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Knights and dames return

Tony Abbott announces that the Order of Australia will again contain knights and dames, beginning with the outgoing and incoming Governors-General.

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Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced that up to four Australian knights or dames will be created each year, reintroducing an honours system that was abandoned in 1986.

Governor-General designate Peter Cosgrove will be the first knight in the Order of Australia, and will be known as Sir Peter, and outgoing Governor-General Quentin Bryce will be the first dame.

Illustration: Ron Tandberg.

Illustration: Ron Tandberg.

The special recognition, approved by the Queen on Mr Abbott's recommendation, would be for Australians ''of extraordinary and pre-eminent achievement'', and each successive governor-general would receive the title of knight or dame in the Order of Australia.

Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart, you'd imagine, would be holding their breath for the announcement that His Grace Tony the Abbott, Duke of Australia, has quietly decided there should be a new title for Lord and Lady Wardens of the Iron and Coal Ports.

The new Bunyip Aristocracy - only four knights or dames a year - seems a trifle limited.

Why, back in 1965 when Sir Robert Menzies, having already received the Order of the Thistle, donned the fabulous gold-embroidered costume and silk-lined cocked hat of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, you could hardly move in the Melbourne Club or one of Abe Saffron's speakeasies in Sydney without bumping into a brace or two of knights, and there were dames a-plenty at the better garden parties of Toorak and Vaucluse.

Alas, there has been a lamentable lack of new Australian sirs and dames - let alone Orders of the Thistle - since Gough Whitlam introduced the Australian honours system in 1975, tossing knighthoods and the like aside.

Malcolm Fraser bravely introduced knights and dames of the Order of Australia in 1976, but only 12 chaps and two dames got the metaphorical sword on the shoulder before the Hawke government gave the whole idea the shove 10 years later.

Since then, the blessed have had to be content with the chance at a mere medal and tiny lapel button declaring them an AC or AO or suchlike, with not a gorgeous robe nor a cocked hat in sight. Now even those high honours are to be devalued, though His Grace tried to reassure them that the new knighthoods and damehoods ''will not affect Companions, Officers or Members of the Orders of Australia''. Haw. Try selling that in the members lounge of the finer clubs!

The four knights and dames announced by His Grace Tony the Abbott will pretty clearly ace them all. ''Ah, you have a nice little badge. Very jolly. Sir Peter's the name.''

Triply galling to the newly downgraded, surely, is that the first dame is Quentin Bryce, vice regal for only a few more hours. Dame Quentin mused only recently that she dreamed of the day an Australian child could imagine becoming Australia's first head of state. Good lord, the dame is a republican!

But then, even Sir Robert Menzies once opined that it would be improper for a serving prime minister to accept a knighthood.

David Flint, surely near apoplexy, must be considering an appeal to the Privy Council.

Mr Hawke did away with appeals to the Privy Council in 1986, too, but a bit of a chat between Sir Peter Cosgrove and His Grace could put that to rights in this new age of the bunyip aristocracy, you'd think.

Mr Hawke, as it happened, was the recipient of a knighthood himself. King Bhumibol of Thailand invested him as a Knight Grand Cordon of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant in 1989.

Meanwhile, Lord Clive and Lady Gina, Wardens of the Iron and Coal Ports, has a certain ring to it. And the Senate? About time it became Australia's House of Lords. His Grace may be on to it already.