During the last visit by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to Australia in 2011, I mused on what might happen if Tony Abbott was to become our prime minister. Specifically, I raised the possibility that as prime minister he may look to restoring titular honours to the Order of Australia.
In 1975, then prime minister Gough Whitlam advised the Queen to create the Order of Australia, precisely on the model of the Order of Canada - three classes, no titular honours, two with insignia worn around the neck. Next year, the Order was expanded to include the rank of Knight/Dame and the addition of a Medal of the Order. By default, Australia effectively then had an indigenous five class order, with titular honours reserved for the first (Knight/Dame) rank. The last Knight of the Order was created in 1983, none have been made since, and the means to create more were removed from the Order's statutes in 1986. Since 1990, when the awarding of imperial honours ended in Australia, no resident Australian has received a titular honour on an Australian honours list.
John Howard, prime minister from 1996 to 2007, acknowledged in his memoirs that there were strong arguments for restoring knighthoods in Australia, but did not as he felt he had "bigger fish to fry" in this space. Victory for the "no" case in the 1999 republican referendum (and binding the wounds on this issue in his party thereafter) is a good example. So although there was no action by conservatives for many years, they had never dismissed the idea - it just wasn't important enough.
Tony Abbott is likely to be the most traditionally-minded prime minister of Australia in this space for a very long time. Already, the epicentre of republicanism in Australia's public life, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, is sprouting new portraits of the Queen at its Canberra HQ. Abbott has reinserted allegiance to the Queen into the oath of office for ministers. Within a month of taking office, he has already hosted his first official royal visit - by Prince Harry. And at a state level, Queensland has also offered the QC honorific to existing Senior Counsel - with almost all but three or four taking up the offer. There are plans to replicate this federally too.
In this vein, then, it is hardly surprising that the PM is thought to be thinking about emulating his NZ counterpart John Key, and returning to titular honours. Spasmodic chat surrounding the Abbott camp about knighthoods was suddenly given public credibility when former foreign minister Alexander Downer recently wrote that he thinks the return of the accolade is a real possibility. My understanding is that people surrounding the Prime Minister have been trying to work out how this proposal should work, without referring it immediately to "PM&C" for advice for fear that they will undermine the idea, and worse still, leak it to journalists with a view to discrediting it. Media attention before Abbott was ready to move might give republican ministers within the Government time to try and stop such a move.
So what exactly should the changes be and how should they work?
I largely agree with Rafe Heydel-Mankoo that the New Zealand model should be closely copied, but I would add a political reason for this that Rafe alludes to but does not address directly. The genius of the NZ system is the Order of New Zealand. Its exclusivity guarantees its position as top of the pile, and its non-titular nature without any overt symbolism of the Crown on its insignia acts as a sop to republican elites not content with conceding defeat in the republican debate and accepting a title. Former PMs Helen Clark, Mike Moore and Jim Bolger are examples of this in action. It also reflects an older tradition of prime ministers in Australia and New Zealand both being made Companions of Honour (the model for the ONZ) while in office.
If the Order of Australia is to return to being a titular order, its best chance of surviving the inevitable return of a republican, Labor prime minister is to do the following. First, Abbott should create an exclusive, single-class Order like the ONZ or the Companion of Honour. Limit it to thirty people, and if necessary, overload it at the start with former Labor politicians to give it credibility with them. This should reduce some of the pressure on reverting to a non-titular Order of Australia because the most senior award will already bring with it no title.
Second, I would change the statutes of the Order of Australia to make it possible for a conservative state government to continue awarding knighthoods while there was a Labor federal government. If the Order of Australia is intended to be a federal Order, with states able to make nominations directly to the Order's council, then this should be reflected in who can be admitted to what level in the Order. Canberra should not "own" the Order of Australia - or else a subversive state government could theoretically go down the path of state government honours, similar to Canada, if its wishes were blocked. I consider this to be an unattractive option, and I suspect I am not alone in thinking that.
All of this is essentially speculation - but as the saying goes, where there is smoke, there is fire. People I know close to Abbott have been puffing like chimneys about this on and off for a few years now. One or two of the people most enthusiastic about the idea are the ones you would least expect, I'm told. It's amazing what one's own looming retirement from public life can do to one's outlook on these sorts of issues. It also confirms my view that making knighthoods instantly available to republican elites would, all things being equal, do much to secure the monarchy's future indefinitely. Ultimately, that is the reason I would like to see this happen.
So - as they say, watch this space. Let's see what has been announced by Australia Day, or the Cambridges' visit by the latest, shall we?