The Knighthood Makes a Comeback in Australia

Why has the country's prime minister revived an old imperial institution?

Northern League members dressed as crusading knights in Lombardy, Italy in 2011. (Alessandro Garofolo/Reuters)

Australia will create knights and dames this year for the first time in the 21st century, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced in a surprise move on Tuesday. A staunch monarchist, Abbott plans to name up to four Knights and Dames of the Order of Australia per year, starting with Australia's outgoing governor-general Quentin Bryce and her replacement Peter Cosgrove (the governor-general is the Queen's representative in the country). Future bestowments will go to "Australians of extraordinary and preeminent achievement and merit," according to the plan.

Australia's political and media establishment quickly reacted to the unexpected announcement with snark. "Sure as knight follows dame, Tony Abbott's going to take us back to the good old days," claimed opposition Labor Party MP Ed Husic. "I think [he] wants to play Marty McFly." During the prime minister's question time on Wednesday, opposition leader Bill Shorten and other MPs began audibly humming "Rule Britannia," angering Abbott. The speaker of the house ejected some MPs from the chamber for disorderly laughter.

Australian newspapers joined in, with The Courier-Mail depicting Abbott and Bryce in the style of black-and-white photographs of yore:

Many former British colonies abandoned the "imperial honors system" and created their own national orders of merit and recognition, including the Order of Australia in 1975. "While in past centuries knighthood used to be awarded solely for military merit, today it recognizes significant contributions to national life," explains the British monarchy. "Recipients today range from actors to scientists, and from school head teachers to industrialists." No Australians have become knights or dames since 1983.

The prime minister's move comes during a turbulent period for his government, which took power after last September's elections. Australia's attorney general, George Brandis, awkwardly declared that "people have the right to be bigots" during a Senate debate this week on the government's plan to repeal parts of the Racial Discrimination Act. Last week, the government's assistant treasurer stepped aside amid a widening corruption probe in New South Wales. "The focus on this right now shows the government has its priorities all wrong," said Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek in a radio interview.

The move also threatens to re-open a national debate about the future of the monarchy. Australian Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a prominent leader of the country's republican movement, which wants to abolish the monarchy, tried to assuage the fears of fellow republicans by observing that "most countries have an honours system and many of them have an order of knighthood," including France, Italy, Peru, Argentina, and Guatemala. France still calls its lowest rank in the Légion d'honneur "chevaliers" despite abandoning monarchy in the 19th century, for example.

But while some republics do retain modernized forms of knighthood, traditional knighthoods are exceedingly rare. Today, only Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and now Australia—all realms of Queen Elizabeth II—maintain honors that entitle recipients to the honorific "Sir" or "Dame." Foreigners can also be made knights and dames in the Order of the British Empire but can't use the honorific, and they swear no allegiance to the Queen.

Foreign heads of state are the most frequent recipients of these highest awards, which can cause controversy. Elizabeth II stripped Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's autocratic president, of his honorary knighthood in 2008 for his abysmal human-rights record. Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu also lost his honorary British knighthood on Christmas Eve in 1989 during the bloody Romanian revolution, one day before his execution by a revolutionary tribunal.

"This is not Game of Thrones," Green Party MP Adam Bandt told reporters on Tuesday. "It shows a government bereft of ideas, and a social policy that isn't even stuck in the last century, it's stuck centuries ago."

The United States—a republic with a strong anti-monarchical and anti-aristocratic tradition— honors distinguished Americans and foreign citizens with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and other lesser awards. Article I of the Constitution forbids establishing any "title of nobility" in the United States and bars U.S. citizens from accepting offices and titles "from any king, prince, or foreign state" without the consent of Congress. Even the president of the United States is simply called "Mr. President," although John Adams briefly proposed the title "His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties." It didn't stick.

Other anti-aristocratic measures in early American history went even further. A proposed constitutional amendment approved by Congress in 1810 and ratified by 12 states between 1810 and 1812 would have stripped Americans of their citizenship for accepting a title of nobility or honor without congressional approval. As it remains pending before the states, the amendment's ratification by 24 more legislatures would make it part of the Constitution.

As one might expect, Australia's republicans have been some of the fiercest critics of Abbott's announcement. "This is turning the clock back to a colonial frame of mind that we have outgrown as a nation," said David Morris, national director of the Australian Republican Movement, in a statement. The country's republican movement is perhaps the strongest of its kind in any of Elizabeth II's 16 realms, but it hasn't achieved much success. In 1999, a national referendum to replace the monarchy with an elected president failed at the polls, with 55 percent of voters rejecting it. Since then, republican support has only declined. A January poll found that just 39 percent of Australians favored abolishing the monarchy—a 20-year low.