‘Knightmare’ takes Australian PM to the brink

An honour: Tony Abbott’s decision to award Prince Philip a knigththood has caused derision. © PA

Australia’s Tony Abbott is fighting for his political life after awarding Prince Philip a knighthood, while Fiji is ditching the union flag. Is it time to abandon such colonial relics?

Today may be Tony Abbott’s last day as Australia’s most powerful person. His former allies have turned against him, the press have made him a laughing stock and his public approval ratings are an embarrassment. Now he is facing a parliamentary vote to determine whether he will remain as prime minister.

Abbott’s crisis has many roots. He has made a string of verbal gaffes and overseen disastrous policy failures on everything from university fees to parental leave. Last week his party suffered a ‘rout’ in regional elections. But the issue that has done more to put Abbott on the ropes than any other has little to do with his policies: Abbott is in trouble because of his undiluted love for the British royal family.

Last year, Abbott resurrected Australia’s old tradition of awarding British-style knighthoods. That decision was controversial enough in itself: Australian knighthoods had been abandoned in 1986 in favour of an honours system less reminiscent of the British Empire. Then, two weeks ago, on Australia’s national day, Abbott announced that one of the first recipients of the new knighthood would be Prince Philip, consort (or husband) of Australia’s head of state Queen Elizabeth II.

Social media exploded with derision and disbelief. One commentator compared the decision to ‘giving Richard Branson’s wife their frequent flyer miles’, while another implied that Abbott was bringing the country back to ‘the 18th century’. Even cabinet ministers questioned whether the ‘knightmare’ was a hoax.

Is this reaction a sign that Australia is falling out of love with the relics of the British Empire? If so, it is not the only former British colony to be moving away from its imperial past.

Last week, the Fijian prime minister announced his intention to remove the union jack from his country’s flag. It is ‘time to dispense with colonial symbols,’ he said, and to celebrate Fiji‘s status as ’a modern and truly independent nation state’. New Zealand, too, will hold a referendum on its British-derived flag this year.

Sunset for the empire?

Some people in former Commonwealth countries find it ludicrous that their national identity is still tied to that of the UK. Imperial relics like knighthood, monarchy and the union jack are antiquated remnants of an irrelevant institution, they argue. A country’s national symbols should reflect what makes it independent and unique.

But others defend the old colonial connection, Tony Abbott among them. No nation should ever forget its heritage, they say. Whatever we may think of the British Empire, it is a fact of history that left an indelible mark on the world. It is better to acknowledge that truth than brush it under the carpet.

You Decide

  1. Are national traditions valuable simply because they are old?
  2. Does the British Empire have any relevance to the modern world?


  1. Design your own system of honours for recognising people who have served society in important ways. What would the award be called, and what kind of people would be eligible to receive it?
  2. As a class, think of as many national traditions as you can belonging to your country. Take a vote on which ones you would like to keep.

Some People Say...

“The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.”

Mark Twain

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not Australian. Why should I care about this?
The place of the old British Empire — now Commonwealth — in the modern world is an important question for Britain and all its former colonies — not just Australia. Imperial traditions still have a huge impact on Britain’s place in the world: its imperial past contributes to its prominent position in global diplomacy and also, some say, is part of the cause for Britain’s ambivalence about the EU.
What about for other countries?
Many former colonies retain Britain’s legal framework and have parliamentary institutions that echo those of their former colonial master. And the Commonwealth of Nations promotes trade and cooperation between former imperial territories — although some question whether the association is still relevant today.

Word Watch

Tony Abbott has been caught on camera saying things that have been construed as sexist and homophobic. On one occasion he appeared to make light of the death of a soldier.
Head of state
The British monarch is currently the head of state in 13 countries throughout the world, the largest being the UK, Australia and Canada. In 1999 Australia held a referendum to replace the monarchy with a republic, but the proposal was rejected by 55% to 45%
Union Jack
A flag composed of a combination of the banners of the patron saints for England, Ireland and Scotland. Some historians argue that the flag should only be referred to as a ‘Union Jack’ when it is on a ship, but this is disputed.
A small Pacific nation famous for its beautiful tropical environment but plagued by ethnic and political divisions. The current prime minister led a coup in 2006 but was elected fairly last year — although critics still suspect him of harbouring dictatorial ambitions.

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