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Crikey Clarifier: the knights (and dames) of the occasional table

Tony Abbott has revived knights and dames. We look at who will pick them and how, and examine who’s in line for the (new) top gong.

Arise, Sir John! The Coalition government has revived knighthoods after a 30-year hiatus. Will we see John Howard sent to Buckingham Palace to be tapped with a sword by Queen Elizabeth?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s decision to resuscitate the William-the-Conqueror-era honours has delighted monarchists, annoyed republicans and baffled some people who are neither. Crikey explains how the new system will work and we ask monarchists who they nominate for the top gong …

How will the system work?

Knighthoods were bestowed in Australia until Labor ended that in 1986. Former prime minister John Howard considered bringing them back but decided not to. The Order of Australia system took the place of knighthoods.

Yesterday Abbott announced knights and dames were back. The honour will now sit within — and at the very top of — the Order of Australia system. People who’ve received awards under that system will keep them, but there will now be a rung above. This is Abbott’s key criterion to win a knighthood:

This special recognition may be extended to Australians of ‘extraordinary and pre-eminent achievement and merit’ in their service to Australia or to humanity at large.”

Abbott says whoever is the serving governor-general will be made a knight or dame, which is why Quentin Bryce and Peter Cosgrove will be the first. As to others, the PM didn’t rule out former politicians or priests, although he hinted against it: “My intention is that this new award will go to those who have accepted public office rather than sought it.” It’s a caveat which leaves some wriggle room.

The prime minister decides who gets a knighthood (up to four a year) after consulting the chairman of the Order of Australia Council (currently former Defence Force chief Angus Houston). The decision then goes to the Queen for approval.

David Flint, national convenor of the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, told Crikey that before 1986 the honour was usually physically conferred by the governor-general or state governor, but this time it will be “definitely the Queen … could you imagine what a contortion it would be if Dame Quentin Bryce tried to dub herself with a sword? There might be serious accident.” He says new recipients will “most definitely” be dubbed, i.e. tapped on both shoulders with a sword.

Who’s been made a knight or dame in the past?

Former PMs and GGs, along with military types and judges. Some business figures and archbishops were made knights, as were some university vice-chancellors and a few artists and sportsmen. There aren’t many people from science, arts, literature and culture. In Britain, celebrities like Elton John, Mick Jagger and Elizabeth Taylor are dames and knights, but that’s not the case here.

Former Liberal PMs got a good run; Bob Menzies was a knight, as were John Gorton and Billy McMahon. Enid Lyons (the first woman in the House of Representatives) was a dame. Former GGs to get the honour include Ninian Stephen (a special type of knighthood), Zelman Cowen, Richard Casey and Paul Hasluck.

Other notable figures include opera star Nellie Melba, cricketer Don Bradman, motoring legend Jack Brabham and Qantas chairman Hudson Fysh.

Who might be made a knight or a dame now?

Given the tradition of former Liberal prime ministers being made a knight, John Howard is a contender. He’s got honours form; Australians for Constitutional Monarchy lauded Howard for being “presented with a rare and exclusive accolade from the Queen” in 2012 when he was made a member of the Order of Merit at Buckingham House. That’s when the monarch picks someone based on their distinguished service. ACM says on its website:

Knighthoods should have been restored, as we proposed, after John Howard and General Peter Cosgrove liberated East Timor.”

It’s worth noting that Howard has also received the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom. Still, Abbott’s caveat that the award should not go to those who sought public office seems to rule out Howard — unless he has another feather in his cap.

David Flint suggests religious leaders be considered. “It would be appropriate I think,” he told Crikey, provided they had “achieved something considerable”. Flint singles out the nun Mary MacKillop, Australia’s first Catholic saint, as a strong candidate for a dame. But he concedes there are two problems: she may well not have accepted it, and she is “well and truly” dead. Flint also suggests longtime NSW governor Marie Bashir.

Gary Kent, ACT spokesman for ACM, says people from arts, science and sport should be considered. Kent suggests scientist Ian Frazer, who helped develop a vaccine against cervical cancer (he’s already a Companion of the Order of Australia). “He’s contributed enormously to Australian life,” Kent said. And he proposes tennis player Rod Laver.

As for one of Australia’s most famous dames — Dame Edna Everage — Kent reckons she should be formalised in the role. “She’s already a dame, but I don’t think he’s a sir,” Kent mused of the cross-dressing character played by Barry Humphries, who can be described as a self-appointed dame. “He or she has made an enormous contribution to Australian artistic life and theatre over many years, he’s a very recognisable Australian abroad, and I think if anyone qualified for a knighthood it’s Barry … I genuinely mean that.” Flint was not so sure: “Dame Edna already has one.”

*Additional research by Crikey intern Ania Dutka

  • 51
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Arise, Dames David Flint & Alan Jones.
    Cathy - as to gongs-for-greenstuff, several (british) pollies, tory & Labour, have been convicted of just that within the last ten years.
    JohnT - please don’t wake up Orac, unless you can aim one of your clothyards of your avatar at her. It’s a blessed relief that the “foresnic” Aspberger disappeared.

  • 52
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    The Old Bill #44, you were prescient indeed. The Australian’s editorial today describes Abbott’s move to reinstate knights and dames as “clever … For Mr Abbott it is a deft wedge with a double dividend.”

    I’m not sure too many people agree with The Oz. John Howard is in the Fin today said he doesn’t think bringing back knights is a good idea.


  • 53
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Being a GG certainly help for a tilt at this gong but really - what have any of them done to deserve it above mere mortals? I’m sure Bryce is a really nice lady but “pre-eminant service”? For doing what exactly?

    ..and wouldn’t you be p*ssed to find that your OA has now been pipped for seniority in the members lounge.

  • 54
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Transmogrification is complete. Welcome to Shamalot.

  • 55
    Graeme Martin
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Arise, Sir Robin of Loxley!

    Where’s Errol Flynn when you need him? Bring back Robin Hood, I say …

  • 56
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    It’s Robert! Sir Robert of Loxley! How many times have told you Richard! Really, what are you? French or something??☺️

  • 57
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Malcolm Street #43 writes “needs the approval of the sovereign of the UK!!!” Wrong. It is approved by the Queen of Australia. Why do people with a bizarre obsession with all thing British choose to get that wrong?

  • 58
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting to note that when a man receives a knighthood his wife is entitled you use the title “Lady” (Sir Jo - Lady Flo) however when a woman received a Damehood her husband gets nothing. Perhaps this along with the fact that there are far fewer Dames than Knights implies that when awarded a DBE a woman has genuinely earned it for a serious and sustained contribution to the good of the society. It’s a kind of counter-intuitive nod to feminism from a misogynist
    and paternal era. A dame also outranks a knight in the protocol pecking order, second only to the GG or sovereign.
    All that trivia aside, do we really need to exercise our minds about honours and awards when there are far far more important topics to focus on such as Syria, Crimea, climate change, refugees, the collapse of manufacturing, education, health care, institutionalised child abuse, the legal non existence and impunity of churches, massive multinational tax avoidance, media power consolidation, human rights, free speech, governments intrusion into our private data and growing secrecy of their actions, corporate greed… and the appalling shortage of quality politicians on either side of the house. Thoughts? The Dr.

  • 59
    The Pav
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Could anybody tell where about in the Liberal Party election campaign the re-introduction of Imeprial honours was mentioned?

    If not then surely the PM does not have a mandate do this as he is claiming on a number of other matters that he does have.

    If the PM then claims he can introduce things not in the platform with out a mandate then it would be illogical for him to claim that he does have a mandate for what is in the platform.

    The other thing is democracy seems to have been cast out the window with Abbott not even discussing this with the party room but just handing down an edict. I can understand why he doesn’t fear a push back by the members of the party as he has well and truly cowed them and they lie submissive at his feet, just look at how he rammed thru the Maternity Leave stupidity. Not only does Abbott not face opposition in the House with the worst and most bias speaker in history running protection for him within his own party all opposition has been eliminated. Stalin would be impressed

  • 60
    The Pav
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    The absence of Suzanne Blake is a blessing

  • 61
    Take A Letter Maria
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Malcolm Street@43

    I told you before a return to “serfdom” will be their crowning glory. The knighthood stuff is just a Freudian.

  • 62
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s grand that our dear leader will have more frequent boots to lick when members of the German royals (Saxe Coburg Gothas) come here to the arse-end of the empire to dole out gongs to the rich and famous.

    I was somewhat intrigued by his note that these honours are for folks who do not seek high office, for example by offering their arse to be prime minister.. that is to say he is an arse and he is prime mincer, but surely the offer indicates he sought the office?

  • 63
    Posted Friday, 28 March 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Quentin & Cosgrove already have a stack of gongs. In the GG gig they presumably get everything (first class) paid for as well (housing, food, travel).
    How can Abbott justify this crassness. But, again, how can recipients accept them without debasing themselves in the eyes o0f the majority of the population.