four. The press party saw the arrest and were told that police had feared I had been about to attack his majesty. To spectators this was not self-evidently true.
After about an hour in the Alice Springs clink, I was released without charge. A legal aid lawyer who had been, when we were studying law together, president of the ANU Monarchist Society, came to my aid. Inspector “Soz” [for Sausage] Grant refused to return the media statements, although he did some weeks after. By then he had persuaded the police complaints people, who did not interview me or any civilians, that it was all a heat-of-the-moment honest mistake. No apology, or even statement of regret, was offered.
For the media, it had been a boring day. My arrest was its highlight. As a result a number went to Old Timer’s camp, and saw and wrote about the contrast in conditions. The statement was quoted, including in British papers.
But it was to be a brief sensation. That night there was a dinner in Alice Springs attended by all those reckoned among the great and good. Soz Grant was there. No Aborigines made the cut, luckily for them. Almost all who attended, including the future King, came down with a vicious form of shigellosis, food poisoning characterised, inter alia, by diarrhoea. Royal duties were suspended and media focus shifted to the state of the future King’s bowels.
The coronation of the lapin of Manus
My next encounter with the person then locally called “nambawan pikinini bilong Missis Quin,” seven years later was much more enjoyable. He came to Papua New Guinea to open its new parliament, and to tour the nation. It was a time when I travelled much of Papua New Guinea, made lasting friends in Niugini politics, and witnessed for the first time the British royal press, particularly its photographer subset, in full cry.
Niugini offered great prospects for photographers. Nambawan was going to be doing walkabouts in villages. Papua New Guinea has dusky maidens in villages and at ceremonial occasions, bare-breasted and wearing grass skirts. As the Prince strode through the crowds there was every prospect, drooled the photographers, of the (dressed) breast of the royal personage encountering a bare breast, or, deliriously for the snappers, the nipple of a maiden putting a garland around his neck. This fantasy was of a shot that might be sold in “exclusive negative form” for thousands of pounds. Those buyers who believed they were getting such a shot exclusively might later find that the photographer had three motor-drive cameras about him and had any number of similar snaps for sale.
When Charles did his crowd walks, photographers walked backwards in front of him, trampling children, women and men as they went, shoving and kicking, and obscuring everyone’s view. Their complete disregard for dignity, safety and the rights of people who had often waited for hours in a hot sun for a chance to see their future King, made even Australian members of the gutter press aghast. Also noticeable, and disgusting, was the quiet cooperation with the photographers from people on the Prince’s staff, if never so obviously that Charles could be embarrassed by his complicity in media harassment of himself.
A sign of this was when we visited Manus Island, pre-Asian boat people, to discover that Christian modesty, even prudery had arrived in this paradise. The women arrived, topless, but with bras. Luckily for the photographers, an official told the women to remove either their bras or their persons from the scene. It was the bras, even of the nation’s Attorney-General, Nahua Rooney, that went.
Charles was there to be made Lapan of Manus, as his father, Prince Phillip had been before him. Lapan means traditional chief, and not, as its pronunciation suggests, rabbit (in French). But at times the prince resembled the French one. He arrived on the beach in a war canoe escorted by many others. Then he was carted off by six bearers on a keyau (traditional bed) and was initiated (though without the traditional operation to the penis, to the profound regret of even the Australian journalists). He was dressed in dog’s teeth, headbands in flag motifs, necklaces and given presents of spears, digging sticks and betelnuts.
There followed a feast, with slaughtered bullocks, the more appreciated by the crowd since they had not had so much as a look-in at the prince. While the hundreds of bare-breasted and highly colourful dancers were the stars of the show, the prince was mostly invisible to the crowd. The photographers did more than trample the odd dancer and form a wall around Prince Charles. Their movement completely disrupted the carefully choreographed dance routines. The blanketing of the prince by the photographers, allowing only the narrowest of gaps for garlanding him, seemed a strangely bizarre addition to the ceremonial.
I hope we have this at Westminster during the coronation ceremonies. If only because, by then after the past week even the ABC and the Women’s Weekly should be sick of the sight of him.
Constitutional and protocol nonsense
I feel sorry for Anthony Albanese who is forced to claim that he is following protocol or constitutional custom whenever anyone asks about the latest absurdity after the death of the Queen and the transition to Charles III. Even as a devout republican, he does not want to offend the most sentimental monarchist or admirer of the Queen. But the idea that he is following some sort of precedent, or settled code, with matters such as the closure of parliament for a fortnight is complete nonsense.
Neither Britain nor Australia is following the rituals that occurred after the death of George VI, nor any of his predecessors. Likewise, the rituals accompanying the accession of Elizabeth II, or any of her predecessors.
The British have a certain genius for ritual and ceremony, including royal weddings, funerals and coronations. They can even turn it on for state funerals of the great and good, such as Winston Churchill, or the visits of foreign heads of state, such as the late Nicolae Ceausescu, Barak Obama or Donald Trump.
But a good part of the genius of it is that they make it up as they go along, all the while giving the impression that they are using time-honoured rituals, maintaining old traditions and emphasising custom and continuity.
This pretence can be the greater because there is no rubric for such ceremonials – never has been. Radio and television personalities – British and foreign — gushing and exclaiming during their commentaries have been spoon fed with notes from the palace explaining the deep symbolism and meaning of what is occurring. It will suggest, without actually saying, that organisers are exactly following long-established customs, conventions and liturgies. The royal actors and archbishops are in full drag with motions choreographed to the second. Likewise, the military, also in dress-ups, with miscellaneous horses, gun carriages and muffled drums. It is wonderful secular and religious theatre – evidence of a civil religion. If the pageantry is at enormous expense, it is more than repaid by the tourists who come to gawk.
The coverage brings to my mind a day-long black and white television extravaganza broadcast in Zambia in the early 1980s. The long-time president, Kenneth Kaunda, decided to hire another nation’s Boeing 707. It was dressed in Zambian livery. It was heading off for Australia for a Commonwealth heads of government meeting. Thousands of Zambians lined the streets. As spectacle, the action was limited to the dear leader getting into a car at his palace, travelling to the airport with an array of cops on motorbikes, and getting on to the aircraft. It was the only thing on TV, and the only thing happening in Lusaka.
The broadcast lasted about 12 hours. The first half saw commentators talk of the treat in store. Then about half an hour of coverage of the motorcade, arrival at the airport and getting into the plane. A long, fond, look at the plane taking off and disappearing towards Zimbabwe and Melbourne. Then about five further hours describing, with multiple playbacks, what we had just seen.
The coverage of the royal events from Britain has not been more inspiring. Our ABC has sent nearly 30 staff for its modest and austere coverage. Other stations have also sent key personalities, though they, like the ABC will be taking the same feed at the ceremonial events.
Making up new ancient rituals and traditions as they go along
Australians need and deserve to know of the death of the sovereign and the accession of her son. Of, but not necessarily all about, particularly when many of the specialist commentators are themselves making it up as they go along. Few if any have more than superficial relationships with members of the royal family. Nor do they have detailed knowledge of what’s happening, other than the generally issued crib sheet or gossip taken from women’s magazines and tabloid press and television. Well-informed it is not. Otherwise there have been long running scenes of motorcades – less thrilling than Kenneth Kaunda’s. And humdrum activity in front of Buckingham Palace, and a good many unreliable journalists interviewing each other with improbable but seemingly intimate gossip about members of the royal family. Especially Meghan, rather more persecuted by journalists who think she is a legitimate object of the prejudices than even Princess Di in her day. Pace nobis domine.
The program for the fortnight was devised by a special committee established years ago. The plan has been regularly updated, and its final form is said to have been approved by the late Queen herself. Media organisations have been involved in the planning. There were many rehearsals over many years, and most organisations had long set up ready-to-air items and commentary. Each item would have the appearance of being fresh and spontaneous but most of it was scripted years ago, with a few blank spaces for new facts, such as the date and moment of death and resurrection. Newspapers and magazines had also prepared scores of pages of photographs, obituaries, accounts of events during the Queen’s lifetime and predictions of the life to come.
Elaborate arrangements, including special codewords, had long been in place to ensure that the British prime minister was the first outsider to be informed about the death, if only minutes before Commonwealth governors-general, presidents and prime ministers, including Australia’s. Only then was the media to be told. Mercifully, the formal 6.30pm announcement of her death occurred at an ideal time for the British serious media. It spared her the fate of her grandfather, put to death with morphine by the royal doctor near midnight so as not to miss the deadline of The Times. The horror – oh the horror — of having the death announced in the Mirror or the Sun was avoided.
That officials were agreed was not to say that the government was on board or knew much about the arrangements. Ministers have had other things on their mind over the past three months.
The set arrangements have imprisoned and embarrassed Anthony Albanese. Some specifically Australian elements were glued on to the British model. Folk concerned with possible future events do not usually have ready access to powerful figures. It is far from clear that the government had signed off on the details, such as a two-week period of mourning, and the closure of parliament for a fortnight “as a mark of respect.” Some of the elements may have involved the deductions of governors and governors-general of what the people wanted and expected. Or of what a sense of occasion should involve. The GG’s proclamation, on advice of the executive council, was the only legal instrument required for the accession. Every other piece of ceremony was but a flourish, of no constitutional moment or significance.
In any event, once aware of the death, the government felt trapped by the arrangements already made. Reducing matters at that point would have seemed like republican sniping at what was appropriate. Albanese was uninclined to be ambushed by the wrath of royalists for diminishing any public expressions of grief or curfew. That Australian arrangements were over the top was immediately obvious from our closedown of parliament, something Britain did not do.
He will suspect that a solid camp of royalists had conceived events. Enthusiastic states and state governors proclaimed the King in effect as King of their state. This has overtones of the 1975 Queen of Queensland controversy involving Joh Bjelke Petersen and Sir Colin Hannah, the governor. Whatever thin constitutional cover this had then, based on the idea that the states existed before the Commonwealth has now definitely disappeared. Charles III became King of Australia, and of each state and territory, by virtue of the Governor-General’s proclamation and the Australian constitution, not by state constitutions which are expressly subject to the Australian constitution.
Even the republican Australian Capital Territory, which has no governor or administrator, and its inhabitants, who favoured a national republic at the referendum, are now subjects of the King.