I DISAGREE with Tony Abbott’s return to knights and dames. But I disagree with some of the critical commentary about it, too.
It seems to have been forgotten that the award is contained within the Australian honours system — we are not seeing a reversion to imperial honours. Labor’s confected outrage is a little shallow when you realise it had the chance to get rid of that award and didn’t.
John Howard was right when he said these awards seem anachronistic. Among my Liberal mates I can find none that think it other than really weird. Not one.
Mr Abbott loses many more than he gains because this plays into the hands of those who want to lock him into a caricature that reeks of old world.
Prime ministers on top of their game give extra credence to the government, and that brings with it a few privileges.
Having a stronger voice is one of those. Flying solo to indulge yourself is not.
A prime minister who rides roughshod over cabinet colleagues when there is no imperative to do so is playing a dangerous game.
Making a leader renege after some indulgence is expensive. The fight in cabinet leaks, the leader and the team is damaged.
The leader virtually says: “Suck it up, you bunch of sissies.” He concludes his view is more important, better, than all of his cabinet and party room members.
And that rankles with MPs.
We saw under the Rudd government an incapacity of members to force their leader to use proper cabinet processes.
My guess is this lot won’t be so lily-livered. Clearly they were, if not happy, at least prepared, to let this one pass — all have vivid recent memories of how letting leaders have their way for the sake of peace and the appearance of unity leads to terrible government.
This was the wrong issue for Mr Abbott to pull rank.
The honours system does not affect a defined specialist area, such as defence or agriculture. It is a policy for all of us. It is how we choose to honour our own.
Anyone can nominate someone. A person of limited means and with little formal education may stand equally with a scientist, philanthropist or entrepreneur.
It is fair to say Gough Whitlam’s abandonment of imperial honours and establishment of our own contributed to us building our own identity — under a more egalitarian system. Our different levels of award all look fairly similar.
Until Malcolm Fraser added knights and dames, nobody got a fancy title. They have not been used for many years for good reason. Awards with fancy titles just don’t sit well in today’s Australia.
This knights and dames issue was raised last year and Mr Abbott appeared to rule it out. In fact he ruled out the New Zealand model for knights and dames. In hindsight, that now appears to have been deliberately evasive.
While I don’t imagine there will be any backing down from this decision, I do have a suggestion for improvement. If the partner of a dame is not accorded any particular title, then the partner of a knight should be treated the same way.
We might have a Sir Donald Bradman but his wife would stay Mrs Bradman in the same way that Dame Margaret Guilfoyle’s husband stayed Mr Guilfoyle. Treating men and women the same is surely something on which we can all agree.
Mr Abbott should have recognised before he did this that this policy cannot be repaired — he is stuck with it.
Every time another appointment is made, voters will be reminded it was he who reintroduced a system that appears to so many as out of place.
And MPs and cabinet members will also be reminded this is the policy on which they were given what we call the royal finger.
That’s not a good thing to do to colleagues without whose support you would not be prime minister.
- Amanda Vanstone is a columnist for Fairfax and was a minister in the Howard government.