Abbott honour roll

Quentin Bryce accepts royal gong on behalf of the Oz republic.

By Lyle Dunne

I don’t think many of us think it wrong to honour those who have performed honourably with honorifics.

Maybe I’m slow, but initially I missed the delicious irony of Tony Abbott’s surprise announcement to revive the titles of “Sir” and “Dame” under the Order of Australia.

My first reaction was to question what this was intended to be a distraction from. Were the government embarrassed about the sale of Medibank Private? Shorten’s critique was essentially that, while the government had shown there was no reason to expect premiums to rise, they could not prove that premiums would not rise – surely not the sort of thing they would lose sleep over.

What, I wonder, would constitute “proof” that would satisfy Bill Shorten? The track record of government business enterprises internationally? The fact that premiums are directly controlled by government?

I’m sure he wouldn’t understand the objection to the government’s regulating a market in which it’s a competitor.

Were they concerned about criticism over amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act? Frankly, I suspect that few people are really concerned about the fact that, while vilification and intimidation would remain illegal, it would no longer be against the law to hurt people’s feelings. Certainly this argument appears to have convincing enough to secure the numbers to ensure the passage of the amendment through the Senate.

(I’ve been thinking about the notorious Andrew Bolt case in this context. Some further remarks are appended below.)

So it seems clear that the timing was about more about the retiring Governor-General, now Dame Quentin Bryce, than anything else happening in Parliament.

I got that persuading the retiring Governor-General, a known (and injudiciously self-declared) republican, to accept the first such title would take the wind out of much of the inevitable criticism.

But only after a day or so did the penny drop: it would be difficult for the Leader of the Opposition to mount a coherent criticism of the honours system when the first of them had just been accepted by his mother-in-law!

(He may have overplayed his hand, however, with a remark about Shorten in the subsequent debate in the House of Representatives:

If only he had the class of his mother-in-law, that’s all I can say,

- which of course had to be withdrawn. This is a little ironic, because “class”, of course, means something quite different in the ALP, and the implication that one was of a lower class would ordinarily be considered high praise – ALP members desperately aspire to be seen as working class.)

Sure enough, Labor’s reaction – and that of the Greens – has been to mount an incoherent critique.

They have been reduced to the line, repeated ad nauseam, that it’s old-fashioned. Indeed, we’ve had a long list of outmoded comparators: Cortinas, vinyl records – even, from some over-excited ALP hack, the return of slavery.

(My wife’s reaction to this last piece of hyperbole was that it indicated how out-of-touch Labor was: slavery is alive and well in Australia — primarily in the sex industry — and in other “civilised” countries like Britain and the US, despite films like Amazing Grace and Lincoln celebrating its abolition.)

And of course we had the inevitable references to John Howard and white picket fences.

But I don’t think most Australians regard this as a very telling criticism, and I don’t think many of us think it wrong to honour those who have performed honourably with honorifics.

I suspect that Abbott’s statements about the numerical restrictions on the awards, and the effective exclusion of politicians, will do much to quell suspicions that it would be used to reward “mates”. (I’m less certain about the proposition that Governors-General should get them automatically – but perhaps it would broaden the appeal of the job.) And I don’t think fair-minded republicans would generally reject such a system on the basis of limited links with the monarchy.

I haven’t seen any polling on these specific questions, but I note a couple of examples that are broadly analogous.

  • apparently barristers are strongly of the view that they would rather be Queen’s Counsels than Senior Counsels, and several States are moving in that direction
  • a recent Victorian Upper House report suggested that members should be chosen by optional preferential voting (hear, hear!) — and styled “State Senators”.

In fact, I’ve often thought that the title “Senator” could be retained by former Senators, as an acknowledgement of service rendered. An honorific for members of the House of Representatives is a little more challenging, but may be worth considering.

Personally, having observed a little of the behaviour of our politicians in the last week before the Easter break, I think that anything which reminds them of the dignity of their office shouldn’t be ruled out.

Especially if it costs nothing.

Bolt revisited

On re-visiting the Bolt case in the context of proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act, I was struck by some aspects that I haven’t really seen discussed, which have implications for the current debate.

The Bolt article questions the basis for classification of Australians as Aborigines, its application in particular cases, and the motivation of those concerned in seeking to be classified as Aboriginal.

Bolt’s views may be wrong, but it’s not clear to me that they’re in any sense racist.

In my view, racism is essentially the claim that one race is in some way inferior to another; it is not racist (though it may be pointless) to express a view about how race should be classified, eg what combination of ancestry, self-identification and community recognition should be used, and how much of each is enough. Nor is it racist to disagree with someone’s view that they are (or are not) Aboriginal — although it’s almost certainly futile, especially if self-identification is a major factor.

The only way to avoid these sorts of divisive and distasteful arguments (more typically associated with universally-condemned regimes of earlier centuries) would be to remove race as an explicit basis for entitlements. (Of course, this would not preclude programs based on combinations of remoteness, poverty, health status, language and traditional association with the land, even if all the beneficiaries were in fact Aboriginal.) This would have the added advantage of doing away with any accusation that someone was falsely claiming a racial status for personal gain.

If those concerned considered that they had been accused of misrepresenting their status for personal gain, there are legal avenues available to them for redress.

Meanwhile, even this questioning of people’s motives is in my view not racist – though it may be bad manners, or even defamatory, as it might be to allege someone was falsely claiming to be medically qualified, unemployed or disabled for personal gain.

Thus if those concerned considered that they had been accused of misrepresenting their status for personal gain, there are legal avenues available to them for redress. But with the law as it now stands, it’s perfectly understandable that they would choose the lower bar of having to demonstrate essentially that their feelings were hurt in relation to a question of race.

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