The 2012 New Years Honours List from the Palace brings news that former Australian prime minister, John Howard, has been made a member of the Order of Merit by the Queen.
General information on the OM can easily be found on the web and so will not be canvassed here, but the appointment of Mr Howard to the Order deserves further consideration.
In Australia, there is a tradition of senior honours being bestowed on those that have reached the apex of public life. Since the office has been "localised", three governors-general (two of whom also served as foreign minister) have been made made Knights of the Garter. Sir Robert Menzies, Australia's longest serving Prime Minister, was made a Knight of the Thistle in 1963. Sir Owen Dixon, regarded as Australia's greatest jurist, was made OM, also in 1963.
No Australian has received a knighthood on an official Australian list since 1990. The last knighthoods from the Royal Prerogative to be bestowed on Australian residents were the KCVO on Sir David Smith in 1992, and the Garter on Sir Ninian Stephen in 1994. It seems that Australia and Canada both now share the Order of Merit as the most senior honour in public life.
Now, John Howard has joined this exclusive group by being made OM - only the second Australian involved in statecraft ever to be so. It is not necessarily an endorsement of his policies, but it is a statement by her that she considers him a first-rank political figure. Given her sixty years on the throne, she has met more successful political figures than anyone else on the planet. Howard's OM is high praise indeed.
The sad fact of course is that no former Labor politicians have been so recognised, although there have been worthy candidates. This is less to do with the Queen, than the Australian Labor Party's strict, unyielding position on the honours system and its support for a republic occasionally turning very nasty and personal. For example, Jack Egerton, a Labor stalwarrt from Queensland was expelled from Labor in the 1970s for accepting a knighthood. Paul Keating's views are also well known on the matter of a republic.
Pleasingly however, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard has congratulated Mr Howard on his appointment.
Former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke would be a worthy recipient of the OM (uniquely, he held the AC before entering parliament). But it is not unreasonable for the Queen to avoid giving such prestigious, intimate honours to people who have publicly and repeatedly said that they disapprove of her office.
For so long as Australia is a constitutional monarchy, and the Australian Labor Party obliges its members and leaders to promote its republican platform regardless of what they may think of it privately, it will forever be diminished and absent from the highest reaches of public life. This is not an argument for changing the Constitution - after all, like its competitors, Labor is a mere political party, not a constitutional institution. The Constitution should never be changed for the convenience of a particular political party.
This situation will only change if Labor senses it no longer needs to invest emotionally in a republic, either by its members or its leaders. Time will tell.
In the meantime, congratulations to the Hon. John Howard, OM AC SSI.