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Tony Abbott, rege mediaevalibus

The Prime Minister may only be 'primus inter pares,' but manages to unleash his inner nobility with the help of Sir Rocco and a lutenist called King.

PT1M24S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-35kxu 620 349

As Joe Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull sat down to dinner together in Canberra on Tuesday night, they joked that they were the last two republicans left in Canberra.

One way or another, most of Australia has been laughing at Tony Abbott’s discordant decision to revive knighthoods. Was the announcement dated 2014 or 1420?

The titles will end with his prime ministership. They are a personal fetish visited on an uncomprehending country. 

The Labor senator Sam Dastyari had Liberals and Greens alike laughing along when he opened a speech to the Senate with the words: “Hear ye, hear ye. My lord, lady and lieges, I’m shocked and horrified that people are ridiculing the bold and inspirational leadership of the people’s Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Abbott of Warringah.

<i>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari</i>

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

“While some may claim that returning to knighthoods is taking the country backwards – I can think of no more important policy for our realm right now.”

Sir Anthony himself admitted to the journalist Michelle Grattan that he’d had a chuckle himself at some of the cartoons sending him up.

But the larger point of Hockey and Abbott’s jibe attests to the futility of the move.

Which prime minister after Abbott will continue the practice? A Labor leader certainly won’t. Bill Shorten, saying Abbott had put Australia into a “time warp”, has made his position clear.

But neither would Hockey, at the moment probably the person in the government with the strongest claim to succeed Abbott. 

Turnbull certainly wouldn’t: “It’s an interesting time to see knights and dames coming back and it’s good to see the broad acceptance of it in the community,” the former leader of the republican movement said to much hilarity at a function in Parliament House this week.

What about other potential Liberal leaders, Scott Morrison or Julie Bishop, for instance? No.

Even past Liberal prime ministers think it was outdated – John Howard repeated his long-held view that such titles are “somewhat anachronistic.”

John Howard, born in the age of the telegraph, “knows it’s absurd”, a Liberal said privately, but Tony Abbott, born in the age of TV, apparently doesn’t.

His antediluvian decision maroons Abbott on an island of historical oddity. The titles will end with his prime ministership. They are a personal fetish visited on an uncomprehending country.

The median age of Australians is 38; the last Australian knighthood was handed out a quarter of a century ago. This means that most Australians have no adult memory of anyone being conferred with the title sir or dame.

His justification? It was a “grace note” for Australian public life. Many Australians would have preferred that Abbott had acted with better grace when he was in his furious destruction phase as opposition leader.

Abbott didn’t take the proposal to his Cabinet or his party room, and this disturbed many of his colleagues. He did the same thing with his paid parental leave plan, another idea that lacks support in his government and might never be legislated.

But while that unilateral act was done in opposition, this one was in government. “It was a departure from the proper procedure,” a backbencher said. “You could argue it’s not a significant departure, but the significant departures are always preceded by the minor ones.”

Why did he do it? He has said, correctly, that “I think the prime minister is entitled to make these sorts of decisions with the monarch.” But while that’s correct, is it wise to alienate his party with unilateral acts?

Presumably he feared it would not have been supported. What would have happened if he’d taken the idea to his Cabinet? “What, after we’d all finished laughing?” posed a Cabinet minister.

Nor was this a good week for  prime ministerial authority in the party room, even before his announcement.

On Tuesday  Abbott told his MPs and senators that they should not leak party-room discussions to the media.

Ten minutes later he announced to the gathering that a Fairfax reporter, Jonathan Swan, had just tweeted that the party room had not yet discussed the contentious issue of amending the Racial Discrimination Act. Abbott appealed, again, for more discipline.

“It’s unusual for a prime minister to say ‘don’t leak from the party room’ and then a few minutes later for him to say ‘there’s been a leak from the party room’,” said a Liberal senator. “It diminishes him.” 

But Hockey and Turnbull would have been justified in feeling a little lonelier at the republican table than they had a week ago. Australians had the very firm impression that Quentin Bryce was a republican. She made a bombshell declaration last year.

In a remarkable statement, the then governor-general urged the abolition of the very system that she represented: “In our imagining, I suggest a nation,” she said in the Boyer Lectures “where, perhaps, my friends, one day, one young boy or girl may grow up to be our nation’s first head of state.”

So republicans felt betrayed when Abbott announced that she had agreed to become the first Australian dame of the 21st century.

Did Bryce sell out her belief for the trinket of a title? Technically, Bryce is quite consistent. Technically, the titles created by Abbott are an Australian honour, not an imperial one.  In this way she could rationalise the decision.

But in every other sense, her embrace of an archaic European system of class distinction is a thorough betrayal of her republican sentiment.

Some of her close friends think so; they’re disappointed in her.

One long-time Bryce friend, the scholar and feminist Dale Spender, didn’t directly criticise the outgoing governor-general but she did say that “I do think it’s a bit peculiar to revive these things after ... so long.”

Bryce was a marvellous governor-general. The job of a governor-general, in a fine phrase of Abbott’s, is to show “leadership beyond politics”.

This week much of the commentary on her term has, unfortunately, dwelled on her fashion sense, which was, all agreed, impeccable. And on the other inarguable fact of her term, that she was the first woman to hold the office.

But she was no mere clothes horse, and no token woman. She was a substantial figure. She served during the most difficult and tumultuous time in Australian federal politics since the dismissal of Whitlam.

She presided over a country with its first national minority government since the 1940s. Recall that when Julia Gillard won the 2010 election, many in the Coalition accused her of leading an “illegitimate” government. This was wrong and dangerous.

And Bryce was put into the exquisitely delicate position of being the mother-in-law of the opposition leader.

She handled both species of trouble superbly. In the event, she didn’t have to make any difficult constitutional judgment calls; the conventions ultimately were respected and prevailed.

But she did make the difficult personal call of offering her resignation when her son-in-law took the post of Opposition leader. It was the right thing to do; Abbott graciously declined and expressed trust in her.

A lifelong campaigner for women’s rights and human rights more broadly, Bryce continued making the case and championing rights at every opportunity.

She worked relentlessly, becoming the most travelled governor-general ever to hold the office. Much of her most important work was unpublicised, unglamorous, and will go unsung by all except those people for whom it was done, who will love her as long as they live.

One of her themes was the Australianisation of the vice-regal office, using subtle incrementalism, making small but significant changes.

For instance, she broke a precedent stretching back to British settlement in 1788 by ending the practice of writing letters to the monarch detailing Australian political and official affairs.

The governor-general decided the letters, traditionally sent a couple of times a year, were a pointless anachronism.

When the letters stopped flowing from Yarralumla to London, it seems they were not missed. Buckingham Palace did not ask after them.

Bryce also changed another vice-regal practice dating back to Arthur Phillip. In writing to the monarch, she signed with the modern and egalitarian ‘‘’Yours sincerely’’ rather than the feudally obsequious ‘‘Your most humble and obedient servant’’.

This makes it even more perplexing and disappointing that she would accept Abbott’s offer.

Is it not enough to have served in the most distinguished way in the most distinguished office in the land? Does she really need to revive the accusation of bunyip aristocracy, the confected tryhard respectability of the bumpkin desperado?

The same question could apply to the first Australian knight to be minted in the 21st century, the new governor-general, Peter Cosgrove, a soldier and public servant of exceptional capability.  For Abbott’s personal fetish, Bryce’s decision to accept the title of dame was high gratification. It gave him the perfect political cover. If a widely respected outgoing governor-general and avowed republican could accept the title, who could reject it?

The decisions by Bryce and Cosgrove are disappointing, but they have sufficient personal standing to be able to withstand the ridicule. Tony Abbott does not, or at least not yet.

The best defence that Abbott’s allies can offer is that it is “authentically Tony”, and that the people will see it as such. There must be more useful ways to establish authenticity than to pursue personal indulgences that expose the prime minister and the country to ridicule.

Peter Hartcher is the political editor.