Return of the Knighthood
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Return of the Knighthood

Return of the Knighthood
The re-introduction of Knighthoods in the Australian honours system has undoubtedly caused a stir. The Prime Minister’s decision has been slammed by many and caused outrage on the left. It’s ironic that the left dislike recognizing achievement, despite encouraging the widespread introduction of the much-esteemed participation award in our schools. Realistically speaking, is it not fitting that we recognize exceptional individuals with an exclusive honour?
Abbott’s decision to re-establish the Dames and Knights category of the Order of Australia achieves this elegantly. One need only briefly look at Australia’s history of honours to see how this move is consistent with the structure of the system. In 1975, the Whitlam government introduced the Order of Australia, before this, Australians were awarded British honours, making it the first uniquely Australian honour.
Later in 1976, the Fraser government introduced the category of Australian Knights and Dames, another uniquely Australian move. The category was then abolished in 1986 under the Hawke government. Abbott’s move is therefore consistent with the history and structure of the title system and is rather a ‘reboot’ than a new concept.
The exclusive nature of the titles, with a maximum of four per year being awarded, means that the title will be restricted to those displaying true dedication and service to our nation. Having an exclusively Australian title in fact further asserts our independence, rather than suggesting a reliance upon British titles for truly exceptional individuals.
Particular issue has been taken with the use of the chivalric titles of ‘Dame’ and ‘Sir’, with many claiming that this returns us to the 11th century Feudal System. However, people also neglect to consider that strong modern republics like France and Italy have knighthoods in their system, meaning that this shouldn’t be viewed as a backwards step. The titles of Sir and Dame are a hallmark of our national history and shouldn’t be seen as solely British. Tim Wilson, the current Human Rights commissioner, made an interesting suggestion on Q and A that perhaps an indigenous title could be used as a substitute to the titles of ‘Sir’ and ‘Dame’, which would be consistent with the concept of recognition.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s remark that not even former Prime Minister John Howard had made such a move raises questions over why the move had not been made by Howard during his tenure, despite being a staunch monarchist. Howard has come forward and stood by his views on the move as, “somewhat anachronistic”.
In fact, in his autobiography, Lazarus Rising, he claims that he didn’t restore knighthoods in 1996 as he knew that, “he had other fish to fry”; and one may also suggest that he avoided such a move, as it might have enraged republicans at a time where the Republican question was coming to a head with the 1999 referendum. To make further changes to knighthoods following the alterations between 1975 and 1983, was also viewed by Howard as undermining the dignity of the honour. Furthermore, Howard’s comment on refusing a knighthood isn’t a rejection of the move, but rather consistent with his belief that being Prime Minister was honour enough.
The Australian Republican Movement has made the claim that the introduction of the titles has bolstered support for a republic and their webpage reported that overload has been experienced due to many individuals signing up.
However, the notably Australian nature of the honour system (being exclusive to Australians) is more of a move to assert our independence and Quentin Bryce’s acceptance of the title undermines the republican reaction. Furthermore, Malcolm Turnbull, former Chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, has said that this shouldn’t be viewed as a monarchial move and republican’s shouldn’t lose sleep.
At the same time, this should also mean that Monarchists shouldn’t assert that constitutional monarchy is riding high on a wave of support. This move truly should be seen as a development in recognizing our exceptional individuals nationally and should be removed from the republican debate.
Former politicians including John Howard and Amanda Vanstone have criticized Abbott’s bypassing of cabinet in re-introducing the honours class. This is an extremely valid criticism and concerns the respect for the cabinet process, yet at the same time the Prime Minister’s role as a member of the executive entitles him to make such a decision independently.
One can speculate whether or not the reaction to the announcement would have been different if cabinet consultation had occurred. Labor Senator Sam Dastyari’s appeal to, “stop the moats” has brought the timing of Abbott’s move into concern, where he sarcastically said that, “there is no more important policy for our realm right now”. Perhaps Abbott’s bypassing of the cabinet should be viewed as an efficient pathway, nevertheless, the disregard for cabinet harms the legitimacy of the move and one hopes that this not be repeated in the future.
Many have also noted Abbott’s move as a backflip on his comments from December of 2013, where he ruled out returning the class of honour, like New Zealand had done earlier that year. This distinct criticism has been somewhat lacking from the media when it should be seen as a significant issue. However, one must note that Abbott was referring to the system in New Zealand where the recipients of the Companion rank of the Order of New Zealand could convert their title into Knighthoods. Instead Abbott has re-introduced the honour separate to the Companion rank of the Order.
At the end of the day, we shouldn’t be battening down our fortresses and pulling up the drawbridges in reaction, but rather we should be celebrating that we can now recognise the individuals who dedicate themselves to upholding Australian values with an Australian title. The move shouldn’t be a shock to anyone either, as it was the destiny of ‘King Tone’ to reinstate knights and dames in the end.

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