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Dishonourable honours

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History shows Tony Abbott runs the risk of scandal in his plan for knights and dames, writes Anne Twomey.

Tony Abbott runs the risk of scandal

Tony Abbott runs the risk of scandal Photo: Andrew Meares

It would be unwise for a prime minister to make himself vulnerable to scandals like the ''cash for honours'' police investigation that dogged the Blair government in Britain in its last years, especially in light of recent NSW scandals over political donations. Yet this is what Tony Abbott has done.

An unsought honour, conferred by an independent and respected body, is a delight to the recipient and a well-respected acknowledgement of the individual's contribution to society. But once honours fall within the gift of politicians, history has shown that they can become burdens on the recipients and a millstone around the neck of the donor.

First, it is inevitable that people will try to draw connections between honours and the making of political donations. Abbott's new knights and dames are appointed upon his recommendation alone. This is a departure from precedent. Other civilian honours under the Order of Australia are independently assessed and recommended by a council headed by the Governor-General. The order's website proudly states that it ''operates on the principles of independence and freedom from political patronage''. When Malcolm Fraser introduced knighthoods under the Order of Australia in 1976, it was the council that made the recommendations - not the prime minister.

Abbott has instead taken us back to the early 1970s, when knighthoods were within the gift of the prime minister. Former governor-general Sir Paul Hasluck left in the archives a vivid account of the political skulduggery behind the granting of honours at that time.

Knighthoods were then a form of political currency, used to buy supporters or to damage their reputations by making them appear to have been bought. This led to exquisite dilemmas for those, such as John Gorton, who wanted the honour but did not want to seem to be beholden to the person who had recommended it.

Gorton, when prime minister, had agreed to be made a ''companion of honour''. So as not to be seen to be conferring an honour on himself, it had been arranged that the British prime minister, Edward Heath, would make the recommendation. This plan was thwarted when Gorton lost the leadership to William McMahon and Heath concluded that it was up to McMahon to recommend Gorton's honour.

According to Hasluck, Gorton refused to accept any honour on McMahon's nomination. He argued that McMahon was blatantly seeking to buy political support through the conferral of knighthoods and that two people had already asked to be withdrawn from the Queen's Birthday honours because ''acceptance would have the public appearance that they had been bought''.

Hasluck explained to Buckingham Palace: ''We are not unfamiliar with the possibility that there may sometimes be a political purpose in recommendations for honours. Damage comes not from putting a precious vase on the wrong shelf but from doing it clumsily. It seems to me that Mr McMahon may have made wrong guesses or received incorrect hints about the intended recipients and he has foolishly exposed himself to persons who may continue to resist him.''

A compromise was reached and Gorton was nominated by Heath, but with McMahon's support. McMahon then arranged for his own nomination for the same honour shortly afterwards. This did not end their enmity. Gorton had asked for his investiture to be conducted by the Queen. Hasluck suggested the Queen might personally invest this honour on both Gorton and McMahon when visiting Australia in 1973. According to Hasluck, Gorton ''replied in effect that he would not share a ceremony with 'that little lying bastard''' and so the matter was dropped''.

State premiers too used knighthoods as currency to reward supporters. In 1971, the West Australian premier, Sir David Brand, after having lost office in an election but before handing over to a Labor premier, insisted on submitting an honours list including knighthoods for two of his ministers. The governor suggested that it ''smells a bit'', but Brand insisted and the incoming Labor premier, John Tonkin, was not consulted. Tonkin smartly vetoed the list once in office, but one of the intended recipients, Charles Court, was undeterred, instead pressuring the prime minister for his knighthood.

On Hasluck's account, Gorton, as prime minister, was unwilling to consider Court for a knighthood ''partly because of the poor opinion he had of Court and partly because he objected to the prime minister being used to 'get around' a difficulty created by the legitimate decision of a state premier not to recommend''.

McMahon, however, succumbed to the pressure and Court got his knighthood in 1972.

McMahon then faced a problem. He had nominated too many knights and the British government complained. When Hasluck tried to persuade McMahon to knock a few knighthoods off the list, McMahon confided in him his greater concern. Both the Victorian premier, Sir Henry Bolte, and Australia's then high commissioner to London, Sir Alexander Downer, were heavily pressuring McMahon to recommend them for peerages.

Bolte was keen to be called ''Baron Bolte''. Hasluck objected to Australians being made peers. ''Appointment to the House of Lords seemed to me to be contrary to the direction of Australian constitutional development and to the growth of Australian nationhood and against the mainstream of Australian opinion. What was an Australian, as an Australian, to do in the House of Lords except take part in the government of Great Britain?'' Hasluck asked. ''If, however, elevation to the peerage were regarded only as the conferring of an additional honour, I thought that however much it might gratify the vanity of the newly created lord, it was not in keeping with Australian opinion.''

Richard Casey had previously received a peerage, but Hasluck regarded him as belonging to ''a different era''.

''His peerage belonged to the past. I doubted if Australian opinion would take kindly to the idea of Australian prime ministers recommending that Australians be made lords. I also asked the prime minister to consider carefully the risks of creating an embarrassing precedent. There would be many people who would say: 'If Henry got one, I ought to have one, too.'''

McMahon agreed ''but revealed with unusual frankness that Bolte kept on asking for a peerage, that it was the only way to keep him 'on side', that he dare not refuse it to him for fear of losing his support, that he [the PM] badly needed support at the present time and, if he did not do it, he would not only lose support but would make a determined enemy out of Bolte''. Hasluck suggested that McMahon might lose votes for recommending peerages, but McMahon replied: ''I must do something. I must make some move. He keeps asking me what I have done about it.''

McMahon made the recommendations but got ''a dusty answer''. Both nominees were rejected by the British and had to settle with ''Sir'' rather than ''Lord''.

Hasluck's words resonate today in asking whether this is now a ''different era'' and whether Australians would take kindly to the conferral of imperial-type honours. Could the Prime Minister lose votes over it? Is he opening himself up to charges of buying influence or being bought by others whose political support he needs? It is a short step between a grace note and disgrace. History shows the risks are real and should be heeded.

Anne Twomey is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Sydney.

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