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Why no tears will be shed for Australia's knights and dames

Why no tears will be shed for Australia's knights and dames

So Tony Abbott's revival of knights and dames has proved a short lived thing, with newly installed PM Malcolm Turnbull moving quickly to axe the contentious honours.

It's a move likely to be greeted with relief at home and bemusement abroad, given it is less than two years since knights and dames made a comeback to the Order of Australia.

James Curran memorably described that restoration as one of 'the most pompous, pretentious, nostalgic and self-indulgent prime ministerial decisions in a generation'. But the damage was contained when the first gongs went to respected Australian figures.  That changed a year later with the then prime minister's decision to make the Duke of Edinburgh a Knight of the Order of Australia. This move, wrote Curran in 'Knighthood Decision Blights Australia's International Image', reversed decades of actions designed to show an Australia that was  modern, outward-looking and self-confident:

So what will leaders and governments throughout Asia make of this decision? The chuckles and guffaws must be rippling through the cables being sent back to their diplomatic masters.

There is one precedent in recent Australian history that shines a light on the Prime Minister's bizarre decision, and that is the announcement in June 1963 by Prime Minister Robert Menzies that the unit of Australia's new decimal currency would be named the 'royal'. Just as in recent days, the reaction of the press was swift and relentless, producing a groundswell of popular disaffection.

There are surely lessons here for the Prime Minister. He can now hardly repeal the honour he has bestowed on the Prince. But the public cynicism towards Menzies' decision on the 'royal' came when Australia was slowly and painfully emerging from Britain's shadow and trying to find a new post-imperial footing. How ludicrous it must seem to even the most impartial of observers today, then, to observe the Prime Minister's tumble into Menzian farce.

Also on the topic, Nick Bryant declared in 'Prince Philip's Knighthood is the Gong Heard Around the World' the self-proclaimed 'captain's call' by Tony Abbott was arguably the worst since Greg Chappell 'asked his brother Trevor to bowl underarm to New Zealand's Brian McKechnie'.  Phrophetically,  Bryant said the move could come back to haunt the then PM: [fold]

In any objective cost-benefit analysis, Abbott surely loses on all fronts. As a politician, it brings into question his judgment and could, in coup-addicted Canberra, lead eventually to his ouster. As a constitutional conservative, he runs the risk of turning small 'r' republicans into more troublesome rebels and imperiling the very institution he seeks to protect. As prime minister of a country supposedly seeking better ties with its neighbours, it makes him look more Anglo than Asian in his orientation.

Not all agreed  the move would damage Australia's reputation overseas. Sam Roggeveen argued 'Abbott's Blunder Won't Hurt Us in Asia', on the grounds many nations in the region are more culturally conservative than Australia and quite a few are monarchies: 'I doubt it would shock them to see an honour conferred on a social elder, even if he is a foreigner'. It was Australia's stalled progress toward a Republic that was fueling the rage, Roggeveen wrote:

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.

Whether is was republican promoters foisting their views on others or simple embarrassment at a move so out of step with the modern era that stirred outrage back in January, most will be glad to draw a line and move on. We are a relatively young nation that at times struggles to strike the right balance between honouring the past and focusing on the future, but this is one episode we won't want to dwell upon.

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