Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.

I disagree with Tony Abbott’s decision to recommence appointing Australian knights and dames. But I disagree with some of the critical commentary about it.

One fact in particular seems to have been forgotten in all the noise: the award is contained within the Australian honours system; we are not seeing a reversion to the old imperial honours. Labor’s confected outrage looks a little shallow when you realise they had the chance to get rid of that award and just didn’t take it up.

Among my Liberal mates I can find none that think it other than really weird. Not one. 

Malcolm Turnbull is right when he says this move is no slight to Republicans. Malcolm’s irrepressible wit was out in full force when he spoke on this at a TV launch in Parliament House last Wednesday night. It is worth a quick look on the 'net.

John Howard was right when he said these awards seem somewhat anachronistic in Australia. They belong in another time. Among my Liberal mates I can find none that think it other than really weird. Not one. I haven’t checked with my Labor friends; there seems little point.

Abbott gets points for doing what he believes, knowing it to be unpopular. Surely if he thought it was popular he would have taken it to cabinet. But he loses many more than he gains. He loses because this move simply plays into the hands of those who want to lock him into a caricature that reeks of old world.

There is, however, a far more serious issue and that is the decision-making process. Or lack of it. Prime ministers may well deserve a stronger voice in government. The word prime has real meaning. A prime minister on top of his game gives a lot of extra credence to the rest of the government and that brings with it a few privileges. Having a stronger voice is one of those. Flying solo to indulge yourself is not.

A prime minister who rides roughshod over his cabinet colleagues when there is no security or other imperative to do so is playing a dangerous game.  It is a simple game of bluff or chicken. The leader breaks all the rules others are expected to follow because he is betting that the cabinet and party room will let him get away with it.  Making a leader renege after they have announced some indulgence would be a very expensive exercise for any government. The fight in cabinet would leak, their leader and the team would be damaged. The leader virtually says: ‘‘Suck it up, you bunch of sissies". He concludes that his view is more important, better, than all of his cabinet and party room members. That conclusion rankles with MPs who slogged it out on the hustings and earned the right, even responsibility, to express their views.

We saw under the Rudd government the complete unwillingness and incapacity of cabinet members to force their leader to use proper processes. My guess is this lot won’t be so lily-livered. Clearly they were, if not happy, then at least prepared, to let this one pass. But let's not forget they all have vivid recent memories of how letting leaders have their way for the sake of peace and the appearance of unity leads to terrible government.

This was also the wrong issue on which to impose his own view. The honours system is not a policy that affects a defined specialist area, such as defence or agriculture. It is a policy for all of us. It is how we as Australians choose to honour our own. Each and every one of us can nominate someone to be recognised. Someone of limited means and with little formal education may stand equally with a scientist, philanthropist or entrepreneur.

Whatever else one might say about Gough Whitlam, I think it is fair to say that his abandonment of the old imperial honours and the establishment of our own contributed to us building our own identity. We moved on from the imperial honours to what we see as a more egalitarian system. Sure, there are different levels of award, but they all look fairly similar. Until Malcolm Fraser added knights and dames to our awards, nobody got a fancy title. They have not been used for many years for good reason. Awards with fancy titles just don’t sit well with today’s Australia.

Using your authority as prime minister is one thing. Appearing sneaky at the same time is another. This knights and dames issue was raised last year and Abbott appeared to rule it out. In fact he simply ruled out the New Zealand model for reintroducing knights and dames. In hindsight, that now appears to have been deliberately evasive.   

Prime ministers are entitled to recognise that their own efforts have made a very significant contribution to their party winning government. But they must also recognise that their colleagues played a significant role. Believe me, all MPs understand that it is they who choose the leader. They give the leader in opposition the chance to become prime minister. That alone demands respect.

While I don’t imagine there will be any backing down from this decision, I do have a suggestion for improvement. If the partner of a dame is not accorded any particular title, then the partner of a knight should be treated the same way. We might have a Sir Donald Bradman but his wife would stay Mrs Bradman in the same way that Dame Margaret Guilfoyle’s husband stayed Mr Guilfoyle. Treating men and women the same is surely something on which we can all agree.

Abbott should have recognised before he did this that, unlike other policies, which if they turn out to be mistaken can be modified, this policy cannot be repaired. He is stuck with it. Of course Abbott may not yet, or ever, recognise this move as a mistake. But even if he does, he can’t go back now.

The problem is that every time another appointment is made, voters will be reminded that it was he who reintroduced a system that appears to so many Australians as out of place. Unfortunately MPs and cabinet members will also be reminded that this is the policy on which they were given what we call the royal finger. That’s not a good thing to do to colleagues without whose support you would not be prime minister. It hardly adds a "grace note" to our system.

Amanda Vanstone is a columnist for The Age and was a minister in the Howard government.