Categorized | Australia, World

Abbott’s Princely Blunder Puts Monarchy in a Fix

Image by theglobalpanorama

Image by theglobalpanorama

It seems Tony Abbott cannot help but put himself in awkward positions. It has in a way been the story of his political career. From political blunders to public gaffes he is impressively error prone. But in the case of Prince Philip’s knighthood, does he deserve it? Or has the Australian mainstream media with its strong republican and often populist stances made too much of this?

For many, Abbott was a surprise choice for the liberal leadership. Considered too conservative to lead by many as a result of his staunch support of Catholic beliefs (he briefly trained for the priesthood), many expected then leader Malcolm Turnbull to retain the helm. Surprisingly, Mr Abbott won by the smallest of margins.

Fast forward five years, and one wonders whether or not they made the right decision. In all fairness, Abbott was a decent opposition leader. However, as leader of the country he has seemed positively robotic in front of the camera, which is not a trait that endears public figures to the Australian populace. Behind the scenes he has been accused of ignoring others on policy and, for some, the knighthood saga is indicative of this character flaw in Abbott. For others, it is the final straw.

This is something that many in both the Liberal party and outside must have realised. Until Mr Abbott ran for and subsequently entered parliament, he was the founding National Executive Director of ‘Australians for Constitutional Monarchy’, a society for promoting awareness and defending the role of the Australian Monarchy. He is by no means the first monarchist to lead the Liberals; John Howard was a monarchist, as was its founder and longest serving prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies. Abbott certainly won’t be the last.

Still, it’s the way that Mr Abbott has acted in his pro-knighthood stance that has caused controversy – even among those supportive of reviving the honour. When he originally reintroduced knighthoods for the Order of Australia early last year, it was revealed that he failed to consult the Cabinet. Given that he had originally declared he would not reintroduce the award, this merely added insult to injury. Unsurprisingly, Abbott’s decision to give a knighthood to Prince Philip, the Prince Consort of Australia and fifteen other Commonwealth realms on Australia Day, while only consulting the Governor General, left people reeling.

Abbott’s faux pas notwithstanding, this should not be used to diminish Prince Philip’s undoubted contribution to Australian life. Stationed in Sydney during World War Two, he has become a wonderful ambassador for the country, and even his many politically incorrect remarks have tended to increase his appeal to the many Australians. However, he is already highly decorated, and was already made a Companion of the Australian order in 1988 (then the highest rank of the Order of Australia). But it was the decision to announce the knighthood on Australia Day – a day where we celebrate our best and brightest – that has poured fuel on the fire. Could Abbott really not find any Australians (doctors, scientists or sportsmen) who were more deserving of this recognition?

So it was a poor decision, but in the great scheme of things, it is probably only a minor error of judgement. After all, with Mr Abbott making political blunders with his first budget, the knighthood is hardly something to lose sleep over. Unfortunately, it has unearthed a political divide that is never far below the surface in Australia: the Monarchy / Republic debate.

Many on both sides are somewhat perplexed as to why Prince Philip was knighted, but republicans within the media have been particularly scornful. This is nothing new. After all, both Fairfax and News Limited, the major news conglomerates in Australia, have a pro-republican leaning. The late Bill Deedes, a Conservative member of the UK House of Commons and former Daily Telegraph editor, once wrote in the aftermath of the 1999 Republic Referendum that he “had never before seen in any country such shameful bias” toward the republican cause at the expense of the aspirations and opinions of the Australian voter. Of course, with the demise of the republican argument and rising support for the monarchy with the high profile of Prince William and Princess Kate, many thought this debate was dead in the water.

Yet it is a debate that still lingers, despite public opposition and indifference. Ironically, Mr Abbott has thrown the ailing republican movement a temporary lifesaver. Even though opinion across the nation on the giving of knighthoods varies from region to region, a total of 70% in a recent study opposed the knighthood for Prince Philip.

The monarchy has been the central pillar of Australian society for 227 years. Removing it under any circumstance would be the worst mistake Australia could make. Unlike the experience in Canada, Mr Abbott has failed to make the monarchy a truly Australian symbol. It doesn’t help that republicans in years gone by have done as much as they could to reduce public knowledge of the Crown’s importance. However, Mr Abbott needs to change tact and strategy if the monarchy is to retain its allure in Australia.

Knighthoods have long been the most prestigious recognition for our best and brightest. The complete disaster and furore Mr Abbott has created over knighting Prince Philip could unfortunately consign knighthoods in Australia to the dustbin of history. In the long term, the temporary spike in support for a republic will drop as time passes. The voices continually agitating for needless change will mostly fall silent.

Overall, this whole fiasco brings into question how we present the monarchy as an Australian institution given our egalitarian nature and raises the question of whether or not royals should even receive knighthoods. One thing is certain though. Regardless of personal convictions, politicians should definitely not use the Crown for political advantage.

Image courtesy of theglobalpanorama

Jake Elson

About Jake Elson

Jake is studying politics and international relations at Edith Cowan University in Australia. He has a keen interest in Australian and Commonwealth history and is a soccer referee in his spare time.

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