It was predictable that the commentariat and the republican politicians would deplore the restoration of knighthoods. The plaintive, almost anguished, cry of ”Why? ” as Tony Abbott concluded his press conference said it all. Reflecting the narrow, left-oriented world in which they live, commentators both deplored and ridiculed it. That reaction, as I said, was entirely predictable.
The real surprise was that so many eye-rolling members of the press corps came to the immediate conclusion that Abbott’s decision would damage him politically, perhaps even inflicting major harm on the Prime Minister’s standing with the voting public. The April Essential Poll soon corrected that, revealing only 21% of voters strongly disapprove the restoration. That meagre figure emerged even after the commentariat had gone overboard in condemning the move. It needs no closer examination of the polling data to confidently assume that the critics and naysayers would never, ever vote for Abbott come hell or high water.
The commentariat had made the mistake of thinking the rank-and-file Australian has similar interests and concerns to those who dwell in inner-city enclaves dominated by groupthink and fashionable opinion. Instead of taking an ideological position on the restoration, commentators should have objectively examined what Abbott had done, which was to have rectified an anomaly.
Australia had been in a curious position before Abbott’s announcement. We still had had Knights and Dames of the Order of Australia, and they ranked above Companions. And thanks to the decision of the Hawke government no more could be made. This meant that on visits of foreign heads of state it was difficult to engage in the usual courtesy of exchanging orders, as the highest order in Australia, while technically still in existence, could no longer be bestowed. Not a big issue, certainly, but something that needed to be corrected.
Moreover, the overloaded Order of Australia was not originally intended to be the exclusive method of recognising Australians, as Sir John Kerr revealed to the former president of the New South Wales Legislative Council, Max Willis. Kerr had an intimate knowledge of the foundations of the Order, having worked closely with Gough Whitlam on the insignia — “the ‘jewellery”, as he liked to described it.
Hawke blundered in his eagerness to end titles, overlooking the fact that it had long been possible to accept a knighthood without embracing the actual title of ‘Sir’ or “Dame’. As an example, it is worth remembering Ronald Reagan’s defence secretary and ardent Anglophile Caspar Weinberger, who accepted an ‘honorary knighthood’. Wienberger and others achieved this by the simple expedient of declining to be dubbed. What Hawke should have done was to keep the top level, instead of closing it off. Knighthoods could have been awarded without title, as in most European countries. They could have used a different name, as Labor did in New Zealand with ‘Principal Companions’. Both sides would have been satisfied.
Abbott has at last corrected Hawke’s error, honouring tradition in a way the commentariat doesn’t like, hence the chattering classes making much of the fact that the Prime Minister did not consult the Cabinet. Truth is, in matters concerning his personal advice to the Sovereign he need not do so. Indeed, there are times a Prime Minister need not consult Cabinet, as when he or she advises Her Majesty directly and privately in relation to the appointment of a Governor-General.
A prime minister has few privileges under the Westminster system, and Abbott’s right and authority to make a decision on knighthoods was one of them.
David Flint is the author with Jai Martinkovits of Give Us Back Our Country, recently updated with a second edition