The revival of imperial honours — Abbott’s Machiavellian wedge

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Tony Abbott's abrupt decision to bring back imperial honours has driven a wedge through the body politic from the vice-regal office holders, through the rank and file members of all political parties and through the voting public, writes Clint Howitt.

YESTERDAY AFTERNOON AT YARRALUMLA, Tony Abbott had even more reason than usual for his trademark smirk.

His offer to the outgoing Governor General, Quentin Bryce, and to the incoming Peter Cosgrove, of an obsolete title in Australia’s system of honours is one of the most cynical moves we’ve seen from this increasingly arrogant and reactionary government.

It is arrogant, because Abbott had categorically ruled out a return to Imperial Honours as late as December last year. He has now triumphantly and brazenly reinstated them.

After years of denouncing Julia Gillard for lying about the so-called "carbon tax" (actually a carbon price) and making it the centrepiece of his campaign against her, he has now successfully established himself as a serial liar.

It is arrogant because it was another autocratic ‘leader’s call.’  It came without warning, without public consultation. As such, it was an affront to our democratic tradition.

It is arrogant because a British Honours system is irrelevant to the increasing numbers of Australians who have no British heritage.

Likewise, it is reactionary because it puts Australia back 40 years.

It subverts the purely Australian system of honours instigated by Labor PM Gough Whitlam in 1975. The old system was eventually phased out at both federal and state level in the 80’s.

Now Abbott has reimposed an obsolete system of foreign honours over and above our distinctively Australian system.

While traditional honours may be part of the historical tradition of European nations like Britain and France, they have no longer have any place in Australia’s historical tradition.

The return to Imperial Honours, by definition, resurrects the cringing sycophancy of a colonial mentality. It reverses the long march towards the political independence of Australia’s political system from our British ‘betters’ and colonial ‘masters.’ 

Presumably these honours will be awarded at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace.

Consider the symbolism of that event. 

The world would see two Australian-born heads of state having archaic and alien titles conferred on them by a monarch of another country. The investiture would take place on foreign soil.

The person conferring the honours would have less power in her country than a Governor-General does in Australia, because of the Reserve Powers in our Constitution.

The world would see images of the person perceived as the de facto Australian head of state at the feet of a foreign ruler.

What does that say about the status of our highest office?

It re-establishes the umbilical ties of colonialism severed by Whitlam and returns us to an era of deferential forelock tugging.

Ultimately, it transports Australia back to the Dark Ages when European feudal monarchs bestowed a tiered system of titles on their henchmen as a reward for their subservience and loyalty.

You can’t get much more reactionary than that.

Abbott’s smirk was also the mark of a man mightily impressed by his own political brilliance. It has been deliberately, but unnecessarily, disruptive and divisive.

The Machiavellian nature of this move has driven a wedge through the body politic from the vice-regal office holders, through the rank and file members of all political parties and through the voting public.

It politicises the office of Governor-General. It has put both the outgoing and incoming Governors-General in invidious positions. The role of Governor-General is expected to be a uniting, apolitical role.

By accepting these obsolete honours, they are a making a political statement, aligning themselves with the most conservative elements of a right wing government.

If they did not accept them, they would be courting controversy. The media would perceive them as having  taken a hostile political stance against the elected government.

It is a particularly fraught dilemma for outgoing Governor-General Quentin Bryce. This offer was sprung on her without warning. She has already made her republican leanings clear.

Royal honours are anathema to republicans. By accepting the title of ‘Dame’ she now appears hypocritical.

If she hadn’t accepted, she would be snubbing the Prime Minister and a new government on the very day that government is celebrating the success of her tenure.

As the Queen’s representative, to turn down an offer endorsed by the country’s head of state would cast her as ungracious and ungrateful.

It is a potential wedge through the Opposition Leader’s family. Because Quentin Bryce is Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s mother in law, what happens when it comes to her investiture?

Does he attend out of respect for her relationship to him? Would attending undermine his leadership of a pro-republican party?

Or does he remain true to his principles and conspicuously absent himself, diminishing her moment of public acknowledgement? What if his wife attends and he doesn’t?

Within political parties, even the Coalition, it polarises members, setting up confrontations between republicans and monarchists.

It pits Australian against Australian, reigniting tensions within our multicultural society. Anglo Australians against those with non-Anglo backgrounds.

Of course, this move on Abbott’s part also acts as a diversion from other current hot potato political issues such as the integrity and competence of Arthur Sinodinos, the amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act, the dismantling of ‘red tape’ regulations that protected Australian citizens from rorting and corruption and the thwarting of the government’s moves to abolish the Mining Tax and the Carbon Tax.

It is hard to dismiss the thought that even the amoral royalist Niccolo Machiavelli would be embarrassed at the brazen cynicism of this bombshell from Abbott.

Read also Sydney bureau chief Ross Jones' with Back to the Future with Tony Abbott.

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