DESPITE all the ridicule and hyperbole, Tony Abbott’s unilateral decision to restore the position of the knight/dame Order of Australia within the Australian system of honours and awards might prove popular in the general community.
Certainly the first two recipients of the reinstated honour are among the most popular Australians and both enjoy bipartisan support. Dame Quentin Bryce was appointed to high office by Labor governments in Queensland and at the commonwealth level.
Sir Peter Cosgrove was appointed chief of army and, later, chief of the Australian Defence Force by John Howard’s government.
In November 1999 I was among the 45.1 per cent of Australians who voted yes to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic, with the Queen and governor-general being replaced by a president appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the commonwealth parliament.
In view of the fact that the republican movement was split at the time and some republicans voted no, the fact that more than five million Australians voted yes indicated there was significant support for an Australian head of state at the time.
That was the positive interpretation.
But the yes vote was 43.6 per cent in South Australia, 41.5 per cent in Western Australia, 40.4 per cent in Tasmania and 37.4 per cent in Queensland.
This demonstrated that the mood in Australia would have to change substantially before a majority of Australians in a majority of states supported a republic.
I remain a republican today. Moreover, I would not have restored the titles of dame and knight within the Australian system of honours and awards. This despite the fact that recently New Zealand, under conservative Prime Minister John Key, went even further by effectively upgrading the top rung of the honours system to knighthoods.
Yet it would be foolish to ignore the reality that there is likely to be backing for Abbott’s decision.
What’s more, opinion polls are measuring an increase in support for Australia’s constitutional monarchy. For example, a Fairfax-ReachTEL poll conducted in late January had support for Australia becoming a republic at 39.4 per cent, with 41.6 per cent opposed and 19 per cent undecided. This is the lowest level of support for the republican movement in decades — with those aged over 65 and those between 18 and 34 years of age the least interested.
What explains the apparent collapse in support for Australia having its own head of state to replace the governor-general, who represents the Queen in Australia?
Three theories come immediately to mind. First, the popularity of Prince William and his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton), along with that of Prince Harry. Second, the continuing respect for the Queen. And, finally, the charged international situation in the 21st century.
The assault by Islamists on Western nations and Westerners embodied in the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, in Bali in October 2002, in Britain in July 2005 and in Mumbai in November 2008 has had a marked effect within what the Prime Minister likes to refer to as the Anglosphere and elsewhere.
The prominent role played by William and Harry in the British armed services, with the latter doing tours of duty in Afghanistan, has put the royal family in the forefront of what many citizens of Europe, the Americas, Asia, Australasia and elsewhere still regard as the war on terror.
It is notable that, during her time as governor-general, Dame Quentin focused much attention on current and former members of the ADF. Her last official act involved laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier at the Australian War Memorial.
It is likely that Sir Peter will continue this tradition as the centenary of the commencement of hostilities in World War I approaches.
In the current climate, continuing republicans in Australia would be well advised to ease off on the sneering, which is bound to be counterproductive. However, the signs so far are not auspicious. In a debate with David Flint on 7.30 last Tuesday, republican Greg Barns mocked recipients of knighthoods in the Order of Australia as receivers of “baubles and trinkets”. This is mere ridicule.
Fairfax Media on Wednesday gave prominence to a piece by journalist Tony Wright who declared that Australia was about to become a “bunyip aristocracy” — despite the fact that there will be no Australian aristocracy. Wright referred to the Prime Minister as “His Grace Tony the Abbott” — presumably an attempt at anti-Catholic sectarianism. And he suggested that Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart might be in line for “a new title for Lord and Lady Wardens of the Iron and Coal Ports”.
And then there was the overstatement. Here Labor frontbencher Mark Dreyfus QC was one of the worst offenders when he commented that “perhaps we’re rushing back to the reintroduction of slavery, or some other institution from the 19th century”.
For the record, Dreyfus retains his QC honorific, as does the avowed republican Julian Burnside QC.
Meanwhile Labor backbencher Sam Dastyari seemed to be channelling one-time Labor speechwriter Bob Ellis when he referred to “My lord, lady and lieges” in the Senate.
In these patriotic times, there is not much point in republicans mocking their opponents concerning the head of state or titles. Sneering rarely wins converts to a cause.