Yesterday, our Prime Minister pondered the relative merits of 22 million Australians, and decided that two men were worthy of our nation’s top honour – a widely respected military leader, and that Greek-Danish fellow who is married to the Queen.
In so doing, Tony Abbott ensured that the nation spent this year’s Australia Day discussing the merits of a nonagenarian who lives on the other side of the planet, instead of the person we would all have been discussing otherwise, Taylor Swift. Still, at least Rosie Batty got one evening atop our news headlines.
The decision has been met with a little criticism from the graffitists on social media, but in some respects, Prince Philip is a perfect choice. All of the other recipients since knighthoods and damehoods were reinstated have been vice-regal and/or members of the military. Philip is not only ex-military, but he’s so downright regal that he lives in Buckingham Palace.
Despite the ongoing gnashing of republican teeth, we are a constitutional monarchy, and the latest Knight of the Order of Australia is a key part of that, having ensured its continuity into the 21st century by fathering four children, a healthy 75 per cent of whom are not currently embroiled in an underage sex scandal.
But despite the pomp, nothing could be more democratic than Mr Abbott’s latest “captain’s call”, so-called because everything makes more sense with a cricket analogy, except when you recall that Australia’s cricket captains don’t in fact pick the team.
Australians were given a choice whether to dispose of our royal family in 1999, and overwhelmingly voted to retain it. Not only that, but we recently elected the former national executive director of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy as Prime Minister – and with a majority as whopping as any of Her Majesty’s estates.
Admittedly, Mr Abbott chose not to share his plans to reintroduce knighthoods and damehoods with voters during the campaign, presumably realising that it might have created some little distraction from his highly successful mantras about taxes and boats.
But our system is that our government gets to do whatever it likes, subject only to the Senate and the courts, before the public gets to review its contract. And besides, if we had been asked whether there was any chance of a man whose favourite TV show is widely known to be Downton Abbey opting to reintroduce an ancient heraldic tradition, who among us would definitely have ruled it out?
And even if we had, given recent governments’ attitudes to election promises, what would have stopped him deciding to do it anyway?
Prime Ministerships ultimately reflect their occupants. Bob Hawke smashed a beer while wearing the world’s most garish jacket and suggested that everyone chuck a sickie the day after Australia II won. Whereas Mr Abbott gave the Duke of Edinburgh a knighthood. Different men, different priorities. But we knew what they were into when we elected them.
Since we have chosen to be a constitutional monarchy with a monarchist leader, surely giving a knighthood to the Queen’s husband is an utterly unremarkable thing to do? He’s been our monarch’s consort for 62 years – more than half of our existence as a nation. He is already a Companion of the Order of Australia, our previous top honour, and his son Charles is already a Knight of the Order of Australia. The Queen’s rellos accumulate knighthoods the same way that Clive Palmer accumulates replica dinosaurs.
If Mr Abbott had wanted to do something truly unexpected, he could have emulated some of the residents of the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, and announced that henceforth, we’d be worshipping Prince Philip as a god. But a constitutional monarchy giving a knighthood to a man who already has three is about as surprising as American Sniper playing to big houses in Texas.
Despite the relatively small proportion of his 62 years beside our monarch which he’s spent here, there’s something deeply Australian about Prince Philip. Some have pointed to his history of what many have called gaffes and others might call especially robust examples of free speech in action.
But what could be more Australian than the odd moment of awkwardness when it comes to race relations? The Prince/Duke/Knight might not have entirely figured out what to say when he meets Aborigines, but our nation still hasn’t figured out how to deal with the day on which his knighthood was granted also being a day of mourning for many of Australia’s original inhabitants. And controversial gaffes are as enduring a part of Australian public life as Fred Nile.
When Tony Abbott reinstated knights and dames, he said that “this new award will go to those who have accepted public office rather than sought it”. Well, surely nobody has sought their office less than someone who was born a prince.