The Null Device


Queen Elizabeth II is dead; aged 96, and having served on the throne for 75 years, she died at her Scottish estate at Balmoral. Prince Charles has ascended to the throne, and gone with the name King Charles III, despite concerns that the name has less than fortuitous historical connotations.

This post will not be a judgment of her reign, the choices she made or the legitimacy or otherwise of the institution she was at the head of. (In short, I am not a believer in the institution of hereditary monarchy, though having a nonexecutive head of state on a longer term than individual governments does appear to have a salutary effect on the institutions of state, though this is a much longer discussion for another place and time; meanwhile, the British Empire was responsible for numerous colonial evils, some of which happened with her as its figurehead.)

Queen Elizabeth II reigned for just over 75 years—¾ of a century; it is estimated that 90% of the people alive today were born during her reign. Which has the effect that next to nobody (in her dominions, or indeed anywhere else) remembers a time when she was not on the throne. From a subjective human point of view, she may as well have always been there, like some kind of ancient god, impassively presiding over the tumult of change. And her reign started with the remnants of the British Empire dissolving like a soluble aspirin, and ended with a Britain punch-drunk on imperial nostalgia and tabloid jingoism rejecting its destiny as a medium-sized, prosperous European country, declaring that it was going to reclaim its globe-spanning destiny, and promptly falling flat on its face. In the future it is quite likely that the notion that England's half-millennium of glory (or, indeed, non-obscurity) was bookended by the two Elizabethan eras will be a glib truism.

Given Britain's current state (bleeding from Brexit wounds, permanent austerity as a moral imperative, soaring energy bills, and the aftermath of a leadership contest where the contenders sought to demonstrate superior cruelty before an audience of Britain's most vicious pensioners), the kicking out of this symbolic pillar of certainty will have interesting effects. Unlike the Tory leadership contest, the new monarch is already foreordained by succession laws. It is unlikely that Charles will recuse himself from intervening in the way his mother did: all accounts suggest that he is determined to give his subjects the benefit of his wisdom, so we may soon see an all-homeopathic NHS and mandatory Palladian colonnades on all new buildings or something. Whether Charles III will acquire an aura of dignity as his mother had is also in question. He has been around for almost as long, though in considerably different circumstances.

There has been an assumption that the end of Elizabeth II's reign would be a natural boost for the republican cause: most affection for the monarchy was not for the institution itself, but its figurehead (whom some have called “Our Queen and Pleasant Nan”), and would not transfer to her large adult son, and a lot of soft monarchist sentiment would evaporate. On the other hand, given the traumatic nature of the present moment in Britain, it is conceivable that some in England will dig in harder, and dream into being King Charles III as the benign symbol of stability he otherwise wouldn't be, just to have something to hold on to. This may not play out quite as well north of the Scottish border, and Australia is probably not unlikely to become a republic of some sort within the next decade or two.

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Once again, just as in 2019, Australia is going to the polls. And just as 2019, the opposition Labor Party looks poised to win by a landslide. Of course, in 2019, as we know, the conservatives managed to score a victory so surprising that bookmakers, having jumped the gun at calling it for Labor, paid out twice.

This time, of course, it's different. The people have seen Straya's Favourite Daggy Dad Scott “ScoMo” Morrison for what he is: a bully, a sociopath, a liar, a fraud, a glib marketing character who does not hold a hose, or care about anything but his immediate self-interest, and so on. The scales must have fallen from their eyes, with the bushfires, the pandemic, and the numerous minor betrayals, to the point where they won't get fooled again. In other words, surely, this! As such, a Labor landslide of historic proportions cannot be anything but inevitable, right?

One problem with such arguments is that they fail the Nixon Test, as in “how the hell did Nixon win? I don't know one person who voted for him”. If you're reading this and are in Australia, you are almost certainly within the Lefty Filter Bubble; the people you know are mostly progressive-minded, university-educated and culturally engaged; they understand that global warming is real and poses a threat, and that COVID-19 is real and not cured by taking horse dewormer. They may be LGBT+, and if they aren't, they know people who are, and don't regard their existence to be some sort of sinister ideology. They probably live in the inner city, read The Guardian, The Saturday Paper and/or Crikey, watch the ABC and SBS and are more likely than not to have a secular outlook. In other words, they are not representative of the bulk of voters, and even less so when counted by electorate.

From within the Lefty Filter Bubble, it is hard to see into the sprawling suburbs which will elect most of Australia's parliamentarians, and the subjective informational environment of their inhabitants, though what can be ascertained does not bode well for Labor. The commercial media is almost entirely conservative-leaning. The Murdoch press's egregious bias is well-known, though now they are joined by the Fairfax press, owned by the Nine TV network, as the LNP's good cop. The Murdoch-owned cable channel Sky News provides the TV news to a large number of Australian households, and when the sun goes down, it undergoes a lycanthropic transformation into a far-right disinformation channel along the lines of FOX News or Russia Today.

And then there is the Palmer factor. Coal-mining oligarch Clive Palmer who is running his own third party, the necrophilically titled United Australia Party, which presumably makes him to Robert Menzies what Boris Johnson is to Winston Churchill, and spamming mobile phones with COVID-denialist conspiracy theories. His goal appears to be to scoop up the low-information protest vote, from voters who want to give the government a kicking for its failures. If those voters vote above the line, as most do, their preferences will be channelled back to the government they were attempting to administer the kicking to, which is what happened in the last election. Were it not for Palmer, it is quite likely that Labor would have won in 2019; it is also not unlikely that this will repeat itself. So, yeah nah, I'm not calling this one for Labor until the dust has well and truly settled.

I will call a few likely results, though. The conservatives are likely to lose a few of their affluent inner-city seats to the wave of “teal” independents (centre-to-centre-right independents in favour of action on climate change and more, well, liberal social policies, though possibly not as many as commentators are saying; they may make up for this somewhat by picking up outer-suburban marginals, on the strength of culture-war red meat and Palmer preferences. Labor's swing will probably be smaller than predicted. The Greens could do well, and are likely to increase their representation in the Senate, and possibly pick up one or two lower-house seats. A hung parliament is a very real possibility, with the Greens and/or teal independents holding the balance of power and deciding whom to support. In either case, this would arguably be a better outcome than a majority government.

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