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

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


In fact not only was it a good thing, it was a great thing.

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

Think about it for a moment: On the very day especially marked for the solemn commemoration of the passing of our head of state we witnessed the desecration of our national symbol and expletive-laden celebrations of her death.

And yet there was no rioting, there were no deaths and no one was even arrested. Meanwhile the rest of the country — some 25 million — either respectfully marked the Queen’s legacy or peacefully passed the day with their colleagues, friends and family.

There could be no greater advertisement for both the stability and the liberty we enjoy in this nation. We are indeed the lucky country, and not just in the pejorative way Donald Horne first intended the phrase.

Because it isn’t just luck that got us here. The modern, multicultural and democratic state of Australia is a miracle of both accident and design, a tripartite product of constitution, convention and common sense.

We inherited the best of the long-evolved and convoluted British traditions of individual rights and married it to the democratic systems and safeguards of revolutionary America.

Like all countries, we have a history soaked in blood and laced with prejudice yet the actual formation of our nation was a remarkably peaceful affair. Indeed, for the most part it was delightfully dull.

And of course our relationship to those we colonised or conquered — depending on your version of history — oscillated between ugliness and ignorance but it is undoubtedly better than what it was.

Compare this to Russia, where 1300 people have just been arrested for protesting against Putin’s war on Ukraine and his attempt to conscript 300,000 citizens — more like subjects — to his bloody cause.

Compare this to the global flagship of democracy, the USA, where poverty is rife and rioting is almost ritual.

Compare it even to the home counties of England, where riots torched the capital just a decade ago.

Sure, we have had a few: Cronulla, Redfern, Macquarie Fields and more recently a bit of anti-lockdown anger but we have had nothing on the scale that has visited other nations. No citywide destruction or nationwide chaos has crippled us.

There is a pretty failsafe way to gauge the stock of a nation state and that is a tally of who is struggling to get in compared to who is struggling to get out. Australia consistently rates countless versus none.

Indeed, the only nations that spring to mind with similarly benign and peaceful societies are Canada and New Zealand. And guess what we all have in common?

And that is the supreme irony of the protesters’ declamations of the Crown and British history more generally. For all its faults and myriad atrocities dating back centuries, it has brought us to this place. A place that is clearly imperfect but as good or better than any other on the earth.

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

But there is no doubt that many people, overwhelmingly First Nations people, still suffer huge intergenerational disadvantage and poverty because of colonisation. This is hardly the fault of Elizabeth II, who in fact presided over mass decolonisation, but that makes it no less true.

And so the task before us is to find a way to remedy these ills. Not by an absurd scheme of reparations that would reduce all of history to an arbitrary time-travelling lawsuit, but by directing all our national efforts towards those who are still disadvantaged and ensuring they have access to the same social, educational and employment opportunities that the rest of us enjoy.

Replacing our head of state, substituting one ceremonial role with another, will do precisely nothing to fix that. While I am by tribe and inclination an Irish Catholic republican, I cannot for the life of me conceive of a more useless cause at this juncture in our nation’s history.

But what might just work is the establishment of a First Nations Voice to Parliament that will ensure the policies of lawmakers and bureaucrats directed to the betterment of Indigenous lives are actually informed by Indigenous people themselves.

If radical protesters are genuinely concerned about making a difference and improving the lot of our Indigenous brethren they should concentrate their energies on this simple and achievable step instead of screaming into the void.

Whether it succeeds remains to be seen and whether it works we can only hope. But I can assure you it will be far more effective than flag burning.

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