Australia’s pro-republic Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Monday scrapped knights and dames from the nation’s honours system, less than a year after a furore sparked by the award of a knighthood to Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a staunch monarchist, reintroduced the antiquated honours in 2014, provoking criticism that he was out of touch with public sentiment. Abbott was ousted by Turnbull in a party coup in September.
The politically disastrous decision to give Prince Philip the nation’s highest honour, Knight of the Order of Australia, on Australia Day, has been cited as the beginning of the end for Abbott.
The decision to scrap the honours by Turnbull, a former head of the national republican movement, may be interpreted as a signal of his willingness to revisit the thorny question of Australia’s relationship with the monarchy.
“The prime minister announced today that Her Majesty the Queen has agreed to the government’s recommendation to remove knights and dames from the Order of Australia,” Turnbull said in a statement.
“The Cabinet recently considered the Order of Australia, in this its 40th anniversary year, and agreed that knights and dames are not appropriate in our modern honours system.”
Others who received the honours were governors general Quentin Bryce and Peter Cosgrove, former air chief marshal Angus Houston and New South Wales state governor Marie Bashir, which Turnbull has said they will retain. Queen Elizabeth is Australia’s largely ceremonial head of state, but has the power to approve the abolition of parliament, which last happened in the controversial 1975 toppling of Gough Whitlam’s government.
Australia’s sometimes strained relationship with the British crown came to a head in a 1999 national referendum, when almost 55 percent of Australians voted against breaking with the monarchy, defeating Turnbull’s republicans.
A poll this year on behalf of the Australian National University showed that public support for a republic has fallen further since the referendum, while the royals’ popularity has risen.
Support for a republic stood at 54 percent, down from 66 per cent in 1998, according to the telephone poll of 1,200 people conducted by the Social Research Centre in March, before Turnbull took office.
But Turnbull’s move into the leadership has buoyed the hopes of republicans eager to revisit the issue in a fresh referendum, despite his ranking of the faltering economy, not the monarchy, as his government’s top priority. Prince Charles and his wife Camilla are expected to receive a warm welcome when they visit Australia and New Zealand next week.