Calls to restore imperial knighthoods and peerages in Australia should be adamantly ignored, says Barry Everingham.
It was 1811, in Sydney town that the then Governor Lachlan Macquarie put paid to the skewered idea that a local “aristocracy” (a “bunyip aristocracy”) be established. He rightly concluded that the idea would outrage the colonists whose temper was egalitarian and democratic.
And he sure got that right.
A third of the then population were convicts, or their descendants, holding no affection for British institutions or the premises on which they rested.
As the population expanded and more free immigrants arrived and more convicts were given freedom there was a feeling in the new colony that talent counted more than birth and that all men and women enjoyed an equal opportunity. There was no place for hereditary privilege or deference to lineage.
Of course, in time non-titled hierarchies did emerge and they were and still are achieved on hard work and wealth rather than birth.
They needn’t be permanent though — it’s said the first generation makes the money, the second consolidates it and the third stuffs up!
Be that as it may — in 1871 Trollope observed that Australian landowners enjoyed lives of an 18th century squire although many were self-made men.
Of course, in Western Australia until the late 1880’s the lines of English demarcation were still de rigeur with the arrival of a few younger sons of British peers — farmers were actually segregated from the “gentry” at the annual ball in the town of York in WA.
But in time imperial honours were handed out in the still new country.
A few were merited – judges, philanthropists and scientists were gonged – others were reserved for politicians, crooks, carpet-baggers and the like.
Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Robert (Robin) Askin gave themselves knighthoods; Prime Ministers and Premiers handed them out. In some cases they sold them or used them as an incentive to move a political enemy out of the way to make room for an ally or just to make one or two happy.
My favourite illustration – and believe me this is not apocryphal – was told to me by my old friend Nancy Buttfield, the late South Australian Senator.
She was called in by the then Prime Minister, Bill McMahon and told he had submitted her name to the Palace to be created a Dame.
“That’s nice of you Bill,” she said to him.
He then handed her a rather backhanded compliment (and I wrote down at the time what Nancy told me):
“I had you slotted in for one in the last honours list but (and she named the minister involved whose wife is still alive) wanted a higher order of the knighthood than he already had and I wasn’t having any of that so I offered his wife your Damehood to shut him up!”
There’s little doubt that in this country titles are a thing of the past — even Howard drew the line in handing them out but of course Tony Abbott is so erratic and rusted on to the past that in the unlikely event he does becomes Prime Minister anything could happen.
A handful of Australians received peerages but the Canadians would have none of that and even drew the line at knighthoods.
In 1919, the Canadian Government stopped this idiotic practice and asked (actually demanded) George V to suspend it.
Former Canadian PM Vincent Massey was banned from accepting the Order of the Garter (the order given to Robert Menzies) and that well known jail-bird Conrad Black actually forfeited his Canadian citizenship so he could accept a life peerage.
So much for having priorities in order and more important so much for at last dragging Australia into the 21st century.