Dame Gina Rinehart — for services to coal transportation, journalistic freedom and family law, we confer upon you this country’s highest of honours. Long may your passion for special economic zones inspire us all to be better citizens, with inheritance on our minds and England in our hearts. Sir Alan Jones — for your contribution to public discourse, racial harmony and musical theatre, we likewise honour you. And may God save the Queen.
Whether this week proves to be the moment the Abbott government jumped the proverbial shark remains to be seen. Not content with dredging up old debates about the ABC, racial discrimination or the history curriculum, the PM is unearthing the dust-covered traditions of yore. In a sense, the decision to restore knights and dames to the Australian honours roll is a mere piece of trivia — remarkable, yes, but superficial in its everyday impact.
And yet one can’t help but feeling this is a declarative moment, early in this government’s first term, about values and priorities. Were there any doubts about the country’s present trajectory, they were brutally compounded on Tuesday into a single word: backward. Back to 1976, in this case, when Malcom Fraser reintroduced the imperial honours which had been done away with by Gough Whitlam, and would be dispensed with again under Bob Hawke. Knighthoods are the ping-pong ball in the culture wars, batted back and forth in a surrogate debate for our eventual, final independence from the empire. ‘Are we such infants in Australia that we are even yet unable to agree on the symbols of our independence?’ asked a 1975 editorial in (of all places) the Australian, following Whitlam’s announcement. ‘How long will it take to wean the States from the imperial breast?’ It seems some among us are still being weaned.
But the interludes between those reversals of the 1970s and 1980s were relatively short. It’s now 30 years since this issue was last considered, so one would be forgiven for assuming it was off the (round) table forever. For my entire lifetime, it has been impossible to receive a knighthood in this country. My cohort could aspire merely to a humble AC or AO — pitifully weak achievements, I think you’ll agree, compared to true nobility. But now, like so many other young people, I can dare to dream of a higher greatness.
It was often said that John Howard governed this country with both eyes firmly on the rear-vision mirror, but even he balked at the idea of new Sirs and Dames roaming the land. Indeed, Abbott himself rejected the idea in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph late last year. Yet here we are, packing our bags for the 1950s, casting our gaze toward the Motherland and awaiting the rise of Sir Andrew (Bolt) and Lord Warne. No doubt Abbott and a handful of Liberal monarchists thought this an opportune moment to turn back the hourglass. Support for an Australian republic has tanked, as George Brandis reminded us — although this would certainly turn around were an actual republican campaign to materialise. The royal family has recently added a photogenic spouse and child, and seems to be keeping Charles and Camilla in solitary confinement. Let’s be honest: most Australians don’t really think twice about the logistics or the meaning or monarchy, but we’re perfectly content for that adorable woman on the $5 note to remain our head of state. And personally — if Elton John can sing ‘Crocodile Rock’ dressed as Donald Duck and still be knighted, I reckon the system is a lot more egalitarian than we give it credit for.
But the real point of Abbott’s endeavour is to throw a bone to the Coalition’s conservative base, who are no doubt craving some old-school familiarity in this topsy-turvy world of Snapchat, drive-thrus and the decimal system. There can be no higher calling in politics than to bestow such rapturous joy upon (emeritus) Professor David Flint, to whom I have telegrammed a personal note of congratulations, and the blokes down at the Australia Club. And yet one can’t imagine all this passing the pub test with flying colours. Much has been made of the Coalition’s courtship of aspirational voters — Howard’s battlers, as they were once termed. But who among them could aspire to the honour Abbott has this week reinstated? Can he look a Western Sydney nurse in the eye and say that she is truly, honestly capable of receiving such a damehood? No. This is a purely elite gift, dispensed by the elite for the elite, with little resonance beyond.
Calm down, they urge: these alterations are merely cosmetic and symbolic. It’ll all seem better after a spot of bubble and squeak and a cup of English Breakfast, old chap. Fear not your past. Except that to the rest of the world, it underlines Australia’s continued subordinance to a monarch we should have ditched long ago, and our loyalty to a system based on birthright and privilege. It exposes the fraud of our proclaimed egalitarianism and sullies our ability to be taken seriously in the Asian century. Our only hope is that some renegade troublemaker might rustle up sufficient pounds sterling to engage a Queen’s Counsel and challenge this move in Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, which should soon return to its rightful role as the country’s highest court of appeal. A no-surprises government indeed. Giddy up, bunyips.