Noble aspirations

Ben Brooks laments the imperfect reintroduction of Australian knighthoods and damehoods.

Image: Andrew Becraft, via Flickr.
Image: Andrew Becraft, via Flickr.
Image: Andrew Becraft, via Flickr.

The whole point of a Round Table is that it has no head. King Arthur’s knights would sit collegiately with one another, and with the king himself, as equals. It is faintly ironic that in restoring knighthoods to the Order of Australia, Tony Abbott consulted with none of his Cabinet barons. But the move is hardly as elitist as panicking Fairfax reporters suggest.

Properly designed, a system of knighthoods would be a valuable capstone to our otherwise obscure, acronym-laden honours system. An important objective of any honours system is to elevate meritorious members of the community to prominence. This is difficult when our existing awards consist of a Sesame Street parade of the letters AC, AO, AM and OAM, in a country which has a proud, pathological disdain for postnominals.

Knighthoods are nothing like the classist anachronism described by Labor. The reality in Britain and elsewhere is that knighthoods turn the idea of hereditary nobility on its head. They are a peculiarly democratic institution based on meritocracy, not aristocracy, recognising success and commitment in all its forms. In its 2014 New Years Honours list, for instance, New Zealand awarded knighthoods and damehoods to businesswomen, fashion designers, horse breeders, and Maori educators. The equivalent UK list bestowed knighthoods on geneticists, sculptors, journalists, and theatre producers. Only two politicians featured among the twenty recipients, and one was from the opposition Labour party.

Unfortunately, the restored Australian system is not well designed – perhaps fatally so. Only four appointments will be made each year, and it is the Prime Minister’s intention that only those who accepted (rather than sought) public office will receive the honour.

The strength of the British and New Zealand honours systems is that they are accessible, transparent, and recognise that merit manifests itself in diverse ways. Over the past twelve months, the UK has awarded some 50 knighthoods, and New Zealand almost a dozen. In other words, that is one knighthood for every 1.2 million Britons, and one for every 400,000 Kiwis. In the equivalent period, Australia would have received a paltry one knighthood for every five million people.

Knighthoods cover the full spectrum of human endeavour, from education to medicine to art to sport to charity to entrepreneurship to military service. The greatest meritocracy is one in which scientists and soldiers alike can be installed as Sirs and Dames. Confining the Australian system to a mere four public office holders a year – as if the Governor-General is not sufficiently glorified already – will only exacerbate the perception of knighthoods as unrepresentative and exclusive, if not totally redundant.

Most troubling, the Prime Minister alone will select appointees. He will consult the Chairman of the Order of Australia Council but not the Council itself. Ordinarily, the Council – which approves other awards in the Order – consists of nineteen members. These presently include biochemists, artists, Defence Force leaders, and the world’s first officially acknowledged same-sex ambassador.

Like their global counterparts, including the hundred-strong UK honours committee, the Council enhances the diversity of the Australian honours system, and protects it from political favouritism. Australia has unpalatable experience with Liberal office holders conferring honours on undeserving or corrupt cronies. That diversity means that awards are routinely conferred on librarians, surveyors, or architects, not just officers and judges. Circumventing the Council is an unwise move for a policy which already struggles against allegations of political elitism.

The problem is not, then, knighthoods themselves. Rather, the problem lies in their thoughtless implementation.

Some criticism is unavoidable. Knighthoods clearly smack of surreptitious Anglophilia (some might call it ideological necrophilia). That is no more objectionable than the incremental, Anglophobic Labor republicanism which abolished them in the first place.

Yet on the whole, the rhetorical skirmish over knighthoods is a distraction. There are other, very real problems with the honours system. Between 1997 and 2007, women constituted a bare third of all honours awarded in Australia. In 2012, only a quarter of Companions and Officers to the Order of Australia were women. It would be interesting to see how indigenous nominees fare.

But in principle, knighthoods are indeed what Abbott calls a ‘grace note’ to the honours system. A grace note botched in translation. In lampooning Abbott for his sycophantic British nostalgia, we forget that the UK and New Zealand honours systems are a model for diversity and accessibility, and that the Australian reforms are a politicised, shallow imitation.