Illustration: John Spooner.

Illustration: John Spooner.

Once upon a time, when knights were bold and dames existed in life as well as in pantomime, Australia's honours system was more or less on lease - lock, stock and double-barrelled names - from the motherland. Honour boards, letterheads and annual reports were festooned with post-nominal OBEs, CBEs and the prized dames and knights, which meant one could preface one's moniker with Dame or Sir.

Those were the days when such titles were treated seriously, not only by those who received them but by a society then more attuned to Britain - as if the intervening 20,000 kilometres of foreign lands and oceans were no wider than the English Channel.

The value of calling someone, say, Dame Fanny or Sir Marmaduke was quite special, as well as conveying automatic indication of their social worth. One didn't quite bow or curtsy, but one did put the slightest emphasis on the words Dame or Sir.

These days, one must say these words a little louder, as most of the surviving dames and knights are getting on.

The imperial honours system was phased out by the federal government in 1982 and by state governments in 1989.

Dead, buried and cremated as far as Australia is concerned. Ha! Along comes Prime Minister Tony Abbott - the Sir Lancelot emeritus of the monarchist movement - who, with a flash of his broadsword, flourish of trumpets and free tankards of mead for the men, has reinstated dames and knights.

On Tuesday, Abbott, who should have been reading from a parchment scroll, proclaimed a new tier placed atop our honours system: the AK/AD, or Knight/Dame of the Order of Australia. Inaugural recipients: former governor-general Quentin Bryce and Governor-General-designate Peter Cosgrove.

In Abbott's words, recipients will be Australians of ''extraordinary and pre-eminent achievement and merit'' - or a sort of premiership league above the already extraordinary. Besides, there's a fine - well, practically non-existent - distinction between the ''eminent'' and ''pre-eminent''. The word is itself too close to ''elitist'' for my liking.

Abbott describes this curious move as an ''important grace note in our national life''. A grace note being ''an embellishment not essential to the harmony or melody''. I beg to differ. This is not mere tinkling embellishment, but a clanging great discord that sends the Abbott government back into our imperial past and, in the process, defies the composition and spirit of the very different nation we have become.

Late last year, when Abbott was asked if he intended to follow New Zealand's conservative government, which restored dames and knights in 2009, he implied he would not.

''I don't mind having knights and dames around,'' he said. ''We've thankfully still got a few.'' So now it's two more, with more to come: four a year.

''I want to enhance the dignity of the existing system,'' Abbott says. It's worth recalling that when New Zealand's former prime minister abolished dames and knights, she was accused of ''republicanism by stealth''.

Is our Prime Minister therefore guilty of subtle monarchism?

I am interested to know exactly how the Order of Australia system will benefit from this super-box of an addition. All those named ACs (Companion of the Order of Australia), who were awarded the country's highest civil honour, are suddenly down a notch: second-class citizens. And so on, through the OAs, AMs and OAMs. There's worse. The wholesale imposition of dames and knights, in addition to restoring anachronistic titles to a country that has long ago learnt to live and function without them, also brings back all the undesirable aspects of a class system we were well rid of. At least we don't have hereditary or life peerages - but watch out, in case Abbott is eyeing the Senate as a satellite House of Lords.

There is now a generation of Australians who do not know, or probably don't care, about the distinction of being called Sir or Dame. For them, it's probably sufficient to read that worthy citizens have been recognised with a couple of capital letters after their name.

What disturbs me is that the exclusivity of the dames and knights tier appears to bypass conventional selection procedures. Instead of recipients being determined by the Order of Australia Council, they will be decided by the Prime Minister, although he will consult the council chairman. Why? Are these new awards so special, so eminent or pre-eminent, they have to be bestowed not by the proper designated body but at the behest of the court of King Tony?

To add a grace note of my own: my objections to restoring the dames and knights is not a reflection on the outstanding capabilities of Cosgrove or Bryce - great Australians both. But how interesting, how intriguing, it would have been if Dame Quentin, who has made her republican sentiments more than obvious, had simply said: ''Thanks, but no thanks.''

Michael Shmith is a senior writer.