IPA Today

Dear Lidia Thorpe, The Queen Is No ‘Coloniser’ – She Dissolved Her Empire’s Overseas Outposts Like No Other World Leader

Written by
16 August 2022
Originally appeared in Sky News Australia

If Senator Thorpe was talking about Queen Victoria, the “coloniser” reference would have been defensible. Queen Elizabeth II though has presided over the greatest wave of de-colonisation the world has ever seen.  

After referring to Queen Elizabeth II as a “coloniser” during her oath of allegiance, Senator Lidia Thorpe went on to further spell out her views about Australia’s British heritage.

The Senator argued in a piece for Fairfax that “First Nations people never ceded sovereignty”.

If left unchallenged, this assertion runs the risk of misleading the public and undermining the prospects of genuine reconciliation.

This column presents a respectful counter-argument.

To begin with, Captain James Cook was explicitly instructed to take possession with the consent of the natives.

It makes more sense to think of Queen Elizabeth II as a de-coloniser rather than a coloniser, writes Dr Sherry Sufi. (Photo by Jane Barlow/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
It makes more sense to think of Queen Elizabeth II as a de-coloniser rather than a coloniser, writes Dr Sherry Sufi. (Photo by Jane Barlow/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

This is well-documented and consistent with colonial practice elsewhere. 

Take New Zealand for example. The British signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

This is because they were able to identify some form of a united Maori government made up of local chiefs to negotiate with in the first place.    

By comparison, pre-settlement Australia was a patchwork of linguistically and ethnically disparate tribes with little in common.

According to Senator Thorpe’s own article more than “500 sovereign nations” lived in Australia at the time.

Yet there was no central government with the authority to negotiate the fate of every square centimetre of this vast island continent, most of which wasn’t even inhabited.

This is what led the British to conclude the land belonged to no particular government as far as they could tell, in their best judgement, at the time. 

So they went ahead, claimed it and began settling it as per the conventions of the old world order.

In any case, the lack of a treaty hasn’t deterred Australia from establishing equality and rule of law.

Indigenous Australians have had the right to vote guaranteed since 1962 – a great Liberal achievement under Prime Minister Robert Menzies.

They have been counted in the census since the 1967 referendum backed by a resounding 91 per cent of Australians – another great Liberal achievement under Prime Minister Harold Holt. 

Modern Australia affords all its citizens equal rights and political representation regardless of one’s ancestral background. 

Indigenous Australians can neither be considered stateless nor occupied.

Now that the sovereignty issue has been addressed, is it reasonable to refer to Queen Elizabeth II as a “coloniser”?

Before she assumed office in 1952, British overseas colonies had already started to dissolve one by one.

Pakistan and India declared independence in 1947. Burma, Sri Lanka and Israel in 1948. Libya in 1951.

So the Queen ended up presiding over the greatest wave of de-colonisation in world history.

From the independence of Sudan (1956) to the handover of Hong Kong (1997) and dozens more in between.

No new overseas territories have been colonised in her entire 70 year reign so far.

If Senator Thorpe was talking about King Henry VIII and the conquest of Ireland, or King George III and the American colonies, or Queen Victoria and the Scramble for Africa, the “coloniser” reference might have been defensible. 

By comparison, it makes more sense to think of Queen Elizabeth II as a de-coloniser. 

The reality is that humans are a wandering species.

Driven by necessity, we go where the search for a meaningful life takes us.

Lands have always been settled and re-settled.

There is hardly a piece of soil on earth reserved for the exclusive use of a single group.

In that sense, Australia is no different.

Together, we share its vast resources and continue to enrich the Australian way of life – premised on our shared values of freedom, democracy and egalitarianism.

To think one formalised Voice could represent all Indigenous Australians is to presume they all think identically.

Look at the stark contrast between the views of Indigenous Australians such as Senator Thorpe and Jacinta Price – two Australian senators with very different approaches to reconciliation.

Yet the fact Australian democracy has been able to deliver these diverse voices into Parliament without a formalised proposal shows our nation is already on the right track.

Identity politics and anti-colonial slogans might generate clickbait news headlines, they won’t generate lasting solutions.

To achieve genuine reconciliation, we must prioritise improving living standards and ensuring greater access to education and health services in remote communities.

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Sherry Sufi

Senior Fellow, The Centre for the Australian Way of Life at the Institute of Public Affairs

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