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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

  • 1
    Dean Hubert
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    So now we’re ending the age of entitlement, but reinstituting titles?

  • 2
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Dean, I see no imminent end to the age of entitlement any time soon, but plenty of dog-whistling on that subject.

    Unfortunately, our Prime Minister has, by reinstituting titles, revived the the previously common monniker for Australia, “the ars_e end of the British Empire”.

    Once again, Tony Abbott has substituted circus for policy. It seems that Australia’s PM is incapable of comprehending anything that requires more than six words to explain.

    Thinking of which, the conservatives in NZ still persevere with titles AFAIK.

  • 3
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    How bizarre. I guess Abbott really wants to thank Johnnie so badly.
    I want to vomit …

  • 4
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Sir John Howard is the next title to bestow, to be closely followed by Sir George Pell.

  • 5
    michael hewitt-gleeson
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

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

    The article omits the BIG fact that, in the past, the most controversial aspect has been that knighthhods were given in exchange for BIG financial contributions to the conservative party.

    Perhaps the PM hopes to avoid that elephant in the room this time around.

  • 6
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    How long before there is a facebook campaign for posthumous knighthoods for Bon Scott and Michael Hutchence? And how long before a PM desperate for populist cred gives in to it?

  • 7
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Interesting suggestion Michael Hewitt-Gleeson, I wasn’t aware of that claim.

    Can you point me to some evidence? As those donations must have been pre-1986, it might be hard to find it online. I’d very much like to find out more.

  • 8
    Michael Stanley
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Taller poppies!

  • 9
    Lubo Gregor
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Imperial units will be introduced later in the year and currency system is to be reverted to the good old pennies and shillings (so that Gina can start paying the employees what they really deserve). Ahead to the past dear Australians! Horse carriage travel will finally make the fitting use for the quality of the roads here. And who needs to fly if we won’t have Qantas anymore? They say people in the third world countries may be poor but are genuinely more happy - so I guess this government IS taking us to a better place :)

  • 10
    zut alors
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I’m guessing the first posthumous knighthood will go to B A Santamaria.

    Cathy Alexander, you don’t need to dig too deep into Queensland history during the Joh era to unearth questionable knighthoods. Not all of them were allowed to keep their gongs once sanity prevailed following the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

  • 11
    Chris Hartwell
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I’m pleased to see that Dame Everage is being permitted to retain her entitlement. But if it’s going to be about contribution to humanity, politicians of any stripe are immediately ruled out - scientists contribute to humanity. Politicians suck out humanity.

  • 12
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    So now it’s official! The Abbott govt is actually a Monty Python sketch, perhaps to end with the cabinet in loincloths, hanging on gibbets and singing “You can always look on the bright of life”. Seriously though, I truly hope Quentin Bryce and Peter Cosgrove have the dignity to refuse this piece of medieval nonsense.

  • 13
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Just a minor correction to the article. The Order of Australia did not take the place of knighthoods. The Order was instituted in 1975 under Gough Whitlam, and it it had the knight/dame level, and the medal, added in 1976 under Malcom Fraser. Bob Hawke decided not to recommend any new knights/dames in the Order of Australia in 1984. Tony Abbott is now resuming the practise, but with a restricted number of a maximum of 4/year.
    On the other hand, Imperial (or ‘British’) knights/dames were stopped at the federal level in 1973 by Whitlam, but the States could still nominate them and did so until 1989 (i.e. both Australian and Imperial honours operated side-by-side between 1975 and 1989).
    The States provide half the members of the Order of Australia Council and so gradually came to channel all their honours through the Order. However, if any state wanted to, it could create its own honours system (such as an Order of the Black Swan in WA, with or without knights/dames) and operate it independently of the federal (Australian) system. This occurs in some of the Canadian provinces which operate their own systems independently of the Order of Canada.
    The raving in some media today about a return of Imperial honours is egregious and misleading and only reveals to the readers/listeners/viewers the actual laziness of some journalists and the myopia of 1990s nationalists.
    Knights and dames of the Order of Australia is now a 21st century Australian initiative. From the few red-faced rants I’ve seen on TV, it is, paradoxically, only old Australian nationalists who really remain obsessed with all things British.
    As to likely candidates for the new and rare Knights and Dames of Australia, my money would be on Marie Bashir and Michael Kirby for a start.

  • 14
    mark leo
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I suggest that if Labor want to put a stop to this idiocy they should put forward a list of people that they promise to knight when they get back in power (it will happen sooner of later) and the list should look a little like this…
    Tim Flannery
    Father Bob Maguire
    Julian Burnside QC
    Nick Cave
    Malcolm Frazer
    Mick Gatto
    Dr Bob Brown
    Malcolm Turnbull
    Dr Phillip Nitschke
    Elle MacPherson
    Baz Luhrman
    Peter Garrett
    a bunch of leaders of the most militant unions and every environmental, indigenous, feminist, left wing looney ratbag they can think of that will get right up the Libs noses….

  • 15
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    What a lot of claptrap, or as Margaret Whitlam would say “Whohar”

  • 16
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Joh Bjelke Peterson, when Premier of Queensland, actually put himself forward to Queen Elizabeth for a knighthood - and got it, as you do.
    In the early 1990s a prominent Queensland construction magnate, Mick Curtain, who was and is a big name in Papua New Guinea (and did a few favours for various Queensland governments back in the day), was recommended to the Queen by the Prime Minister of PNG (they still do knighthoods) and duly became Sir Mick Curtain.

  • 17
    mark leo
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    BTW George Pell cannot be knighted as basically it is a military honour and a man of the cloth cannot accept it. My money is on Piers Akerman, Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt etc

  • 18
    Dave Matthews
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Dame Edna was not self appointed. She was given that honour by Gough at her arrival back in Australia after saving her wayward nephew Bary

  • 19
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Are there not more important things for Abbott to concern himself with?

  • 20
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Abbott’s first appointment: https://imgflip.com/i/7r1hh

  • 21
    Nonda Pass
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Well it’s back to the future with this prime minister. But we knew that already. He’s probably just restored this system so he can give John Howard the gong. I can’t bear to even think about it. This country is going to the dogs.

  • 22
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Bruce Hassan, there is no difference between British, Imperial, State and Federal knighthoods and whether or not they can exist side-by-side with other Australian awards: By whatever name, the titles “knight” and “dame” are still reminders of England’s bygone Empire, of 1066 and of royal patronage.

  • 23
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Can you be a war criminal and a Knight?
    If so, Howard will be the next one. I hope they publish the citation accompanying the honour. “Invaded Iraq on false information, in company of two other criminal nations, and caused to be killed in excess of 100,000 innocent persons”.
    I can’t wait and see that grovelling, it will make me “proud” to be an Australian!

  • 24
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    As I write, John B, its “only old Australian nationalists who really remain obsessed with all things British”.

  • 25
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    How about Dr Ian Frazer?
    How much misery and death will Gardasil prevent?

  • 26
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

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

    Personally appointed by the-then Queensland Premier, the then Queensland Police Commissioner Terry Lewis was knighted. Oh wait, he was also stripped of it too. The fourteenth person in as many centuries to be stripped of a knighthood.

  • 27
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    How many recognition-starved business people would be willing to make a generous donation to the Coalition in return for such an honour?

    Maybe Tony & Co are onto a nice little earner here.

  • 28
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Toady’s benighted himself.

  • 29
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    This just brought back memories of “Labor’s class warfare”?

  • 30
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Interesting, I’ve done some digging based on these comments. Sir Joh was indeed awarded “The Order of St Michael and St George- Knights Commander” in 1984 (and he was granted a Centenary Medal in 2001). So he retained his knighthood, right? Lady Flo certainly retained use of the title.


    This is a great search tool to find out who’s got what over the years. If you find anything interesting please post it in the comments. Citizen journalists welcome.


  • 31
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Dave Matthews is right - I clearly remember Mrs Edna Everage curtseying to Gough Whitlam and his response ‘Arise, Dame Edna’. This was the only time that I can recall the grand Dame’s being speechless.

    I wonder how long it will be before we have our Sir Rupert and Dame Gina?

  • 32
    zut alors
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Cathy Alexander, yes, Sir Joh kept his gong but, as pointed out by Observer (#24), his hand-picked Police Commissioner lost his in the fray. You’ll find businessmen, developers & construction people received knighthoods during the Joh regime - but not many scientists.

  • 33
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    They used to sell them in NSW for $30,000 a pop. Dont know what the current price is but it would be a substantial donation to the right, to be tapped on the left, by Phil the Greeks Missus.

  • 34
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Joh kept his, and therefore his wife retained her title - see here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Bjelke-Petersen . Terry Lewis, however was stripped of all his honours, as Observer noted. All honours system have provisions for stripping honours from awardees. Within an Order, technically a person is ‘dispensed’ with, once upon a time through a ‘degradation’ ritual as happened (in his absence) to Emperor Hirohito in 1941 when he was removed from the (English) Order of the Garter.
    However, being the recipient of a knighthood/damehood does not mean the person is more likely to be corrupt, as I think is being implied in the discussion.
    The old Imperial honours that Bjelke Petersen and Lewis received were given out in some volume, and allegations of buying those honours were not uncommon, which is really what brought them into disrepute rather than perceptions of foreignness. I don’t see that the Order of Australia knights/dames (all 15 appointed since 1976) have ever been like that or ever will be if they are restricted to a maximum of 4 per year.

  • 35
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    Aphra, Rupert’s not an Aussie any more. Surely he’s not eligible?

  • 36
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    NJPC: agree 100%…but you’re figure of 100K murdered by the illegal invaders is wrong…the British Medical Association publication ‘The Lancet’ puts the figure at at between 600K & 900K. The brilliant UK investigative website Media Lens quotes the Lancet survey author as saying:
    ‘There are a series of surveys now implying ½ million deaths is a low side estimate… I think the 650,000 estimate in the second Lancet study was low…

    Thus, I think there is little doubt ½ million died violently. I suspect the direct and indirect deaths exceeded 1,000,000…’ (Email to Media Lens, Les Roberts, January 11, 2014)

    The full Media Lens article on how ALL UK MSM post State propaganda without critical analysis can be found at:

  • 37
    Electric Lardyland
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    It’s a depressing insight into the alleged mind of our PM, that he somehow thinks a British award outranks the Australian honours system. That’s real leadership material there.

  • 38
    Electric Lardyland
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Though possibly Crikey could organise a nice little earner by running a book on who will be the first person to officially refuse a knighthood.

  • 39
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    It is good that Tonys toadies have a lasting marker, a facial tattoo would be better but en-title-ment will suffice.

  • 40
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Bill H #4

    I’d second your nomination of George Pell, though I think Lord rather than Sir since it’s about as close as he’s going to get. I think he’s in with a very good chance, and he’s certainly “achieved something considerable”.

  • 41
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    This is nothing more than a prime example of the cultural cringe at large. What is the point of being called Sir or Dame besides making yourself look a prize prat

  • 42
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    In what way does Quenten Bryce meet the criteria for 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.” WTF has she ever done that meets this criteria ? Oh, I see, it goes to someone who IS the GG, OR has done something truly wonderful AND isn’t in public office because they wanted to be - they can be mutually exclusive. Not that I’m sure what these reluctant wonderful public servants look like.

    And it seems being a hypocrite won’t rule you out - with Quenten being a double hypocrite - a republican that takes the job as Queen’s representative AND who accepts a knighthood. I heard her today saying what a wonderful time she’s had as GG. I’m so happy for her.

  • 43
    Malcolm Street
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Bruce Hassan @13: “Knights and dames of the Order of Australia is now a 21st century Australian initiative.”

    It’s an Australian initiative to re-institute an Australian honour which needs the approval of the sovereign of the UK!!! To me it is utterly surreal that Australia is now in the position that its highest award now cannot be awarded solely by Australians. In that sense it is indeed a throw-back to imperial honours.

  • 44
    The Old Bill
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    Dave Matthews @ 18
    Dame Edna’s nephew is actually Barry with two rs. Sorry to be so pedantic but you know what Edna can be like.
    Seriously though, all of the comments on Crikey and anywhere half sane are just people taking the p#ss over this one.
    It will be interesting to see Dennis and David’s well written and erudite reasoning in The Australian tomorrow on another brilliant decision by Abbott and Brandis. According to A and B, it’s because all the young people say they want it.
    I think those young people would have been talking about Game of Thrones down at the Catholic Youth Club and their remarks misinterpreted.

  • 45
    Malcolm Street
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    TOB@44 - yes, I think the main adverse reactions have been incredulity and ridicule.

  • 46
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps some of the retrenched car industry workers will be able to retrain or diversify as blacksmiths because, under the stewardship of Abbott, it appears that sword-making is about to have a revival…

  • 47
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Dame Margret Scott, now 92, helped found the Australian Ballet, founded and directed the Australian Ballet School for 25 years, and has continued to this day to mentor and build Australia’s enviable reputation as a source of brilliant and dedicated dance talent. The AB and the school are directed by her graduates as are several major companies in the US and Europe, including the Royal Ballet School. She danced on stage till her 70s appearing in a work by Graeme Murphy, a student of hers she found in Tasmania as teenager, now a world renowned choreographer. She was also awarded an AC. Unlike some, she is not a publicity seeker and would rather let her students speak for themselves, and prefers the company of dancers and choreographers, (creative people) to the power players and those who would bask in the reflected glory of artists.
    Despite her reputation and title almost everyone knows her simply as Maggie.
    I think with the passing of Dame Elizabeth Murdoch she is the one of the three remaining living Australian DBE Recipients. Both her awards were conferred by the GG in a simple ceremony in Canberra. At the last she was more interested in talking to the NT cop who had won a bravery award than anyone else.
    A remarkable woman, known to me as mum.

  • 48
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    There’s a saying in the military that “rank has its privilege,” but IMO privilege is rank.

  • 49
    Draco Houston
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 3:37 am | Permalink

    Strange that Knight of the Order Of Australia is the only award in the Order that can’t be given for military service

  • 50
    John Taylor
    Posted Thursday, 27 March 2014 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Suzanne Blake has gone very quiet.