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The return of knight and dame honours is no diversion - this is the real Tony Abbott

''Quick, look over there!'' came the knowing quip from one wag in response to Tony Abbott's revival of the imperial honours system.

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Knights and Dames: 'cruel and twisted priorities'

Question time turns into a game of honours as both sides trade blows over the decision to bring back knighthoods to Australia.

But was the restoration of archaic English titles to be conferred by Buckingham Palace really just a diversion? Was it simply a hastily cobbled together stunt designed to distract attention from the government's deeper troubles with Arthur Sinodinos, the furore over George Brandis's divisive Racial Discrimination Act changes, and the stalled roll-back of Labor's Future of Financial Advice reforms?

Don't believe it.

This was, and is, the real Tony. Tory Tony. The same Tony who loves the Crown and used to be chief spokesman for the monarchist movement.

Asked how this sudden reversal to a dumped system re-introduced by the Fraser government in 1970s and ditched again by Labor in the 1980s, fitted in with the promise of a government of ''no surprises'', Abbott did not hesitate.


''I don't think it is any surprise that I am a supporter of the existing system and that I want to enhance the dignity of our existing system and I want to particularly acknowledge and recognise the place of the Governor-General in our system. So, I don't think it is really any surprise,'' he said.

But, even leaving aside that his ''no surprises'' pledge referred expressly to voters' expectations, a quick check with some of Abbott's closest colleagues revealed they had no forewarning either.

It did not go to cabinet.

Was this another run in the park for Abbott's stunning Jesuit justification on paid parental leave, in which he argued it was sometimes better to seek forgiveness than permission?

Abbott's message to his party room and to voters alike, appears to be as simple as this: You elected me in the full knowledge of my monarchist convictions - this is who I am: your Prime Minister yes, but I've never hidden that I'm the Palace's man also.

This justification would be a stretch even if it were strictly true - which it is not.

The attitude among Liberals around Parliament House the morning after the announcement was interesting. A mix of bemusement and mild contempt, and support.

Since coming to power, Abbott has expressly dismissed the revival of the knights and dames, when asked directly by another newspaper.

The attitude among Liberals around Parliament House the morning after the announcement was interesting. A mix of bemusement and mild contempt, and support.

Yet none is too animated. This, when all said and done, is the ultimate symbolic gesture.

This didn't stop one wise head noting, however, that Abbott's ideological father, John Howard had 11 years in which to reintroduce knights and dames, but never did it - despite a lot of urging from people such as the young Abbott himself.

''Funnily enough, (Paul) Keating's description of Abbott as ''a young fuddy-duddy'' was right,'' said one Liberal.

''Howard had a sharper sense of ordinary Australian sentiment, a sharper bullshit detector, than Abbott seems to have.''

Even so, some Liberals are delighted too, with one admitting in a hallway chat to having ambitions of a knighthood himself down the track.

As he said, there are already two Liberals with imperial honours: ''Dame'' Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who was awarded Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 1998, and a staff member of the employment minister, the Honourable Eric Abetz, who it is understood, has a hereditary knighthood from his familial homeland of Tonga.

It seems a long time since Robert Menzies intoned about Queen Elizabeth, ''I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her 'til I die.''

But perhaps it is no time at all.

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