Vale Australia’s Third Knightage

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week announced the abolition of the third Australian knightage – or, as the jubilant Fairfax-Murdoch press complex and the even more triumphant social media opinionists shouted, he “abolished knights and dames”. What a man!

I have in earlier posts (Why Knighthood Matters in 21st Century Australia, Honours for the Honourably Challenged) supported the restoration of the knighthood level in the Order of Australia or elsewhere within the Australian honours system. I continue to do so. However, the enraptured celebrations of the Turnbullistas, and the square metres of media space given to the gleeful FitzSimons-Turnbull republicans to broadcast their support for this bold, brave move, have given me pause to reflect upon the nature of the latest abolition and the character of the responses to it.

The responses, as far as I can guage, fall into six main categories: the anachronistic, the nationalistic, the vulgar, the Abbott-hating, the derisive and the simply confused. It’s quite a raffish, larrikinish ensemble, and I’ll consider each in turn.

The anachronistic. Anachronism is one of the principle reasons given by the PM for abolition. Describing something as anachronistic means it is in the wrong time (like an 18th century clock in a 21st century room).  In the academic world it is a pejorative, but it is used in the vernacular to mean something like old-fashioned or out-of-date, although not necessarily bad. Apparently, it doesn’t apply to titles such as Adjunct Professor or Honorary Doctor, and it certainly doesn’t apply to the Melbourne Cup, won a few days later by Prince of Penzance (although I heard one sports commentator this morning, apparently desperate to stay in the new zeit, call it Pirate of Penzance!), with the jockey described in much of the press the next day as the Cup Queen of Queen of the Sport. Anachronism, it seems, can be quite desirable in some circles.

The nationalistic. This has perhaps been the most bellicose of the responses, with all sorts of claims about imperial honours, toadying to the palace and the general un-Australianess of allowing someone to have the uppity pre-nominal title Sir or Dame which is contrary to our legendary egalitarian (and I mean, legendary). The knighthoods were a level within the Order of Australia, and unless Australia is now an Empire, and they are awarded to imperial subjects in oh, I don’t know, say Manus or Nauru or Mawson, such claims are the ultimate in 1950s cultural cringe made by nationalistic Rip van Winkel’s still stuck nostalgically reading the Bulletin of the 1890s.

The derisive. In many ways a variant on the anachronistic and nationalistic strands, found especially in the medium of cartoons that can be relied upon to depict the characters in some sort of medievalist setting and, by implication, casting anyone not antagonistic to knighthoods as anachronistic and deserving of being cast out of the polis. The fact that these depictions and allusions bear little, if any, relationship to the actual medieval world is beside the point. This is the Medieval Australia we never had, but apparently must have now, to show the cleverness of the anti-knights, to have existing prejudices confirmed through a cartoon medium that always contains a sense of epicaricacy.  To be ahistorical is to be modern.

The vulgar.  Another variant on the nationalistic, and particularly favoured in the cold anonymity of social media commentary. Those not sufficiently opposed to knighthoods, those who received knighthoods, and of course Tony Abbott, are generally described in very short, often single-word sentences that, in a sort of unconscious anachronism, rely almost exclusively on a broad knowledge of terms popularly considered to be old Anglo-Saxon words for cursing and describing those who have annoyed or offended, and intimating physical violence will be used on dissenters.

The Abbott-hating. The focus of these responses was on characteristics attributed to the former PM, with nationalism and vulgarity heavily featured. A key element in these responses is the acceptable racism of Brit-bashing, in which a circular narrative positions Abbott as a foreigner because he was born in Britain, and because of that he must retain some sort of genetic loyalty to a foreign monarch, which means he is British and so un-Australian (any nationality can be inserted into this old formula). There is a strong whiff of American birtherism and Social Darwinism in some of these responses, which along with the nationalistic and vulgar strands points to the capacity for the internet to both connect closed minds and to keep them truly closed.  It is an ironic response in a migrant society.

 The simply confused. All of the above strands will be evident in these responses to some degree. It is characterised by the ad nauseam references to imperial honours, and illustrated in one Fairfax opinion piece that, on the one hand, actually said something sensible and even supportive of Prince Charles, but then, almost as if surprised by this, concluded he would have made a suitable candidate for an Australian knighthood. Prince Charles was made a knight in the Order of Australia in 1981! Never let historical accuracy get in the way of political rhetoric.  A Murdoch opinionist demanded to know why the Queen had to approve changes to the rules of the Order, in a casebook example of never letting actual knowledge about the Order get in the way on forthright opinionising.

These responses reveal much about the people who use these tropes. They suggest that the media savvy anti-knighthood warrior is one who is thoroughly and consciously modern (although in a post-modern world, does that make them already anachronistic?), who is truly, really, 100% Australian (with no qualms about living on stolen land), who is never short of a clever phrase, sharp response or derisory smirk to anything that offends them, who can easily hurl the rude or tasteless witticism at any time, who may have a special reserve of bile for Tony Abbott and/or any or all current or former elected office holders, and who, perhaps more than anything else, wears their mind-numbing ignorance of the Australian honours system or honours generally as a badge of pride.

Some things have not been evident in the responses, most notably any actual knowledge of the Australian honours system, any real signs of actual republicanism or monarchism, and perhaps most disconcertingly in a liberal democracy, anyone brave enough to stick their head above the parapet and question, let alone dispute, the abolition. The reported response from the leader of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy saying the abolition was simply revenge by a republican for 1999 may contain some shard of truth, but it essentially conforms to a rhetorical framework set up by the abolitionists in which such responses can be cast as fuddy-duddyism and turned to support their characterisations of those who don’t agree with them. Passion in the face of derision will only ever encourage the tormentor.

This post is not a defence of Tony Abbott’s approach to the Australian knightage. As Prime Minister, Abbott mishandled this whole issue from the beginning. The surprise announcement of their restoration, apropos of nothing at the time, was a bad omen from a man who had promised a ‘no surprises’ government. The quality of the early appointments seemed to overcome this surprise until another surprise, an Australia Day appointment of Prince Philip as a knight. Australia Day is the nationalist’s day, when they try and pretend there was no invasion in 1788, and so their online response at what they perceived as the hijacking of their day became the story du jour in the ‘old’ media, who needed to do little to turn such frothing content into printed words other than give instructions to some cartoonists. They had such fun with that that it became impossible for anyone to defend the appointment without also being subject to a self-righteous bollicking in the middle-class press.

By the time Abbott tried a tactical retreat on the issue by returning the right to nominate knights to the Order of Australia Council (from which it should never have been removed), he had inflicted a grievous wound on the third knightage. More than anything else, the interaction (or failure of interaction) between Abbott’s office and a content-hungry media revealed to the public the shemozzle within the political classes. The knightage had been dangerously politicized, worse in a way than the old honours-for-mates knighthoods of the 1980s that finally killed off the first knightage. The Order of Australia Council could have made recommendations for knighthoods after this point, but seems to have instead opted for silence.

Tony Abbott had a chance to invest some of his political capital, while it still existed early in his term, in a broad public discussion of the Australian honours system and how it could be improved (and there’s plenty to improve). That would have provided a context for introducing the idea of restoring knighthoods, and ensured a more reasoned discussion. Even if the outcome had not been a restoration then, it would have opened up discussion about appropriate means to honour achievement and merit in ways that are more inspirational than the current system and that may, one day, have provided a space for restoring the knightage. Rather, a hubristic moment was allowed to prevail over an opportunity for introducing a considered and enduring change that could appeal to tradition, to moderation and to the generations who had not experienced the ignominy of the end of the first knightage and were curious about the idea.

Instead, we have now had to endure the degrading spectacle of the mainstream and online media yet again participating in and shaping the hunt, well-blooded by the recent years of priming the leadership battles with which the political classes have been amusing themselves. Bringing down a prime minister is now passé, but nasty personal attacks on Prince Philip, criticisms and sly imputations that people such as Dame Marie Bashir or Sir Peter Cosgrove were just grubs with their snouts in the trough, and any number of ever-more bizarre conspiracy theories, especially online, really showed an ugly, callous and spiteful element in the character of our country and, indeed, in many of us.

Abbott’s method of restoring the Australian knightage proved to be unacceptable, and in this his cryptic personality played a role. However, the virulence of the anti-knights is cast from the same mould, as is the pseudo-casual and smug manner with which Prime Minister Turnbull dispatched the third knightage. If only one lesson is learned from this whole fiasco, it should be that neither politicians nor the media (that is, the political classes) should be allowed anywhere near the honours system, especially in shaping the system and its rules, or participating in the nomination or assessment components of that system, although they should remain eligible for awards. As it is, any chance to review and ‘modernise’ (in the current lexicon) the Australian honours system now seems to have been lost for another generation.

And what we are now left with? Dame Quentin Bryce, Dame Marie Bashir, Sir Peter Cosgrove, Sir Angus Houston and Prince Philip, and by implication Sir Ninian Stephen and Prince Charles (from the second knightage) none of whom were politicians, and who each have been recipients of the highest honour bestowed by the Commonwealth of Australia, have had their reputations questioned, their dignity trashed and even their physical appearance ridiculed by an ugly mob sharing the shadenfreude delights of the political classes, in our very own Australian virtual Place de la Revolution. That’s cause enough for national shame, but even worse is that the ugly mob was us. No-one defended our actual, living, feeling ‘knights and dames’. They were, by our silence, thrown to the arm chair revolutionaries, and we all played the role of Madame Defarge, click, click, click. By our silence we let it happen to them, and no amount of disruptiveness, agility, nimbleness or modernity will hide that.  It was an expression of sublime anachronism.

 Vale the Third Knightage.

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