PM Tony Abbott.

Short leash: Criticism of Tony Abbott's decision to reinstate knighthoods without wider consultation has exposed the leader's vulnerability.

The Australian Prime Minister holds office in a system that makes him both vulnerable and extremely powerful at the same time. These characteristics have led Labor MP Jim Chalmers to describe the PM as a like a “bigger dog on a shorter leash” rather than a smaller dog on a longer leash. 

The PM can be removed by a party room vote, unlike an American President, but while in office can act unilaterally with few constraints on his power to act. The Westminster system, backed by cabinet solidarity and discipline, concentrates rather than spreads power, and the PM is the beneficiary.

The knighthoods affair is a case in point. Tony Abbott re-instituted knights and dames to the Australian honours system with little consultation other than with his Attorney-General, a few friends, and, presumably, Queen Elizabeth. That he did so without any consultation with most of his senior colleagues, many of them republicans, shows Abbott’s determination to act alone.

Whether it turns out to be a serious mistake or just another insight into his old-fashioned character only time will tell. His supporters say he has read the public mood, while those who disagree, including former prime minister John Howard, say it is an anachronistic mistake.

The greatest short-term impact of Abbott’s move is within his own party. Close to 40 per cent of the Liberal party room are republicans. They include not just Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey and Christopher Pyne, but also lesser known activists. Two other members of Abbott’s executive, senators Marise Payne and Simon Birmingham, have even held office within the Australian Republican Movement.

They have been treated with deliberate disrespect, but can do little unless they now wish to rock the boat. Only a backbencher, Senator Sue Boyce, from Queensland has spoken out directly. The executive members, including Turnbull, are trapped by the Australian system. Resignation from office would be one option but would be seen as an over-reaction. Nevertheless, Turnbull has done his very best to stretch solidarity without breaking it by mercilessly mocking his leader’s announcement in his blog and in a speech.

The republican opposition is trapped too. It doesn’t want to campaign on introducing a republic but knighthoods have always been anathema to Labor as anti-egalitarian. It can only promise to drop these knighthoods when it returns to office.

We have been through this once before. Gough Whitlam introduced the Australian honours. Then Malcolm Fraser introduced knighthoods within the Order of Australia. When Bob Hawke came to office he immediately dropped the knighthoods. When Howard did not act to reinstate them it was assumed they had gone for good.

But there were straws in the wind, especially the decision by the incoming Nationalist New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, to restore New Zealand knighthoods. It would not be surprising if the Newman LNP government in Queensland had tried to do so. Some state governments may now move. After all, if governors-general need to be knights and dames, surely the same Abbott logic would suggest state governors do too.

Abbott was not of course the only one who failed to consult. Outgoing Governor-General Quentin Bryce appears not to have done so either. Opinions vary as to whether she had any option other than to accept being made a dame. But I can’t see why the recently declared republican couldn’t have said “Thanks but no thanks”. Her acceptance gave some legitimacy to Abbott’s package. If she did consult anyone, did that include her son-in-law Bill Shorten? If so, he must have been sworn to secrecy because Labor MPs were as surprised as anyone.

All this presumes that knights and dames are a republican issue. They always have been, which is why monarchists are delighted. Abbott himself and some monarchists have gone so far as to suggest that what he has done is to turn back so-called creeping republicanism. According to this bewildering logic perhaps we can expect the reinstatement of God Save the Queen as our national anthem.

But it is true that knighthoods are not restricted to Britain and the monarchy. Turnbull took this tack in suggesting that republicans should not be too worried by the turn of events. But I don’t think this argument holds water because it neglects other indications of a conservative kick-back to days gone by.

Some republics, including, as Turnbull merrily pointed out, Peru and Guatemala, but also France and Italy, offer knighthoods. But they have their own long history and are far less prominent than in Britain.

Knighthoods are also offered by Abbott’s church, the Catholic Church, itself a monarchy.  Former Labor opposition leader Arthur Calwell accepted a Papal Knighthood, for instance. There are also orders such as the Knights of Malta and a leading lay group called the Knights of the Southern Cross.

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that within the Commonwealth and the wider world, knighthoods are identified with Britain and the monarchy. This applies whether they are imperial knighthoods or knighthoods with strong echoes of Britain and the empire within Australian honours. Republicans cheered their demise and many monarchists have cheered their restoration.

Where to from here? One possibility is that the restoration of knighthoods will be expanded by some state governments and perhaps by this federal government. Another is that republicans within the Coalition government will try to ensure that they go no further than Governors-General.

If there is continuing controversy, culminating in a rejection by Labor of all knighthoods when it next holds office, the monarch will not be pleased. They are awarded in her name and she does not enjoy being caught up in ridicule.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University

John.Warhurst@anu.edu.au