Efforts to urge the monarch to repeat a trick from the 70s and dismiss the Australian prime minister over his handling of the bushfire crisis may not be as destructive as the disinformation machine, but it does offer a revealing and worrying snapshot of what good intent looks like in 2020, writes Joe Nunweek.
When Australia started burning and didn’t stop last month, it felt like a particularly visceral and ugly awakening for a lot of us. Souvenir-plate beach towns were decimated by walls of flame, and pictures of their charred and dying wildlife plastered social media feeds. Most responses have been palpably angry, and it’s not surprising that some – feeding on Australia’s healthy streak of festering tabloid-and-broadsheet climate denial – are totally off the planet.
Even if you haven’t really spelunked the absolute bowels of the bad blue-and-white website or the awful bird website, you’ll at least be aware of the tenor of some the main conspiratorial rightwing talking points. The fires were all started and spread by arsonists. The Australian Greens prevented hazard reduction burns.
What’s received less coverage outside of social media itself, though, has been #arsonemergency’s earnest and confused mirror: #dearyourmajesty (sometimes #dearyourmagesty). Though it started through one video rather than a network of fake accounts, and while it’s not as destructive, it is a revealing and worrying snapshot of what good intent looks like as we enter our second decade of Everyone Online, Forever.
#dearyourmajesty started out as an eight-minute video, posted last week by Australian YouTube personality Friendlyjordies (né Jordan Shanks). Shanks, whose YouTube monologues and comedy Crikey once described as serving a “tertiary educated, nerdy and moderately progressive young man that feels excluded both from the sport-obsessed national mainstream and identity politics”, plays a pretty straight bat on this one – low on zingers and more about eviscerating Morrison for his failure to be physically or emotionally present during the fires. He ends with an appeal to the Queen of England:
Your majesty, you fired Gough Whitlam for less than that. After you dismissed him you made Malcolm Fraser prime minister …. If Gough Whitlam was sacked surely Scott Morrison should be sacked for not supplying the firefighters. Get this hashtag trending.
Shanks, who’s a savvy operator, appears to know he’s trading in rhetoric here, and a fair few of the Twitter and Facebook users seem to have taken it in the same spirit. The thing is, a whole lot haven’t. “[Morrison] has breached his oath of office sworn before the governor-general, who should now dismiss him,” writes one. “Your Australian subjects beseech your Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to instruct your representative in Australia…to dismiss this government and to call elections,” urges another.
As you read this, a Change.org petition urging the governor-general to dissolve parliament will probably top 200,000 signatories. Australia’s well-meaning suburban progressives are hungry for change, and they’re expecting it through a wealthy nonagenarian living on the other side of the world who, if the papers are true, has sundry other shit going down.
New Zealanders can sometimes fail to appreciate the significance of Whitlam’s dismissal as prime minister and the apoplexy it continues to generate in a certain segment of Australian society. As an analogy, imagine that Norman Kirk had lived to 1975 only to be dismissed by the governor-general and have Robert Muldoon appointed in his place. Imagine how many times your dad or poppa or insert-relevant-relative with a long memory and a longer-standing interest in politics would go on about this. Double that. Then you’ll start to get a sense of its outlandish presence in the Australian consciousness.
Gough Whitlam wasn’t fired for bad handshakes and a worse response to an emergency. The Labor prime minister’s downfall was at its heart a prosaic numbers game. The opposition, which had come to hold the balance of power parliament’s upper house, announced that they’d block any of the government’s supply bills in the senate unless it called an election, in effect thwarting its ability to do anything as a government at all. For three weeks, Whitlam refused, creating a deadlock.
The governor general, John Kerr, dismissed Whitlam in writing and commissioned the opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, to form a caretaker government and hold fresh elections of both houses of parliament. It’s chiefly a controversial decision due to the way it was carried out (should Whitlam have gotten some kind of ultimatum or warning before he got the sack?) and the timing (had Kerr given it a little longer, would a couple of senators have crossed the floor and voted with the government?), but Whitlam was resoundingly defeated in the resulting election. His parliamentary speaker tried a bit of a #dearyourmajesty reach himself, writing to the Queen and asking that she personally reinstate Whitlam. Not my problem, she wrote back.
But Morrison’s government has a majority in the lower house and a cross-bench of Pauline Hanson-types to get over the line in the senate. Absent some extraordinary changes of heart from the sort of people who dress up in burqas to parliament and have no issue consigning sick refugees to die in offshore detention, 1975 isn’t about to repeat itself, and the governor general and the Queen aren’t about to step in because the prime minister’s personal favourability ratings have tanked.
None of this has stopped the armchair constitutional law experts. Antony Green, the ABC’s long-serving and highly-regarded election analyst, is currently doing an alarming amount of Twitter engagement trying to set out the conditions on which Morrison’s government could and absolutely would not come crashing down. “Today’s monarchs aren’t despots, Anthony,” one replies. “They acknowledge a constitutional responsibility to their subjects.” Someone needs to go stage an intervention for everyone involved.
Look further afield and you might see parallels to the #dearyourmajesty folly in the US, where there’s an enduring belief that the vice-president and a majority of cabinet could use their constitutional power to remove Donald Trump on the basis of mental incapacity. Or the UK, where (there she is again) the Queen was entreated to prevent a hard-crash out of the EU and simultaneously fire Boris Johnson. What binds these all: they’re held and disseminated by generally decent people, those people are spending too much time on the internet in the same circles, those circles reinforce a shared impression of expertise, and that expertise relies on a seriously magical belief in the powers of established order and process.
Conspiracy theories (including those propagated on a far-right) are generally informed by a distrust of perceived authority, intent and overreach – what American historian Richard Hofstadter once described in his definitive 1964 essay on the subject as “the existence of a vast, insidious preternaturally effective network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character”.
What we’re dealing with here, and I haven’t seen diagnosed anywhere, is slightly different – there’s the same misunderstanding of what institutions are actually capable of or practically likely to do, but a wistful desire that it be done – that monarchs will step in and suspend democracies, that a group of powerful men with shared interests will spontaneously use ancient loopholes for the good of the nation and wrest control for themselves. The details of exactly how are hand-waved – if this is conspiracy, it’s conspiracy as something benign and reassuring.
While it’s not the kind of belief that leads to people stockpiling guns and ammunition or sending anthrax in the mail, there’s a harmful inertia at the core of this. The existential dread of climate change should keep you up at night, but we have the opportunity at this point in time to participate and organise in civil society in ways that favour direct action, and facilitate a better understanding of why our political systems aren’t working. Long-shot theories such as #notyourmajesty assume those systems have some innate, mystic equilibrium to right themselves. The more people buy in to a dramatic deus ex machina and assume someone or something will step in stop the madness, the more it distracts from what we could be doing well.
Is this just what happens in places like Australia, the UK and the US when the usual norms and expectations get shattered by some mix of malice and sheer uselessness? Will some of us retreat into rose-tinted accounts of authority that’re part sepia-toned nostalgia and part revenge flick? It’s at least interesting to see that the same thing hasn’t happened in New Zealand – while plenty of people obsessively disliked John Key, the public imagination never got fired up with some wordy and galaxy-brained theory that our unwritten constitution would somehow bung him in a cell.
Ultimately, our limited parameters of political discourse and conduct have remained the same government-to-government for decades now, and we’re yet to see escapist tendencies of quite the same kind crop up (to be clear: no one who’s graduated from a New Zealand school should be thanking our level of civics education for this).
In the meantime, the scorched country awaits her majesty’s regards. The leader of the Australian Labor Party, who Liz II’s apparently bound by royal prerogative to install as prime minister, spent his December touring regional Queensland and promising to keep the country’s coal exports flourishing. And if Morrison gets sacked anytime soon, it will be in the grand 21st century Canberra tradition – by the hand of members of his own inner circle who decide new means are needed for the same old ends. In a fire, the ground conditions move quickly – when they do, there’s no magic, just cold and brutal reality.
The Spinoff politics section is made possible by Flick, the electricity retailer giving New Zealanders power over their power. With both spot price and fixed price plans available, you can be sure you’re getting true cost and real choice when you join Flick. Support us by making the switch today.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.