I was with my parents in Kalamata, tending olive trees and mending fences, when news of the sovereign’s death was about to hit the world.
«Σταθία!» My father called out from the house.
«Πέθανε η βασίλισσα.»
I started walking. «Τι είπες;» I yelled back.
“The Queen is dead—Long live Mabo!”
I laughed raucously. It was such a Στράτη thing to say! The symbol of an imposed sovereignty versus the man who came to represent a sovereignty never ceded. Little did I know that we were about to endure an entire fortnight of Crown ritual: a tightly choreographed show which reaches its culmination only today, with the coronation of Charles III. Trust my father to see the politics and the humour in one and the same moment, while recognising it as a moment of great change.
That this was the first thing to come to his mind—having moved back to Greece in 2010, and not being part of our day-to-day discussions about the Voice to Parliament—was truly astonishing. And yet, as I kept walking back to the house, I realised it made perfect sense. Unlike most Greek migrants, my parents were no strangers to Aboriginal culture: their formative experiences in Australia had been with the Bidjigal and Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.
It was 1964 when my parents first arrived in Sydney on the Orsova, three years before the referendum that would finally count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as part of the population of the Commonwealth. Up until then, the people who welcomed my parents onto their Country were considered “natives” in the same way as flora and fauna. With 90.77% support, the 1967 poll remains the most successful referendum in Australian history.
Against the confusion, discrimination and racism that marred their early years, on Sundays my parents would spend good time at La Perouse learning from local story-tellers and makers. Bidjigal artist Esme Timbery, now renowned all over the world for her shellwork booties and Harbour Bridges, was one of the first people they came to know. Her booties are still treasured in our family.
That a people so cruelly excluded from the governance and advantages of their sovereign land would generously welcome new migrants says so much about the tenacity of First Peoples. But even though this has been their home since time immemorial, the rituals that frame Australia’s governance remain colonial, imported from another culture.
Today’s ceremony invites Commonwealth subjects to prepare a Coronation Quiche—a traditional French dish adapted for British sensibilities, following on from Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation Chicken, a mild Indian curry. We are also invited to “join a chorus of millions” and swear an oath of allegiance aloud.
It’s hard to see past the silliness: this is all part of the method of investiture for Australia’s head of state.
In between offering unsolicited political commentary (me) and making jokes about Buckingham Palace being overrun by καμήλες (Στράτη), my parents and I watched the BBC mourning coverage with a mixture of bemusement and concern. Elizabeth had been an exemplary monarch, but how long would her halo effect protect Charles, or Κάρολοςas the Greek news kept calling him? I was finding that I preferred that rendering of his name: it seemed to confer a helpful dignity.
My mother, a committed monarchist, was glued to the tv. She had inherited that peculiar affliction from her father, who had seen out his military service years in the palace of Constantine II as one of his guardsmen. Decades earlier, in their Australian citizenship ceremony, my mother had been asked to raise her right hand and swear allegiance to the Crown. She winced and raised her left, ever loyal to Constantine, after whom she had been named.
When the deposed king died earlier this year, I was heartened to read global commentary offering balanced accounts of a legacy both positive and damaging. It was a moment of cultural and political reassessment for Greeks all over the world. Remarking on his death, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that “the wounds [of Constantine’s reign] were healed by the choices, the free conscience and the maturity” of the Greek people in the 1974 referendum that rejected the imported monarchy and established the third Hellenic Republic.
In Australia, the 1992 High Court judgement in Mabo v Queensland No. 2 overturned the doctrine of terra nullius that, since the moment of invasion and then throughout colonisation, had asserted the Crown’s right over this continent on the basis that it was “a land belonging to no one”. Subsequent judgements including Wik (1996), and the establishment of the Native Title Tribunal, upended the foundations of Australian colonial governance and changed the way we saw ourselves as a nation. This always was, and always will be, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land.
As Greek-Australians, we can relate to the folly of a monarchy fabricated by European powers with our best interests at heart, imposed on the land whose ancients created democracy. We can relate to the injustice of forced population movements, the suppression of local languages, and the strength of maintaining culture.
After all these years back in Greece, it was Mabo who came immediately into my father’s mind when he began to consider the consequences of the Queen’s death. Would this be the moment of reckoning for Australia? Whose voices needed to be heard?
Sovereignty, not race, is the Mabo judgement’s legacy. This is not a land belonging to no one; this is a land of hundreds of First Nations who belong to Country.
Today’s coronation invites us to consider the Voice to Parliament as the framing Australia’s constitution should always have had. It is time to exercise our choices, our free conscience and our maturity. The Queen is dead—long live the sovereignty of First Nations. Always was, always will be.
IMAGE: An early morning walk with my father.
An edited version of this piece was first published in Neos Kosmos on coronation day, Saturday 6 May 2023.