When former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on Australia Day in January that he planned to offer knighthood to British Prince Philip, many Australians were so shocked they figured it was a joke.
Philip, who is the Duke of Edinburgh and married to Queen Elizabeth II, in 2002 publicly asked a group of Australian aborigines if they still threw spears at each other. The gaffe has since haunted him with a shaky reputation in the onetime British colony, where aborigines were killed and displaced by the British during the occupation.
But Abbott wasn’t kidding, and this year’s recommendation to knight Philip, which allegedly occurred with no consultation within Abbott’s political party and was a seen as a favor to the queen, contributed to the embattled prime minister’s downfall in September, when he was dramatically ousted by his own communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Last April, the queen officially named Philip a knight of the Order of Australia in a ceremony at Windsor Castle.
And on Monday, less than six weeks after the political ambush that pushed Abbott out of office, Turnbull eliminated the very laws that allowed Philip to be knighted in the first place. Those who have already been named knights or dames, including Philip, will not have their titles revoked.
“This reflects modern Australia,” Turnbull told reporters Monday. “Knights and dames are titles that are really anachronistic; they’re out of date, [and] they’re not appropriate in 2015 in Australia.”
Australia adopted its own honors system in 1975 and introduced the knight and dame awards in 1976. Those awards were eliminated in 1986 and then brought back by Abbott in 2014. Because Australia runs on a parliamentary system, Queen Elizabeth II is technically the country’s head of state and thus the only one who could appoint knights and dames after they are recommended by the prime minister.
That was seen as a conflict of interest in the case of Philip, who was knighted by his wife. Within Australia, the move to knight a member of the British royal family was interpreted by members of Abbott’s political party as outdated and colonialist.
One of Australia’s biggest-selling newspapers, the Australian, derided the decision to knight Philip and in an editorial called it “a symbol not just of another time but another country.”
“With the odd decision to ennoble a member of the British monarchy, Mr. Abbott gives those who would lampoon him a right royal charter,” the editorial said. Another daily newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, said it was as though Abbott was “caught in a bygone era of deference to the old country.”
In February, Abbott admitted he “probably overdid it” and said he would be sure to consult on such decisions in the future. Last month, around two weeks after he was forced to step down, Abbott admitted again that the decision was “injudicious.”
But some Australian monarchists see Monday’s announcement as a point of revenge for Turnbull, who led and lost a 1999 push for a referendum to establish Australia as a republic.
Turnbull on Monday said that issue was not a top priority for his administration and that he was happy to move on to more important topics. But David Flint, who heads Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, used it to accuse Turnbull of focusing on the trivial matter of the question of knighthood so early in his prime ministership.
“It doesn’t surprise me that [his] first change in policy is on this issue and not on one of substance to the Australian people,” Flint said Monday. “Seizing the prime ministership was never about changing policy; it was about personal ambition.”
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