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

Peter Fray

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