SYDNEY — When Britain’s Prince William and his wife, Catherine, arrived in Sydney last week for an official tour, they introduced Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, to their 9-month-old son, George. In return, the couple was greeted by Abbott’s creation: the Australian government’s first knight in 30 years, Sir Peter Cosgrove.
Last month, Abbott stunned the nation — and his administration — by revealing that he had asked Queen Elizabeth II to reintroduce Australian knighthoods and damehoods, honors that have their origin in the Norman feudal rule of Britain in the Middle Ages.
In a country that has been independent from Britain for 113 years, and is worried about the long-term costs of public benefits and the end of a mining and energy boom, the decision led many Australians to question Abbott’s priorities. The first recipients of the honors were head of state Quentin Bryce and her recently appointed successor, Cosgrove, a former army general.
Australia first abolished imperial honors in 1975. The prime minister at the time, leftist Gough Whitlam, believed that the class connotations were inconsistent with Australia’s egalitarian ethos.
All imperial honors were replaced with an “Order of Australia” awards system intended to symbolize the nation’s independence and confidence. Knighthoods were reintroduced in 1976 but abandoned seven years later.
The prime minister’s decision to revive them was derided by politicians and some media.
When Abbott appeared in Parliament this week, his opposition counterpart, Bill Shorten, hummed a few bars of “Rule, Britannia,” annoying Abbott, who complained to the speaker.
Another opposition politician, Sam Dastyari, dubbed Abbott’s administration the “Game of Tones” in a satirical speech to the Senate. “I’m shocked and horrified that people are ridiculing the bold and inspirational leadership of the people’s prime minister, Sir Anthony Abbott of Warringah,” Dastyari said, a reference to Abbott’s home constituency in Sydney. “While some may claim that returning to knighthoods is taking the country backwards, I can think of no more important policy for our realm right now.”
The mockery extended to Abbott’s party.
“There are many distinguished republics that have knights in their honors system. Guatemala, for example,” said Abbott’s main rival in the Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull, drawing laughter from the group of television industry executives he was addressing.
Recipients of the Order of Australia are entitled to wear small circular pins on their lapels that are sometimes mistaken for Rotary Club badges. The awards continue under the new system, although are ranked below knighthoods and damehoods.
Les Murray, the poet who wrote Australia’s version of the Pledge of Allegiance, said his Order of Australia is now less valued. “I have gone from a medal to a Scouts badge,” he said in an interview.
The prime minister, who studied at Oxford University, is a longtime royalist. In his 1995 book, “The Minimal Monarchy and Why It Still Works for Australia,” Abbott wrote: “In an age when little is built to last, a Crown that can trace its lineage back 1,000 years and — next to the papacy — is the oldest continuing institution of Western civilization, is indeed an anachronism. But perhaps it’s the kind of anachronism Australia needs to prevent the complete triumph of Kentucky Fried Culture.”
Announcing the new honors last month, Abbott, a conservative, said they would be for people of extraordinary achievement in public service who had not sought the limelight. “I believe this is an important grace note in our national life,” he told reporters.
It doesn’t appear that being named a knight has the power of old. Sir Martin Sorrell, a British citizen who is chief executive of the global advertising giant WPP, said in an e-mail that his was good for “restaurant bookings and airline seats.”
He was knighted by the queen in 2000. A few Americans have also been awarded British knighthoods, including presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, although they aren’t allowed to use the title, which is reserved for citizens of the British Commonwealth.
Some Australians were excited about the new knighthoods. University of Sydney law student Rachel Bailes, an activist for the Australian Monarchist League, had written to Abbott urging him to reintroduce the honors.
Her parents like to rib their 21-year-old daughter about her attachment to Queen Elizabeth II, to whom she refers as the “Queen of Australia.” Bailes thinks her parents’ generation lacks the national self-confidence to embrace the monarchy. “It was almost as though we had growing pains as a nation,” she said in an interview.
A poll in the Australian Financial Review newspaper last week found that most Australians don’t want knighthoods to return, but they don’t yearn for a republic either. Fifty percent of Australians oppose knighthoods, and 35 percent support them, the poll found, while backing for a republic is at 42 percent, the lowest level in 35 years.
Australians’ views on the monarchy are shaped by their close but sometimes strained relationship with Britain. In what some Australians still regard as a coup by a representative of the British monarchy, Whitlam was removed in 1975 by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr.
His replacement, Malcolm Fraser, reintroduced knighthoods, although they were officially a category of the Order of Australia. Fraser lost power in 1983.
The incoming Labor government abolished knighthoods once again. Over the following 30 years, the titles faded into obscurity as most of the knights and dames grew old and died.
Today, some 70 living Australians are allowed to call themselves sir or dame, including those who got the titles under the old system or from other countries. Up to four will be added every year. Unlike the Order of Australia awards, which are decided by a committee, they will all be chosen by Abbott.