Prime Minister Tony Abbott this week announced a limited revival of the honours system scrapped by the Hawke government in 1986. This has reversed the trend of republicanism-by-stealth, which has also included removing the Queen’s picture from public buildings, replacing the title Queen’s Counsel with Senior Counsel, and eliminating references to the Sovereign from the oath of office sworn by government ministers.
Creating a new division of Australian ‘knights and dames’ has been generally opposed by supporters of an Australian republic, who are concerned about the impact on Australian identity and our fabled egalitarian values.
Republicans believe that Australia’s independent nationhood will never be fully realised while the vestiges of the nation’s colonial origins and former imperial dependence persist. According to republican thinking, we need a republic because borrowed British traditions and institutions must be eradicated so that a distinctive national culture can flourish.
At this time, republicans might like to draw inspiration from the example of Alfred Deakin, a leading ‘father of federation’ and the second prime minister of the Commonwealth of Australia, who refused a knighthood.
Deakin was a member of the Australian Natives’ Association (ANA), an important Victorian organisation that led the campaign for federation in the 1880s and 1890s. The ANA believed that Australia was a new dispensation in which egalitarianism would thrive because it was a ‘new world’ society free of the hated class and caste divisions and distinctions of Britain and other ‘old world’ societies.
Deakin’s rejection of a knighthood was in keeping with the ANA’s egalitarian rejection of the British class system. However, the full story of Deakin and the ANA invalidates the republican presumptions about the nation’s destiny.
Both Deakin and the ANA wanted the Australian colonies to federate under the British Crown and strongly supported the new nation’s loyal membership of the British Empire. Both explicitly rejected republicanism because they did not believe that the bonds of Empire and other traditional ties with Britain would stifle the development of a distinctive national culture, given that Federated Australia was, for all intents and purposes, a self-governing, democratic and independent nation.
The course of Australian history and social development has validated the faith placed in the freedom of Australian nationhood under the Crown.
Having the Queen as our Head of State and having ‘Sir So and So’ on the bench has not stopped Australians from calling the boss by his/her first name, from sitting in the front seat of a cab, or from preferring not to tip waiters. Nor has it stopped Australians from all sorts of backgrounds generally mixing easily together in social situations, confident that the other bloke, no matter their status or position, will affably respond to that great Australian leveler – any greeting followed by the word ‘mate’.
Republicans might calculate that the Prime Minister’s ‘anachronistic’ revival of knighthoods will strengthen the case for a republic. However, the revival of the honours system is hardly likely to pose a threat to the free and easy social relations Australians know and love.
This will demonstrate why republicanism has only managed to triumph by stealth in this country: the persistence of our distinctive egalitarian social manners will belie the need for a republic and make it that much harder to convince doubters of the merits of the case for constitutional change.
For the Prime Minister, restoring the honours system is much more than empty symbolism – he is anything but a monarchist by stealth! By taking Australia’s monarchical traditions seriously and giving these traditions a new institutional substance, Tony Abbott is rubbing republican faces in their failure to achieve the one thing they crave – relevance to the nation’s evolving story.
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