I first heard the news when reading a letter from a friend in Melbourne. It was confirmed in Crikey – an Australian newspaper review. The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, has introduced knights and dames into the Order of Australia honours list. It seems that it was something of a unilateral decision.
In announcing this decision, Mr. Abbott said: “This special recognition may be extended to Australians of `extraordinary and pre-eminent achievement and merit’ in their service to Australia or to humanity at large. I believe this is an important grace note in our national life.’’ “Grace note”? It is to be noted that, by general consent down-under, grace has not been a very notable attribute of Tony Abbot’s premiership so far!
The usual suspects have been mentioned as being eligible for the award – Hugh, Elle, Shane, Bob, Kath and Kim, Richie, and, of course, Kylie (Rolf may have mentioned in dispatches, but he is currently tied-up with the British Courts of Justice). So far, only two of the four new honours awards available for the current year have been bestowed. The first, a dameship, went to the outgoing Governor General of Australia, Quentin Bryce (incidentally, Bryce is an avowed republican); the second, a knighthood, has gone to the incoming Governor General, Peter Cosgrove.
As would be expected, in time-honoured colonial fashion, Mr. Abbott sought and received the permission of the British monarch in order to re-install this aspect of the Australian honours system. The Prime Minister said the Queen had approved his recommendation to amend the Letters Patent constituting the Order of Australia. Some things do not change. It would seem that the normal “dubbing” ceremony at Windsor Castle will not be necessary. Australians are renowned for their eschewing of formality.
The re-introduction of knights and dames into the Order of Australia has had its critics. The Australian Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, said the move showed: “The government was rushing back to the 19th century.” Opposition Leader Bill Shorten (the son-in-law to the former Governor General of Australia, Quentin Bryce) added: “It’s good to see the government has a plan for knights and dames – where’s their plan for jobs, health and education? Australian Greens leader, Christine Milne, said Australia had gone socially backwards under Mr. Abbott’s government. “Bring on a republic,’’ she said.
There is no doubting that, for whatever reasons, there are those within both the British and Australian populations who are strong supporters of honours systems and lists. Historically, the vast majority of the honours’ recipients are “time servers” (civil servants, government people and the like) and those who already enjoy advantages over the rest of the citizenry. It would also include prominent sports and entertainment personalities, social celebrities and business entrepreneurs.
Of course, that is not to overlook those well-deserving citizens who have been accorded an honour by virtue of their community efforts and services in many walks of life, for example, education, local government and charitable/voluntary work. However, it is to be considered that, in rewarding services rendered for more altruistic motives, these motives may be devalued.
It appears to me that awarding honours, royal or otherwise to already successful and rewarded people is somewhat bizarre. If we – in the UK as in Australia – find it necessary or desirable to have an honours system, then it seems more opportune, relevant and fair to give the gongs (British slang for medals and decorations) as, more or less, consolation prizes for those who have tried hard but have not necessarily been successful. This could be one way of closing the values gap between the affluent, successful and highly placed and regarded and those who do not fit these categories.
It is also at least debatable that a royal honours list or system, such as exists in the UK, has links with the class divisions in society. I am reliably informed, for example, that if civil servants are nominated for a medal, their rank is brought into consideration. Lower grades get their MBE’s, middle grades their OBE’s and the top rankers get their CBE’s, CB’s and knighthoods.
The above paragraph calls attention to a more questionable aspect of the system of royal honours. They are still given the nomenclature of the now extinct British Empire (the BE in the above honours titles). One can, perhaps, understand this from a British perspective (we British do nostalgia better than most), but coming out of a “former” colony such as Australia, it seems to me to be quite out of context and anachronistic.
In a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph newspaper, the prominent television presenter and journalist, Andrew Marr, said that the honours system rewards wealthy people, such as newspaper editors, for jobs they enjoy. So, he says that he doesn’t want one. Though he admires the Queen – having made a BBC documentary about her – he said: “The one thing I still can’t get my head around is the honours system these days. It seems to me ridiculous that people should get honours for doing well-paid jobs they enjoy.”
Warming to this theme, he continued: “I think it’s absurd that people get an honour for being a broadcaster, or being a journalist, or being a newspaper editor, or fulfilling some important but routine job in government. I think it’s ridiculous that people get honours for being a successful footballer or DJ or rock star.” My admiration for Citizen Marr has grown.
Watching the ceremonies associated with the conferring of royal honours is like watching a piece of theatre from the past. It has been referred to as “the theatre of the absurd”. According to the playwright, Martin Esslin, “Absurdism” is “the inevitable devaluation of ideals, purity, and purpose”. Absurdist drama asks its viewer to “draw his own conclusions, make his own errors”.
In the drama of life, and with reference to the royal honours system, the description seems apt.
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