Knighthoods and Dames
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has reversed the decision of his predecessor, Tony Abbott, to reintroduce knighthoods and damehoods and has removed them from the Australian honours system.
Abbott’s decision of 25 March 2014 was not popular. A RealTEL poll found that only 12% of Australians supported his awarding of a knighthood to the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip.
It is unlikely that many saw the reintroduction of knights and dames as a high priority. Australians tend to be relaxed about such symbolic issues, which probably includes the push for a republic as well. A majority may be for or against when asked, but it doesn’t mean they feel strongly about it or that it is important to them.
Turnbull is an avowed republican while Abbott is an avowed constitutional monarchist. However, republicanism is not the issue: long-established republics like France and Italy have retained knighthoods. And among the first group of knights and dames under Abbott was former Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, a supporter of Australia becoming a republic.
Knighthoods have a medieval origin, and were removed from the honours system in Australia by the Whitlam Government in 1975. Whitlam introduced an Australian honours system to replace the old imperial honours under which the British monarch bestowed honours upon Australians. In 1975, the Queen approved the institution of the Order of Australia: 'an Australian society of honour for according recognition to Australian citizens and other persons for achievement or meritorious service'.
However, knights and damehoods were not gone from the scene for long. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser introduced them into the Australian system in 1976.
Controversy arose during the Fraser period when Jack Egerton, leader of the Labor Party in Queensland, accepted a knighthood on the nomination of Queensland’s National Party Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. To make the knighthood even more controversial, especially for the Labor Party, Egerton’s title was bestowed by Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, who less than a year earlier had dismissed the Whitlam Government.
Australian knighthoods and damehoods were opposed by the Hawke Labor Government elected in 1983 and were discontinued in 1986. State governments abolished them in 1989.
During the 12 years of John Howard’s Coalition Government, Prime Minister Howard – a strong constitutional monarchist - made no attempt to reintroduce them.
Abbott saw knighthoods and damehoods in terms of an assertion of Australia’s British heritage. Yet to many Australians, they seem anachronistic and pompous and have a colonial era ‘vibe’. The romance and chivalry attached to knights of the medieval era was lost when the title moved away from its military origins. As the twentieth century progressed, the knightly notion of ‘Faithfulness to Saviour and Sovereign’ held much less sway.
In the United Kingdom, knighthoods are now bestowed upon famous rock musicians like Bob Geldof and Mick Jagger – yet rather than make the titles seem more modern and ‘hip’, it tends rather to make one wonder why rockers Sir Bob and Sir Mick accepted them in the first place.
Generally speaking, Australians have a tradition of distaste for those who parade as our ‘betters’. Perhaps this reflects in part our convict origins; though I tend to think it is more universal than something distinctively Australian. At any rate, in the 1850s Daniel Deniehy coined the term ‘bunyip aristocracy’ in response to W C Wentworth’s efforts to introduce a hereditary peerage into the colony of New South Wales. This was different, though, to knights and dames which are not hereditary.
With knights and dames now removed from our honours system, perhaps critical attention will be given to the honours system itself. In 1997, former Prime Minister Paul Keating declined admission into the Order of Australia as a Companion on the grounds that he didn’t think it right to be awarded for doing his job. He felt that honours should go to those who made significant contributions outside of their paid employment.