There’s Nothing Like a Dame (or a Knight)

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the two titles “are not appropriate in our modern honors system.”

He's still a knight. She's still head of state. (Andrew Brownbill / AP)

Australia is dropping knights and dames from its list of honors.

“The Cabinet recently considered the Order of Australia, in this its 40th anniversary year, and agreed that Knights and Dames are not appropriate in our modern honors system,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a statement.

He said Queen Elizabeth II agreed to the recommendations to remove the titles from the Order of Australia.

Australia is a former British colony and the queen is its head of state. Turnbull had previously campaigned—unsuccessfully—to turn Australia into a republic.

The government’s decision comes a year after Tony Abbott, Turnbull’s predecessor as prime minister, reintroduced the two honors and granted a knighthood to Prince Philip for his “service and dedication.” That decision was widely condemned in Australia—the media labeled it a “knightmare”— and was seen as a factor that contributed to Abbott’s ouster in September as leader of the center-right Liberal party and, consequently, as prime minister. Abbott later conceded that the decision to honor Prince Philip had been “injudicious.”

As my colleague Matt Ford reported at the time:

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 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.

Australian republicans, who support dropping the queen as the head of state, welcomed Monday’s decision.

Peter FitzSimons, who heads the Australian Republican Movement, called the move a “relief for Australia.”

“Good on the prime minister,” he told Australia’s ABC, adding he believed the announcement would be the first in many moves away from the monarchy.

Australian monarchists, however, criticized the decision.

“The scrapping of knighthoods ... gives all who value constitutional security and stability cause for concern that this is just the beginning of another campaign of republicanism by stealth,” the Australian Monarchist League said in a statement.

Australia dropped the system of awarding knighthoods and damehoods in 1976. The titles were reintroduced, briefly, in 1986 before being dropped again. Abbott brought them back last year. Still, the monarchy remains popular in Australia, and Monday’s decision does not affect existing knights and dames—so Prince Philips’s knighthood is safe.