Of all the ink spilled on Tony Abbott's 'knightmare' over the course of the week, Greg Sheridan had what was, for me, the definitive take. I agree with every word.
It truly was a diabolically poor piece of judgment, as was the original decision to re-introduce knighthoods. Abbott may have believed that both initiatives were consistent with his conservative principles, but it was really the act of, at best, a nostalgic, and at worst a reactionary. It's true, to paraphrase William F Buckley, that occasionally the job of the conservative is to stand athwart history yelling 'Stop!' But true conservatives never hit reverse. Conservatism is not about undoing change but about accommodating inevitable change within a stable and familiar social order. In that sense, Australia's evolving relationship with Britain is a case-study of conservatism done right: there was no revolution, and there has been no breach. Instead the connection with Britain has loosened gradually, organically, in line with the temper of society. Abbott's attempt to reverse that tide questions the wisdom not only of Australians today but of at least the last four generations (I'm counting from World War II, when Australia switched its primary foreign policy allegiance from the UK to the US). In short, it was a highly un-conservative act.
Still, for all the damage this does to Prime Minister Abbott at home, I'm not convinced by the idea advanced by Nick Bryant yesterday that this debacle damages Australia's reputation overseas, particularly in Asia.
For one thing, Nick doesn't really offer evidence for this judgment (although Crikey has a nice collection of overseas media stories one could point to). Secondly, it neglects the fact that many of these Asian societies are much more culturally conservative than Australia. Some of them are themselves monarchies (Japan, Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia [sort of]), and most are more socially hierarchical, less individualist and more reverent towards institutions than is liberal Australia. I doubt it would shock them to see an honour conferred on a social elder, even if he is a foreigner.
But those are really secondary points. As an overseas media story, it's a one-day wonder, a curiosity. I suspect that what's really going on here is a case of projection: republicans who would like to see Australia sever its bonds with the monarchy are projecting their own views onto the governments and people of Asia.
Here's a test: would we hear the same level of concern for Australia's overseas reputation if some other issue was at stake?
Take marriage equality, for example. I happen to be strongly in favour of gay marriage, and it looks like I'm in the majority in Australia. It seems inevitable that the country will over time move towards marriage equality. Yet in socially and religiously conservative Southeast Asia, we can expect a decision like that to be quite unpopular. If gay couples in Asia began to travel to Australia to get married, it might even cause some tensions in regional relations.
Should we expect critics of Australia's constitutional monarchy to display the same level of concern for our international reputation in that event as they are showing at present? It seems unlikely. The same point could be made about the death penalty, which is in the news at the moment. I'm not hearing many people worry that our opposition to the death penalty is damaging our relations with Indonesia, and nor should there be. We are right to protest this barbarism.
So no, Tony Abbott's 'knightmare' is not a story about Australia's reputation abroad. But, as both Nick and James Curran have argued on The Interpreter, our constitutional arrangements and our attitude to the monarchy do say something about how the nation faces the world. Australia's gradual and halting move toward establishing a republic will, when it happens, reinforce the sense that Australia has evolved into a nation not just in Asia but of Asia.
Nick Bryant cites Tony Abbott's Anglosphere speech as evidence of the Prime Minister's reluctance to grasp this future, but that's a one-dimensional reading. I really can't add much to what I have said before on this topic, which is that Abbott's alleged sense of Western 'superiority' needs to be balanced with other comments he has made about non-Western cultures, and also that Abbott's 'Anglosphere' exists mainly in the realm of ideas — it is a liberal-conservative worldview or, if you like, a personal philosophy. As a cursory glance at the Abbott Government's record will attest, the 'Anglosphere' does not describe this government's foreign policy.
Photo courtesy of @TonyAbbottMHR.