The February edition of the Hong Kong Tatler has not been slow in highlighting the bestowal of the title of Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List of 2015 upon the locally based businessman Dickson Poon. The official citation notes his services to business as well as his philanthropy in the field of Higher Education. (Charity which includes some £30 Million to St Hugh’s College, Oxford and King’s College, London).
For a city which has had over 150 years of British Colonial rule and is now a part of the sovereign territory of a communist nation, there has been a notable absence of commentary on the award. The pro-democracy camp has not seized upon it as a life-giving umbilical cord from the old mother country in the wake of last year’s democracy protests. On the other hand the pro-Beijingers have failed to denounce this barbaric act of meddling from what they may view as a corrupt and monarchical system.
All of which makes the concocted outrage which has taken place in Australia over the recognition of the services of Prince Philip, a 93 year old man who has been consort to the Australian Head of State throughout her 63 year reign and bringing his Australian award in line with that of his son, all the more bizarre.
I say concocted for good reason. That Bob Carr feels that he can denounce the award so openly whilst being himself the recipient of an Italian knighthood – in 2008 he happily accepted being awarded the honour of becoming a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic – is enough reason for him to fall upon his sword.
He was, however, very careful with his choice of words, as one would expect from a former Foreign Minister:
‘As someone who takes the spirit of republicanism seriously, I for one will never be acknowledging the knighthood that any Australian receives from this government.’
In other words Carr is more than happy to acknowledge an Italian knighthood given to him during his parachuted-in tenure as a member of the House of Senate. Nor would his statement preclude him from acknowledging a knighthood given out by any future government in Australia. Perhaps for Carr, knighthoods are not the ‘imperial honour’ so ignorantly (or deviously) chimed by republicans. (The ‘imperial’ mantra is one which is said in full knowledge that ours are not imperial awards, but instead an integral part of the home-grown Australian awards system).
Perhaps for ‘Sir Roberto’, the Australian Knights and Dames are indeed the quintessential bedrock of republicanism which he would be happy to receive from the first President of the Republic. He, along with his fellow Italian Knight Channel Ten’s Paul Bongiorno, would be well reminded of the chivalrous nature of knights and tone down the bitterness.
Paul Bongiorno’s tweet denigrating the Prime Minister’s decision to award a knighthood to Prince Philip (‘The cultural cringe is back. Abbott appoints Phil the Greek an Aussie Knight! What century does the PM live in?’) is somewhat cavalier for this Italian Cavaliere. It surely cannot be that he is against the award because it has a royal source, or he would never have accepted his AM in January 2014. (His medal also being ensigned with the crown of Saint Edward).
As for Rupert Murdoch who accepted the Papal knighthood of St Gregory in 1988, to call the recent award to Prince Philip a ‘joke and embarrassment’ and ‘Time to scrap all honours everywhere’ is itself worthy of stand-up comedy. It makes it a shame that he did not feel the same way when he picked up his Companion of the Order of Australia in 1984.
I am not sure what Bob Hawke or Paul Keating did for either White Elephants or for Thailand. Both seemed happy, however, to accept their Knighthoods of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant and are certainly not alone in the list of politicians with one or even more foreign knighthoods.
In the wake of the public (or media) debate about the issue, I was appalled at the attitude of one priest, himself a recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia, who proudly declared that he would not recognise the newly appointed Knights nor call them ‘Sir’. I find that this vicious and nasty streak seems to be commonplace at the moment in our country. The desire to accept and yet still complain; the ability to take what is a royal honour whilst denigrating its royal source. People would be well reminded of the fact that if Australia ever did become a republic, the honours system (including Knights and Dames) would remain intact unless separate moves were to be put in place to change them.
Few of us remember who the recipients of an AC are. But how many of us recognise who is being mentioned even without a surname with the likes of Dame Judi, Dame Maggie, Dame Kiri or even our own Dame Quentin?
Now is the time for some maturity on all sides of politics. Politicians and the media need to acknowledge that the current honours system of the Order of Australia, including Knights and Dames, is distinctly Australian, contemporary and relevant. Those who use it as a political football are scoring an own goal. Recipients of foreign awards who criticise the current system with allusions to being antiquated or subservient do so at the detriment of their own integrity.
There may be debate about the appropriateness or not of awarding such an honour to Prince Philip in an Australia Day list. How much the disapproval has been fed by the media and the cyber graffiti is a matter of debate. What, however, is inexcusable is using the spouse of the head of state as a chess piece within transitory contemporary politics and attempting to degrade the highest honour within the Order of Australia in that process.
Back in Hong Kong the democracy debate and the ‘one country, two systems’ tension continues. There are those who would say that the place is too immature for politics and those who believe that what is currently on offer for political change is too little and too late.
Nonetheless, within all of this it stands proud as a former colony which has the maturity to honour honours (local and foreign) and not to be ashamed of its past.
Australia could learn a lot.
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