Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Australian honours system by the Whitlam government. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has decided to celebrate this historic milestone early: by reintroducing knighthoods. Just four knights or dames a year, he hastens to add, as if this will sweeten this retrograde pill.
It is 2014 and Australia suddenly finds itself with knights and dames again. Tony Abbott plainly thinks it’s 1954. Or that’s what he wishes.
It’s difficult to know what disappoints the most. The fact that outgoing Governor-General Quentin Bryce, who recently caused a sensation by alluding to a better time when Australia would be a republic, accepted a damehood? That just last December Abbott unequivocally ruled out the reintroduction of knighthoods? That Abbott, self-described champion of the Westminster system who vowed to restore the primacy of cabinet government, did not consult his cabinet before dropping his regal bombshell? That Abbott promised, again and again, that this would be a government of no surprises?
This is a Prime Minister who campaigned for office on the promise of restoring trust in government and the political process; a Prime Minister who has vowed that the government he leads would not deviate from the election manifesto that got it elected.
Only days ago he told The Australian: “My ambition…is not to be a big-noter; my ambition is to get done the things that we said we would get done.”
One might think there was a hint of big-noting when he triumphantly announced on Tuesday that the Queen had “graciously” accepted his recommendation to reintroduce knights and dames in Australia – like she had a choice.
This was a decision based on what Abbott wanted, nobody else. There was no consultation with the community, no popular clamour for the return of knights and dames, no hint that it was on anyone’s agenda, much less the government’s.
Did this bizarre decision not constitute a surprise? The only surprise, according to Abbott, is that anybody could make such a suggestion.
Surprise? What surprise?
“I don’t think it is any surprise that I am a supporter of the existing system and that I want to enhance the dignity of our existing system and I want to particularly acknowledge and recognise the place of the Governor-General in our system. So, I don’t think it is really any surprise.”
The first recipients of the new honours are Dame Quentin Bryce and her successor Sir Peter Cosgrove – leading one to the conclusion that this was not quite the snap decision it appeared to be – and future governors-general will be accorded the honour at the commencement of their terms as part and parcel of their vice-regal office. At his press conference, Abbott explained that “it is fitting that the Queen’s representative be so honoured”. What it fits is the ardent-royalist PM’s idea of monarchical nirvana.
The titles, Abbott went on, will “honour people whose service has been extraordinary and pre-eminent”, but will be reserved for Australians “who have accepted rather than sought public office”. Examples of such personages include governors-general, state governors, defence force chiefs, chief justices and “people of that ilk”.
Assuming the new honours survive Abbott, the automatic bestowal of knighthoods and damehoods on future viceroys raises the spectre of prominent Australians refusing to serve in the role rather than join Abbott’s “bunyip aristocracy”. (The term was coined in 1853 by firebrand NSW lawyer and politician Daniel Deniehy who decried William Charles Wentworth’s proposal for the creation of a colonial hereditary nobility. The idea of a home-grown aristocracy was ridiculed out of existence, until now.)
This was a divisive decision. Abbott has created an unnecessary, anachronistic and jarring honour in a society that prides itself on being egalitarian (irrespective of how true that may be).
Such an important matter as the reintroduction of knighthoods in a modern society should at the very least have been canvassed in the community, and more properly should have been the subject of a referendum.
The stuff of student politics
This is an example of selfish leadership at its most arrogant. Abbott the ardent monarchist uses his position to sneak in archaic honours with little regard for the national mood or interest.
It’s the typical in-your-face surprise manoeuvre of the university politician Abbott used to be. It obviously suits his royalist ardour, but it also creates a welcome diversion as well as catching the Opposition off guard. And so much the better that the Opposition leader, Bill Shorten, just happens to be Dame Quentin’s son-in-law.
But Abbott is not a student politician now; he’s the Prime Minister. And he is not behaving like one. He may have provided himself with instant gratification but the new honours are unlikely to survive his prime ministership (which might very easily be one term, especially if he keeps up this sort of nonsense) or the life of a Coalition government. Abbott’s short-sighted legacy will be a rump of knights and dames stranded in history.
As well as treating the people of Australia with contempt, Abbott has treated the very institution he adores, the British monarchy, and the Queen herself, with hamfisted disrespect by politicising honours which are at least nominally in the gift of the monarch.
Gough Whitlam abolished knights and dames in 1975, Malcolm Fraser reintroduced them in 1976 and they were finally abolished – or so we thought – in 1983 by the new Hawke government. John Howard, arguably even more devoted to the British monarchy than Abbott, declined to reintroduce knights and dames in the 1990s: he believed Australians had moved on from imperial honours, but he also felt that the on-again-off-again gongs were an insult to the Queen. Abbott had no such sensitivities.
Unlike Howard, who for most of his time as Prime Minister had a masterful sense of what the electorate would bear, Abbott has shown himself to be out of touch. Nor, it would appear, does Abbott mind dragging the Queen into this latest stoush. By unilaterally making this decision Abbott has placed himself above all. Judging by community reaction so far, the reintroduction of knights and dames has attracted the scorn and ridicule it deserves.
In the great scheme of things, does it really matter that knighthoods are back? Perhaps not. But as an indicator of the Australia that Abbott dreams of, and the Australia in which most of us live in, and the future we aspire to, the gulf could not be greater.
The reintroduction of the knighthoods show a Prime Minister who is self-absorbed, selfish, sneaky, secretive and reckless.
When Australians voted for a Coalition government at last year’s election, they did so knowing very little about the kind of Prime Minister Tony Abbott would be. Now they know.