Prime Minister Tony Abbott with Quentin Bryce. Photo: Andrew Meares
The real lesson from the knights and dames event is that Labor has naively believed in the march of progress. Labor has imagined that, once a significant reform has been achieved, everyone will see is merits and it will not be unwound.
Prime minister Gough Whitlam imagined he had swept away the grovelling, curtseying, class-laced system of imperial honours, with their sirs and dames, by introducing the Order of Australia, to which any Australian could nominate any other Australian. Further, the award recipients were selected by a body of independent people, not on the say-so of the prime minister or a premier.
The theory was there would be no more political hacks, no more knighthoods for money. This was to be a democratic honours system. The theory was that the Order of Australia was to provide the only honours for Australian citizens (with minor exceptions).
Poor Gough. He was utterly outmanoeuvred by Malcolm Fraser, not just in getting the Queen's man to sack him but in also wrecking Whitlam's new democratic honours system. After becoming prime minister, Fraser "advised" the Queen (in fact "told" the Queen) to add another layer to the Order of Australia - Knight of Australia and Dame of Australia.
It was enough to make you puke. More grovelling and curtseying.
Whitlam had made a hash of it. When he introduced the Order of Australia he did it through the royal prerogative - through letters patent signed by the Queen.
From the beginning, therefore, the Order of Australia was an imperial, monarch-granted system - not a democratic system of honours.
So it was dead easy for Fraser to add a layer of toadyism, imperialism and lickspittle of sirs and dames to what was in legal essence a royal order. And by the way, that noted long-time meals-on-wheels provider to elderly Australians, Prince Charles, is a knight in that order.
Then along came knockabout Aussie Bob Hawke as prime minister. No sirs and dames for him, thank you. So he "advised" (in reality "told") the Queen to revoke the Order of Knight of Australia and the Order of Dame of Australia.
Well, Bob, you get a fail for Machiavellian Politics 101. If you, Bob, as PM can tell the Queen to get rid of the sirs and dames within the Order of Australia which were created by royal letters patent, a new prime minister can tell the Queen to put them back.
So it is down to this. The prime minister of a supposedly grown-up, independent, democratic nation grovelled back to a foreign country's monarch to tick the box for a change to what was supposed to have been our honours system. It is sickenly demeaning. Who is out of touch here? But the fundamental trouble was that Labor got it wrong in not understanding the Tory mind.
Whitlam got it wrong. Instead of asking the Queen to establish a new system of honours for Australia by letters patent, he should have legislated for the system. It should have been a creation of the Parliament of Australia, not the monarch in London. And the legislation should have abolished all imperial honours, converting existing imperial honours to an equivalent level in the new Australian order. And it should have prohibited any prime minister from instituting any new honours system via royal prerogative and letters patent. That way a new prime minister would have to ask the Australian Parliament to approve any changes. If the present prime minister had had to do that, the guffaws would have drowned him.
It gets worse for Labor. Hawke witnessed the deviousness of the Tory mind with Fraser's layering of what was supposed to be an indigenous honours system. Yet he fell into the same trap as Whitlam.
He asked the Queen to abolish the orders of knights and dames. How demeaning and dumb is that - send a "please Ma'am" letter to London instead of stitching the thing up with a piece of legislation that could only be altered by Parliament.
So, Labor Party, get this into the policy platform ASAP: Australia will have an honours system created in Australia, by Australians, for Australians by the Parliament of Australia. All imperial honours will be converted to Australian honours. The legislation will cover the field and it will be illegal for an Australian prime minister to set up any other form of honours.
No more Sir Downton Abbott. No more Dame Bronwyn Bishop of Mosman; Lord Downer of Fishnet; or Sir Christopher Pyne of Cosmos.
Further, the Labor Party should learn from this period of opposition. Having watched previous Tory governments chisel away at reforms that help the less well-off - Medicare, Medibank, education funding and the like - Labor, if it ever gets back to office, must understand that putting a reform in place is not enough. The reform has got to be cemented in a way that makes it difficult or impossible for the Tories to unravel.
Well, if ever symbols were important, the sir and dames issue proves the case. For years, the Coalition Tories have carried on that symbols do not matter much - the republic, indigenous flags and the like. But the symbols of class and inequality are in their blood.
They tried to say it is the economy, stupid. But now Sir Downton Abbott has reached for the symbols - the demeaning symbols of imperialism and elitism, sir and dame.
So why, oh why, did Quentin Bryce accept it?
You can understand an utterly unreconstructed monarchist lick-spittle like Sir Downton offering it. But why did a grown up, intelligent, sensitive woman who said she aspired for an Australian head of state accept it? It shows the power of the forces of position, place and class over egalitarianism, merit and mateship.
Quentin, "dame" is not an honour, it is a betrayal.