A number of important aspects of the Prime Minister’s return to the inclusion of Knights and Dames in the Australian Honours system have been overlooked in ways it’s generally been discussed. People have referred to in terms of whether it’s recognized overseas, whether it’s consistent with international norms, whether it’s sexist, and whether it’s part and parcel of monarchism and our continuing ties to the United Kingdom and the British monarch. I don’t think it’s really about any of these things.
What’s being missed is what makes these types of honours so distinctive, what makes them an example of how power is exercised. Think about it: there’s a huge difference between Christopher Pyne AO and Sir Christopher Pyne. It might seem trivial, but it’s actually very significant that the lingusitic marker is placed before a person’s name instead of after it – Sir Paul Hasluck, Dame Nellie Melba – because it forces everyone around that person to behave in a particular way. They have to adjust their language, changing how the person is referred to in a way that sets them aside from everyone else much more definitively than some letters after their name. It’s much more ‘in your face’. It sets up a power relationship between the Sirs and Dames and everyone else, turning them into attention-sucking celebrities, with all that entails.
It also makes this particular type of honour more desirable, a trophy for which people will be willing to make a range of concessions. The second dimension of the power dynamic is that it strengthens the hold that the ‘powerful central actor’ – in past, the monarch, today in Australia, the Prime Minister – has over the surrounding elite, or aristocracy. Knighthoods were always about Kings and Queens keeping their aristocracy close to them and a little less likely to march against them. It’s Game of Thrones alright, it’s about how to manage powerful elite groups that can help or hinder whatever a king – sorry, Prime Minister – is hoping to achieve. Yes Minister had a nice episode on how it works, Doing the Honours.
John Adams, American Founding Father, the first US vice-President and the second President, understood that honours systems were all about channelling people’s limitless passion for recognition and attention. In 1805 he wrote:
“It is a principal end of government to regulate this passion [for the esteem of others], which in its turn becomes a principal means of government. It is the only adequate instrument of order and subordination in society, and alone commands effectual obedience to laws, since without it neither human reason, nor standing armies, would ever produce that great effect. Every personal quality, and every blessing of fortune, is cherished in proportion to its capacity of gratifying this universal affection for the esteem, the sympathy, admiration and congratulations of the public. Beauty in the face, elegance of figure, grace of attitude and motion, riches, honors, every thing is weighed in the scale, and desired, not so much for the pleasure they afford, as the attention they command.”
Recognition’ is at the same time ‘regulation’. Abbott’s understood that the old system of honours can fit quite well with the other system of honour and recognition with which we also have an ambiguous relationship – celebrity. I say ‘can’, because the trouble is that Australian public culture is more egalitarian than it is in England, and the move away from knights and dames has become seen as part of Australia’s coming of age as a nation, so it still has a bit of a backward step feel about it.
But if Abbott does pull it off, it’s an indication of the power of celebrity, nothing to do with the monarchy.