Curtsy and CHOGM

It didn’t take long. Within an hour of what seemed like a respectful and polite greeting by the Australian Prime Minister to a foreign head of state, media companies had spun it into a breach of “protocol”. The online editions of all Australian newspapers and broadcasters were posting a story about a word that doesn’t stray often on to the tongue: curtsy. Wikipedia says a “curtsey (also spelled curtsy or courtesy) is a traditional gesture of greeting, in which a girl or woman bends her knees while bowing her head. It is the female equivalent of male bowing in Western cultures.”
(photo: Debutantes practise a form of the curtsey known as a Texas dip)
If the Queen, the sovereign head of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth is upset a girl or a woman didn’t bend their knees in greeting to her, then she is getting more doddery in her dotage than she is letting on. She had had a lot more on her mind than a knee gesture. She would have been thinking about her role as conduit between the UK and Australian Governments or deciding practical considerations about the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth. This is an important meeting of 60 leaders she and Gillard will co-chair. It happens every two years and brings together a strange brew of countries who all share British colonial history, law and culture with varying degrees of adherence (We Irish need to get over our historical gripes and enter this intriguing league of nations).

The theme of this year’s conference is “Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience” which is not sexy sounding but of great importance to most of the leaders present as it talks about transnational responses to global poverty and climate change. A Google news search of the theme of the conference found just two occurrences – and one was the official press release from CHOGM. The other was in Trinidad Express Newspapers which quoted Trinidad & Tobago Foreign Affairs and Communications Minister Dr Suruj Rambachan. Ranbachan noted the theme would mean discussion on the challenges of food security, sustainable development and natural resource management. All these themes have much greater importance than a misunderstood gesture but attracted no media attention outside the Caribbean. Compare articles on “Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience” to “curtsy”. A quick glance again at Google News found 1,160 articles on Gillard’s failure to bend her knees. Britain and Australia were particularly all over it. The British Telegraph noted a contrast with the Governor General. “While Mrs Bryce curtsied to the Queen, Ms Gillard, an avowed republican, opted for a handshake and shallow bow.” The Australian Telegraph headline stated two eight-year-olds were practising their curtseys ahead of an engagement with Her Majesty. Gillard meanwhile had to “explain” her behaviour: “As I greeted the Queen she extended her hand to shake hands and obviously I shook her hand and bowed my head. – That’s what I felt most comfortable with”.

News Ltd’s Melbourne paper Herald Sun read far more into it, saying Gillard’s “decision” was a “sign”. Australia, it trumpeted, was “catching up with the modern monarchy”. While many may have been unaware the modern monarchy had left Australia behind, the Herald Sun found a TV chat show host, an etiquette expert and the deputy chair of the Victorian branch of the Australian Monarchists League who all agreed Gillard had blundered.

Someone quickly added “–gate” to it. I can find no evidence any newspaper or website journalist referred to “curtsygate”, but it took off in Twitter. The phrase was attributed to Sydney 2GB radio shock jock host Ray Hadley, and the reaction in Twitter was either one of head-shaking weariness at the thought of this latest gated abomination or else sarcastic glee it was the end of democracy.

But if the journalists did not gate it, they should not have left curtsy past the gatekeeper either. The villains here are the chiefs of staff and the news editors who select these stories and give them prominence. They not only fit the ongoing destabilisation of an unpopular Prime Minister in contrast to a popular monarch, but also hyperinflate the primary news value of “conflict” (the fact that someone might be outraged by Gillard’s behaviour).

If the news editors are seeking genuine conflict then they should give their staff the link to the CHOGM paper and tell them to chase down the Trinidad foreign minister. I’m sure he has enlightening and possibly non-complementary things to say about Australia and other first world countries. The Queen might even give them his number if they bow politely enough.

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