The prime minister’s surprise revival of knights and dames comes amid rumblings from the Coalition’s sons of monarchy. By Sophie Morris.

Abbott’s regal honours plan sparks new republican debate

Damed if you do: Prime Minister Tony Abbott with Governor-General Quentin Bryce, who will be made the first dame under the revived honours system.
Damed if you do: Prime Minister Tony Abbott with Governor-General Quentin Bryce, who will be made the first dame under the revived honours system.

An ornately framed black and white image of a young Queen Elizabeth II, bearing her signature, dominates the wall of Liberal senator Dean Smith’s office in parliament house. Truth be told, it is more than just a portrait. It is a statement of devotion to the woman and the institution she represents. Smith’s father was born in Britain, but even he struggles to understand his 44-year-old son’s deep affection for the Queen.

“I’m a constitutional conservative,” explains the West Australian senator, pointing out that the reigning monarch is flanked by portraits of her parents, and beneath them he also displays images of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the fathers of federalism in the United States. “I believe in a vibrant federal liberal democracy, under the crown,” he says.

Even before Prime Minister Tony Abbott surprised his colleagues and flummoxed republicans by announcing on Tuesday that he would reintroduce the honour of knights and dames of the Order of Australia, the monarchists within the Coalition were rallying.

In an email to all MPs and senators on Monday, Employment Minister Eric Abetz invited them to join a new group for Parliamentary Supporters of Constitutional Monarchy, to mark the visit to Australia of William and Kate, 60 years after the Queen first graced these shores. 

“With the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge due to visit Australia from 16 to 25 April 2014, it is an opportune time for all interested persons to express their support of the enduring role of the crown in our national constitutional system,” wrote Abetz.

Smith will join the group and may yet lead it. But even he was perplexed by Abbott’s announcement. “My views on knights and dames are more in tune with John Howard’s,” Smith says. The former prime minister had been urged to revive the honours when he was in power but wrote in his memoir, Lazarus Rising, that he chose not to because “as a strong supporter of the constitutional monarchy continuing in Australia, I did not wish to be seen to be reviving an honour which to many, even conservative Australians, was somewhat anachronistic.”

Almost 15 years after the defeat of the referendum on Australia becoming a republic, following a split over the model, there is no imminent prospect that Australia will get its own homegrown head of state. Attorney-General George Brandis says Australia “dallied in the 1990s with the idea of becoming a republic and turned its face against it”. Even committed republicans admit it won’t happen during this Queen’s reign, and certainly not while Abbott is prime minister.

Yet monarchists and republicans are gearing up for the eventual showdown. After years of inaction, the Australian Republican Movement relaunched last year and is conducting a grassroots campaign to win over the public, so that support is in place when the time comes. The Queen is, after all, almost 88 years old.

Labor frontbencher Tony Burke was national campaign manager for the then chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, Malcolm Turnbull, in the lead-up to the postal ballot to elect delegates to the 1998 constitutional convention.

He says there will need to be political leadership and a bipartisan approach to advance the republican cause. There was a “lost opportunity” when Kevin Rudd was prime minister and Turnbull opposition leader.

The idea of a republic had featured at Rudd’s 2020 Summit in April 2008. But by the time Turnbull became opposition leader in September that year, Lehman Brothers was collapsing and priorities lay elsewhere for both men.

“I think Tony Abbott is much more determined to chloroform the debate than John Howard ever was,” Burke says. “You just cannot imagine Australia having its own head of state when the prime minister was the former head of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy.”

As if to underline this, Abbott announced he was reviving the honours system that was killed off by the Hawke government. As she finishes up her vice-regal post, Quentin Bryce – who angered some conservatives, Smith included, by expressing support for a republic during her Boyer Lecture last November – will become the first dame. Her successor as governor-general, Peter Cosgrove, will be the first knight.

Labor had a field day depicting Abbott as out-of-touch and focused on fripperies instead of jobs. The Greens complained of a “bunyip aristocracy” and independent senator Nick Xenophon quipped that the new dames and knights should be known as ‘’bonzer blokes’’ and ‘‘grouse sheilas’’. Even Turnbull allowed himself the wry observation, speaking at a TV launch at parliament house during the week, that this shouldn’t be perceived as a “monarchical move”. “After all, there are many distinguished republics that have knights in their honours system – Guatemala, for example, Peru, Argentina, Brazil,” he quipped.

The issue certainly contributed to the government’s worst parliamentary sitting week yet, in which it was forced to freeze controversial plans to repeal Labor’s financial advice reforms, was accused of defending bigotry and faced ongoing questions about Arthur Sinodinos’s involvement with Australian Water Holdings. To cap it all off, Labor’s frustration with Speaker Bronwyn Bishop erupted in Thursday’s question time as the opposition sought, unsuccessfully, to move a no-confidence motion in the chair.

1 . Gauging the public mood for change

Labor backbencher Tim Watts, who convenes the Victorian chapter of Labor Friends of the Republic, says the movement needs a clear timeline. “You get momentum when you can see a goal,” he says. Labor policy is that it wants a republic, but Watts says it would make sense to commit now to conduct a plebiscite at the federal election subsequent to the Queen leaving the throne.

Watts believes the republican movement will find a receptive audience in multicultural communities, with Chinese migrants now outnumbering British-born and the emblems of empire increasingly outdated and irrelevant.

Abetz, who is himself a migrant, mounts the opposite argument. Born in Germany, he came here as a three-year-old.

Perhaps his attachment to the monarchy is rooted in this past. “If you look at the sad and sorry history of the country of my birth, where certain republics and reichs were pursued by certain people, it created all sorts of uncertainty and very ugly extremism,” he tells The Saturday Paper.

“In quite a lot of migrant communities there’s a strong attachment to the constitutional monarchy for the provision of stability and certainty and personal freedoms that are enjoyed in countries such as England, Australia and New Zealand and generally are the envy of the world. The monarchy provides an anchor in what is a very fast-moving world.”

Abetz says republicanism is most popular with his generation of baby boomers, many of whom still hold a “jaundiced” view of Australia’s constitutional monarchy, courtesy of governor-general John Kerr’s role in the dismissal of the Whitlam government.

Likewise, Smith believes that, far from being a preoccupation of old fogeys, monarchism is now in tune with the mood of the young.

“Young Australians today are more conservative than other generations have been. They look at symbols like the crown and hold them in high regard. Here is a leader who has been monarch for more than 60 years,” he says, gesturing to the royal portrait. “The combination of her performance with the underlying conservatism in younger Australians means republicanism is not enjoying the support it did in the 1990s.”

Don’t try telling this to the Australian Republican Movement’s national director David Morris. He argues it is a common error to mistake young people’s interest in the celebrity surrounding the monarchy and even affection for the royals with a belief that they should be the head of our government.

“When you say, ‘Do you think the monarch should sit at the top of our system of government?’, many young people don’t even realise that’s currently the case,” he says. “I’m in awe of the Queen. I think she’s a great head of state for the United Kingdom and I think that Australia deserves a great head of state of our own. We have very different cultures and identities and should have different institutions that reflect this. The identity we project to the world and our region cannot be the old colonial identity.”

As for the renewed displays of enthusiasm for the monarchy within the Coalition’s ranks, Morris sees it as a gift. He says membership of the republican movement has increased dramatically since Abbott chose to pledge allegiance to the Queen rather than to the people of Australia. The ARM’s website went into meltdown after the prime minister announced the revival of knights and dames. The issue is once more the topic of public debate.

“If this is a culture war Mr Abbott is trying to ignite, we are very confident he will not win,” says Morris. “He will take us back one step but his successor will move us forward two.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 29, 2014 as "The Queen’s Guard".

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Sophie Morris is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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