Australian Knights and the Republic

March 25, 2014

As a former Chairman of the Australian Republican Movement many people have asked me whether I regard the Prime Minister's surprise decision today to reinstate Knights and Dames in the Order of Australia as a slap in the face for republicans.

It is important to remember that Mr Abbott's decision is not without precedent. The Order of Australia was established by Gough Whitlam's Government in 1975 without Knights and Dames, but in 1976 Malcolm Fraser's Coalition Government established the orders of Knight (AK) and Dame (AD) in the Order and they remained there until Bob Hawke's Labor Government effectively abolished the ranks following their election win in 1983.

It is also important to remember that views about  Knights and Dames in the Australian Honours system have not been driven by attitudes to the republic. Bob Hawke was not calling for a republic in 1983 and of course John Howard, a staunch monarchist, did not reinstate Knights and Dames during his time as Prime Minister. Attitudes to Knights and Dames have in my view been largely a function of how Australians, an egalitarian people,  regard honours and titles generally.

The great Australian historian Charles E W Bean (who wrote the multi volume official history of Australia and the First World War) probably summed up the traditional Australian distate for titles of this kind when he declined a knighthood in an era when they were much more common:

"I have for many years held that in Australia the interest of the nation would best be served by the elimination of social distinctions, as far as is reasonably possible. Though I have the greatest admiration for many titled men and women and for their work and influence, it seems to me that in practice, despite certain advantages, the system encourages false values among our people, and that our generation needs above everything to see and aim at true values."

As far as republics are concerned, most countries have an honours system and many of them have an order of knighthood. The Republics of France and Italy not to speak of the Republics of Peru, Argentina, Chile and Guatemala all have orders of knighthoods in their honours system. And so if a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur can be a loyal defender of the French Republic and if a Cavaliere di Gran Croce Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana can be a patriotic citizen of the Italian Republic, Australian republicans should not lose too much sleep over the Prime Minister's decision today. 

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