It was iffy for a while there. Reasonable people differed as to whether Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, had his priorities in order. He is no wimp, he is strong and fair, but he just has so many controversial positions. Surely he can’t stand by them all. The Pacific solution, climate scepticism, ruling out reinstating Knights and Dames, his paid parental leave scheme, the belief that loggers are the ultimate environmental conservationists—surely he’d backflip on at least one.
Now he has. In a week where the PNG Minister for Foreign Affairs said that the two governments, PNG and Australia, would move to deny a human rights lawyer access to Manus Island, Abbott has changed his tune and reinstated knighting. He has, in a bold stroke likely to impress absolutely no one under the age of fifty, reintroduced the honour of Knights and Dames of the Order of Australia.
It's a moment for celebration, if only for the fact that it's the first actual thing the Abbott Government has contributed. In the seven months since coming to power, the majority of the Government's work has been undoing what the previous government did—whether it's trying to repeal the mining and carbon taxes, cutting sections of the Racial Discrimination Act or getting rid of the Climate Commission. This is the first new thing, even if it’s a very (very) old thing, and it nicely cements our position as a backwater colony of a monarchical empire that no longer exists.
At one point Abbott’s knightly quest was in doubt. As recently as last December Abbott put the idea on the backburner calling rumours that Alan Jones (radio broadcaster, Abbott friend and peevish monarchist) had been pushing for it, “just a bit of chatter”. A closer reading of that story now seems to suggest that what he was actually slapping away (as a knight is wont to do) was the idea of following New Zealand’s particular method. “I don't think New Zealand is a relevant model here. The problem is they just basically converted their ACs into knighthoods. I just don't think that's realistic in this country.”
It will be interesting to see how the move sits with the rest of the Liberal Party, especially since Abbott bypassed the approval of his colleagues and went straight to the Queen. Monarchists like former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer are for it, obviously, but how will republicans like Malcolm Turnbull feel? According to the Telegraph, back in December Liberal Party critics were calling it an attempt to introduce a “bunyip aristocracy”. (Bunyips are like an Australian version of Bigfoot. I know what you’re thinking—Bunyip dames, Bunyip knights. Awesome, right?)
You also have to wonder how the Queen feels about her colonial subjects being so wishy washy about whether to call people knights or not. Gough Whitlam binned the honour in 1975 only to have Malcolm Fraser, a year later, ask if we could have it back. Then in the eighties Bob Hawke said it would no longer be necessary. Because the 70s, that decade of swooning and jousting, were over. Cut to 2014 and the request is on her desk again, “Australia wants Knights”. Hasn’t the Queen got better things to do than worry about what Australia calls those who it wants to honour? No? Oh.
Tony Abbott, channelling his inner medieval poet, said he feels the institution, “is an important grace note in our national life”. Greens leader Christine Milne disagrees and said, “Bring on a republic.” But the lamest response goes to Labor leader Bill Shorten, who said in a statement, “It's good to see the government has a plan for Knights and Dames—where's their plan for jobs, health and education?” Did nobody tell him about the Bunyip knights?
And, because no story about royal honours can be complete without a little inbreeding, a problem for the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is that the first new Dame is his mother-in-law, the Governor-General Dame Quentin Bryce, and his reputation with the Bryces is probably as important as his reputation amongst the general public. At least his mother-in-law knows his name. Although given she's also the first Governor-General to propose that Australia should be a republic, it may have been a good idea for her to turn down the honour.
So how do you become a dame or knight? The trick is you can't want it. In his statement Abbott said he intends, “that this new award will go to those who have accepted public office rather than sought it; and who can never, by virtue of the office they have held, entirely return to private life.” Because real knights and dames don't choose the burden, it chooses them. All is forgiven, Quentin.
As to the question of whether this is just an exercise in privileged people giving themselves different meaningless titles, well no one asked that because we all know the answer.
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