January 28

Knights and Dames




…Titles are preferred…

“Getting a knighthood or being appointed a dame,” compared with being made a companion in the Order of Australia, “ is unmistakable,” declares D.D. McNicoll in The Australian on Australia Day (“Revive Sirs or I'll have your guts for garters.”)

He says an AC  is “pretty hot stuff officially” ranking  higher than a knight of the Order of the Bath, a knight of the Order of St Michael and St George, a knight of the Royal Victorian Order, a knight of the Order of the British Empire and a knight bachelor.

“But,” he says “ I'll bet most of the recipients would rather have that instantly recognisable "Sir" tacked on to the front of their names.” That is probably true of most, except the late Patrick White.  He angrily gave his AC back when Malcolm Fraser added knights and dames to the Order of Australia.

…But not chez Murdoch… 

What Mr. McNicoll says is not normally admitted in or near the Palais Murdoch in Holt Street Sydney. After all, did not the proprietor himself decline the customary peerage for British media moguls? From a writer who until now seemed to me a touch more republican than his father, the late and great David McNicoll, this is an interesting comment.

 (Incidentally, I used to subscribe to The Bulletin, but only to read David McNicoll père.  I don’t think I was alone.  I don’t think he was a republican –rather he was reluctantly resigned to what he saw as something inevitable. But he did not at all like what he termed the pressure-pack approach to rush us into a republic.)

The Australian in the nineties was so frenetically and urgently republican that it sometimes tottered into almost irrational behaviour. Dr Nancy Stone has cogently demonstrated[i], beyond any reasonable doubt that The Australian, outside of its quite legitimate editorial position, so strongly favoured the Yes case in 1999 that its reputation was compromised. But in this, it was little different from most of the nation’s “serious” media.[ii]

…but what Mr Rudd said was dynamite… 

It is fair to say that on this issue The Australian has since largely overcome this aberration. For example, a recent editorial (“Reality check time,” 23 January, 2008) challenges those in the chattering classes who want to make gubernatorial appointments a show-case for affirmative action and who repeat the tired mantra that this is the last Governor-General.

(A notable exception is the Hon. Bob Carr. He has called for the president to be styled the governor-general. As Justice Lloyd  Waddy said at the 1998 Constitutional Convention, “This is a Governor-General who is not a Governor-General, and we could not explain it when he was a Governor-General. But now he is not a Governor-General; he is really a president but we do not call him that because we do not dare to.”)

Unfortunately, the editorial is somewhat misleading on one crucial point. It  says that on the eve of the election Mr Rudd told Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan that a referendum on the republic was not a priority. He said much more than that. What he said was dynamite for republicans. Mr Rudd actually said that the republican referendum and others discussed would not occur  in this term, “if at all.”   If at all.

lèse majesté at The Australian, of all places?  

We tried to tell the letters editor this, to no avail. Surely, surely, it is not considered some sort of lèse majesté down at The Australian to point out that an editorial is factually misleading, even if unintentionally so?   We didn’t say, after all, that the editor doesn’t read his own paper.

Of course the editor still promulgates, which is his right,  the  bien pensant view that a referendum should happen sometime and a republic is inevitable. The editor warns that given the length of the process, a change to a republic could be more than five years away. Five years? The republican movement still can’t or won’t say what sort of changes they would make to the Constitution and the Flag.

…titles verboten!

But let us return to titles and The Australian. In its ultra republican years the newspaper even adopted a style guide which outlawed titles, so you had an opinion piece from, say, Harry Gibbs, “ a former Chief Justice “ of Australia. To the world he had long been “ Sir Harry Gibbs.”

The same is true of the great Sir John Monash, ( pictured) who was knighted on the battlefield by King George V.

He was thereafter forever Sir John Monash, and it was demeaning to see him in The Australian as " John Monash."  As if some journalist wanted to take his title away.

The policy became difficult with ecclesiastics. Why on earth would you strip, say,  His Eminence, Sir James  Cardinal Freeman  of those names which announced who precisely he was?  

That said, there has long been a prolific Canberra based letter writer to who seems to be able to reserve his “ Rev. Dr” form of address when he writes to the serious media.

… everybody knows what a Knight is…

As Mr McNicoll says, everybody knows what a knight is. And so it goes for Dames. As a Canadian observed , nobody outside Australia noticed or cared when Nicole Kidman became an AC. Had she been made a Dame, the world would have noticed.

I was surprised on Australia Day, in the main street of Fremantle, to see a boy of about 12 years   on one knee before a lady surrounded by a vibrantly happy group. Their accents were distinctly West Indian. The lady was holding a toy sword. She then dubbed him, with great dignity , on both shoulders, to the delight  of his family and the great amusement and no doubt approval of passersby.

Everybody, from the little boy to the oldest adult, immediately recognized that great and timeless act, entry into an order of chivalry.

That is part of being an Australian, part of our cultural memory. It is part and parcel of the collective memory of the people of our ancient Commonwealth, something which the Labour Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown has just emphasised.

David McNicoll clearly knows this.

 He says that while “most republican types probably cheered “ when new Knights and Dames of Australia  were “ I reckon it was a retrograde step.” He says that when the last Knights of Australia leave this world, “Australia will be a poorer place, and not just because of their passing.”

And so say all of us.  .  

[i] Dr Nancy Stone, “The Referendum Debate: A Note on Press Coverage.” The Samuel Griffith Society, Upholding the Australian Constitution, Volume 12, Chapter 9 ( 2000)
[ii] The Age was even more biased.  Both newspapers were also miserable in letting in opinion pieces supporting the No case – they published almost twice as many favouring the Yes case. Needless to say, most editorials in both papers favoured the Yes case, and a few were neutral. None of course favoured the constitutional monarchists. It must be conceded that The Australian was fair as regards letters, marginally favouring the official republicans, 8:7, while The Age actually favoured No letter writers, 6:5.  But as Dr Stone points out, in every week of the campaign, the newspapers overwhelming supported the Yes case. Indeed it was so overwhelming that both compromised their status as serious newspapers.


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