No captain’s picks in an Australian republic

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Captain's pick, our next Governor-General, David Hurley (Screenshot via YouTube)

Thankfully, there will be no Imperial knighthoods awarded this Australia Day. On Australia Day 2015, the then Prime Minister Abbott made his “captain’s pick” and appointed Prince Philip a Knight of Australia. The public exploded and the Australian Republic Movement’s webservers melted down.

Prime Minister Morrison has now chosen the next Governor-General without any consultation. The captain’s picks continue, writes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.

IN JUNE 2018, the Australian Republic Movement called on Prime Minister Turnbull to give Australians a say in the appointment of the next Governor-General, rather than it being a “captain’s call”. In August 2018, the A.R.M. appealed to Prime Minister Turnbull’s successor, Prime Minister Morrison, to immediately rule out a captain’s call on the next Governor-General.

Australians currently rely entirely on the Prime Minister’s judgement in the appointment of Governors-General. When Governor-General Peter Cosgrove’s five-year term ends on 28 March 2019, Prime Minister Morrison can simply advise the Queen as to whom he wants to take the role.

This is just what he did on 16 December 2018 when Prime Minister Morrison announced after he had received permission from the British monarch, that retired General and former Chief of Defence Force and current NSW Governor, David Hurley, would be Australia’s 27th Governor-General.

Hurley was the Prime Minister’s sole pick for Governor-General. This means three of the past four governors-general have been men who are retired Generals.

The Hurley appointment comes despite Labor having urged the Federal Government to extend Peter Cosgrove’s tenure, so whichever political party holds power after the next Federal election can then make the decision on filling the role. Instead, Prime Minister Morrison announced Governor-General Cosgrove will stay on until 28 June 2019, when Governor Hurley will officially take over. This is to enable both men to retain their current positions for the duration of the March 2019 NSW State Election and the Federal Election expected in May 2019.

When Peter Cosgrove became Governor-General on 28 March 2014, he automatically became a Knight of the Order of Australia by virtue of his appointment.

Australian historian James Curran wrote in the Canberra Times, 31 March 2014, that:

In the symbolic landscape of Australian civic culture, Tony Abbott’s restoration last week of Australian knights and dames perhaps stands as one of the most pompous, pretentious, nostalgic and self-indulgent prime ministerial decisions in a generation.’

The Order of Australia is an order of chivalry established on 14 February 1975 by Queen Elizabeth II, to recognise Australian citizens and other persons for achievement or meritorious service. Before the establishment of the order, Australian citizens received British honours. In the Australian honours system, appointments to the Order of Australia confer recognition for outstanding achievement and service. The Governor-General is principal companion/dame/knight (as relevant at the time).

The last AKs awarded were on Australia Day 2015 to Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston (retd) and His Royal Highness, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The reaction at the time from Australians on all sides of politics showed that Imperial honours are divisive and out of touch with a modern, multicultural, egalitarian Australia. Our identity is Australian, not colonial anymore. The re-establishment of the Imperial honours was done quickly and without consultation by Prime Minister Abbott with his Federal front bench, let alone the first two recipients. Imperial honours are divisive and out of touch with modern, multicultural, egalitarian Australia.

Fortunately, the next Governor-General will not automatically become a “sir”.

In December 2013, Prime Minister Abbott, who had been the former director of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, had ruled out restoring the British tradition of knighthoods and dameships. Within three months, he had done a complete about-face and reintroduced an outdated and unwanted style of honour to Australia. The honour was to be known as a knight or dame in the Order of Australia and would be the nation's highest award.

At the time, the Prime Minister said he believed this was:

“... an important grace note in our national life.”

On 19 March 2014, on the Prime Minister’s recommendation, Her Majesty The Queen approved amendments to the Letters Patent for the Order of Australia to reinstate appointment of knights and dames of the Order of Australia.

On 27 March 2014, when Prime Minister Abbott introduced the archaic British aristocratic titles above the Australian national honours system, Australians flooded the Australian Republic Movement with such overwhelming numbers the Australian Republic Movement server was on the verge of crashing.

David Morris, National Director of the Australian Republic Movement, stated at the time:

Since Mr Abbott’s announcement about "knights and dames", our annualised membership growth rate has spiked to about 5,000 per cent. Many are re-joining, having previously been members. Many are people who say they voted for Mr Abbott’s Government but are dismayed by his personal decision, apparently made only in consultation with the Queen.

Under the new system, the retiring Governor-General Quentin Bryce became the first dame and her successor, Peter Cosgrove, the first knight when he was sworn in as Governor-General on Friday 28 March 2014. Also appointed at the same time was Governor of New South Wales, Marie Bashir.

Abbott’s new system allowed the Queen to bestow up to four knights or dames per year, on the recommendation of the prime minister, to recognise extraordinary and pre-eminent Australians for their service to Australia and/or humanity.

It was Prime Minister Gough Whitlam who axed knighthoods in 1975, only to watch Malcolm Fraser reinstate knights and dames a year later.

Then, in 1986, Prime Minister Bob Hawke abolished the category all over again. John Howard is understood to have rejected the idea of reinstating knights and dames, on the grounds the endless chopping and changing was undermining the dignity of the honour.

On Australia Day 2015, Prime Minister Tony Abbott's 2014 decision to restore Imperial knighthoods became even more bizarre, when he used the Australia Day Honours List to award the second and third AKs in the restored Knight of the Order of Australia division to His Royal Highness, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston (retd). One was the Chair of the Council for the Order of Australia and the other… well, was the husband of the British monarch.

Grandfather Royal, Prince Philip, received his AK for his contribution to Australia throughout the Queen's 62-year reign, and it was his due to his long life of service and dedication Prime Minister Abbott “picked” him to be honoured by Australia. Special mention was also made of the Duke of Edinburgh Awards in Australia, which he said had positively influenced the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Australians.

In the lead-up to Australia Day 2015, there had been no media about the awarding again of any Australian Imperial honours. The Australian of the Year awards had been well publicised, but not the possible “knights and dames” appointments.

The reaction from the Australian people was largely satirical and fundamentally bemused.

As a Palace spokeswoman said at the time:

Knights and dames in the Order of Australia are approved by the Queen on recommendation of the prime minister. We wouldn't comment further on the process.”

On 2 November 2015, two months after coming into office, the first significant policy change for the new Turnbull Government was to call it a knight on titles, when he announced that the Queen had approved his request to amend the Order's letters patent and cease awards at this level. This was after Cabinet had, at his suggestion, agreed that the titles were no longer appropriate in the modern awards system. The formal removal by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of one of Tony Abbott’s most unpopular captain’s picks resolved a national embarrassment.

The 2014 announcement by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott of a return of knighthoods for Australians echoed of a "bunyip aristocracy" continuing to chip away at modern Australia. Monarchist teacup warriors seemed to be again recycling Australia back to a past that no longer reflected 21st Century Australia.

Abbott did a great thing when he reminded Australians what elitism really looks like, and succeeded in highlighting that the concepts of both a royal family and royal honours are elitist nonsense, which jars with life in Australia.

So this Australia Day, before you tuck into your lamb chops (or vegetarian sausages), please take a moment to consider if our identity today is Australian and our national honours are thoroughly Australian, then surely it’s time to make the case for Australia to have a head of state that is one of our own. Not someone from the other side of the world.

Fortunately, we can all sing:

Australians all let us rejoice
For we are young and free
We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil
Our land is not girt by “sirs”

It’s all just so ridiculous.

You can follow history editor Dr Glenn Davies on Twitter @DrGlennDavies. Find out more about the Australian Republican Movement HERE.

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