Howard awarded Order of Merit

Not since Sir Robert Menzies has the monarchy bestowed such approbation on an Australian politician.

John Howard's decade-long prime ministership and his dogged adherence to a constitutional monarchy have earned him admission to an exclusive club with a capped membership of just 24 after Buckingham Palace announced yesterday he had been appointed a member of the Order of Merit.

Only Sir Robert's Knight of the Order of the Thistle, to which the Liberal Party founder was invested in 1963, carries more kudos.

''I'm very honoured,'' Mr Howard told Fairfax from his home in Wollstonecraft.

''It's a compliment to Australia and a recognition, among other things, of the respect the Queen has for this country. I'm very grateful for it.''

Mr Howard, along with the British artist David Hockney, who was also appointed to the order yesterday, will join luminaries including the former British prime minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, the naturalist Sir David Attenborough and Prince Charles.

The Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, said she warmly congratulated Mr Howard on receiving such a distinguished award.

''This is a rare and singular honour for his service to Australia,'' she said.

The Order, founded by King Edward VII in 1902, carries no title but is considered an extremely high mark of honour and a personal gift from the Queen.

According to the Royal Family's website, it is to be given ''to such persons, subjects of Our Crown, as may have rendered exceptionally meritorious services in Our Crown Services or towards the advancement of the Arts, Learning, Literature, and Science or such other exceptional service as We are fit to recognise''.

Although writers and artists have traditionally dominated the field, politicians earlier appointed to the order have included Sir Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee and Baroness Thatcher.

Mr Howard becomes the ninth Australian appointed, following in the footsteps of the philosopher Samuel Alexander, the intellectual Gilbert Murray, scientists Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Howard Florey and Robert McCredie May, former chief justice of Australia Sir Owen Dixon, artist Sir Sidney Nolan and soprano Dame Joan Sutherland.

Mr Howard is expected to receive his Order of Merit - an eight-pointed cross bearing the imperial crown - at a ceremony later this year.