Monday, March 31, 2014

The sexism of Tony Abbott - and the anachronism of Letters Patent

In all the discussion about the reintroduction of "knights and dames" to the Order of Australia, the inherent sexism has been ignored.

When a fella gets awarded a knighthood his wife gets to call herself Lady. Hence Sir Frank and Lady Packer. When a person of the other gender gets the equivalent honour they are called a Dame - but their partner remains just plain Mister.

So there is rampant sexism here - not just in having different titles - but in the implications for the partner of the awardee.

It makes one wonder why some other form of gender neutral honorific couldn't have been chosen by the Prime Minister. The honorific many of us are familiar with is "the Honourable". As Peter Hartcher reported today Quentin Bryce having no other title (being neither a former politician, judge or soldier) would have reverted to being just plain "Ms." But that was fixed last year, the Honourable Quentin Bryce was staying the Honourable Quentin Bryce.

It could be that the Prime Minister thought something better than "the Honourable" was called for as lots of politicians get called "the Honourable" and it has confusingly different application around Australia.

The alternate possibility was to revive and redefine the term "the Right Honourable". This historically refers to members of the Privy Council, but it would seem to be an appropriate title to be given for life to the people the Prime Minister proposes to give the knighthoods and dameships (?) to.

But here is where it ALL gets interesting. We see the reference to the May Gazette being about a decision of the Queen to bestow the title "the Honourable". We see also that knights and dames snuck back in by "letters patent" by Her Majesty.

Isn't the Order of Australia is an Australian honours system, notably NOT an Imperial honours system. It turns out that it is not "imperial" in the sense that OBE's and GBE's were an honours system of the empire (created in World War I), and there are a few others that are the personal gift of the queen. That's why the Order of Australia website says "Imperial honours (except for a few which are in the personal gift of the Queen) are no longer awarded to Australians."

See it turns out that the whole of the Order of Australia is created by Letters Patent, first issued by the Queen on the advice of Gough as PM in 1975.

So just to be clear, Troy Bramston gets it wrong when he thinks the decision to create knights and dames deviates from the Queens view in 1990 that Australia should stick to its Australian honours system, with her as sovereign. We still are, she just changed the rules on the advice of her Prime Minister. She would not  accept a recommendation from a State Governor/Premier to make an award in the Order of the British Empire, though the letters patent for that probably still apply.

So what the are these "Letters Patent". That old reliable Wikipedia calls them "a form of open or public proclamation and a vestigial exercise of extra-parliamentary power by a monarch or president. Prior to the establishment of parliament, the monarch ruled absolutely by the issuing of his personal written orders, open or closed."

Here it is important to understand sequence. In 1975 using Letters Patent by the Queen to establish the Order of Australia made sense. It makes absolutely no sense following the passage of the Australia Act which aimed to cut direct governance powers from the UK.

Bill Shorten last week made clear that the ALP has opposed Imperial Honours from 1918 - the year after the Order of the British Empire was created.  It was the ALP that adopted the Statue of Westminster in 1942, that introduced the Order of Australia in 1975 and passed the Australia Act in 1986.  It is time the Platform was updated to also pass legislation removing Her Majesty's power to issue Letters Patent with respect to Australia, and that the monarch of Australia not be the "sovereign" of the Order of Australia and instead the people of Australia represented by the Parliament and the Governor-General be the creators of the honour. Similarly the decisions about the use of the honorific "the Honourable" and 'the Right Honourable" should belong to Australia's parliament not our absentee monarch.

In a twittersation with Troy he has disputed my assertion that he is wrong in his article. I haven't seen the original 1990 letter but there are three points in the article made about it.

The first is "it is more appropriate at this stage in Australia’s development that Australian citizens should be recognised exclusively by an Australian system of honours, of which she herself is proud to be sovereign" - this proposition still holds as the knights and dames to be awarded are within the Australian honours system of which the Queen is sovereign.

The second is "The Queen suggested Australia 'honour its citizens exclusively within its own system'." This also still holds as the knights and dames are awards within the Order of Australia.

The third is "Moreover, she indicated she no longer thought it appropriate to ­approve Australian honours, which Abbott has reinstated." This is the only point on which it is arguable that the Abbott decision formally deviates from the Queen's view. This is because the award of knighthoods will be made by the Queen on recommendation of the Prime Minister.

In my original post I indicated that I thought Bramston wrong to claim about the use of the Australian honours system exclusively. That is the claim he leads with and it is wrong to assert it.

Bramston is technically right on the assertion that the Queen's view was that she should have no role in determining Australian honours. But really my point is that if we were serious the legislative basis for the Australian Honours system would not be Letters Patent.

It is also important to remember the context of the Queen's advice - which was about State Governments making recommendation for knighthoods under the Order of the British Empire and this was the Queen's plea for there to only be the Order of Australia. It wasn't specifically a commentary on the award of knights and dames within the Order of Australia, It is impossible to conclude from the letter that "While Abbott has, with the Queen’s consent, reinstated knights and dames within the Order of Australia, she clearly saw the titular honours of knight and dame as, well, passé." Were she to do so she wouldn't be doing it in the UK, New Zealand and other places.