Friday, February 13, 2015

The slide of a Prime Minister: why the knighthood?

The downward trajectory of PM Tony Abbott was sharpened by the announcement on Australia Day that Prince Philip would be given a (recently-resurrected) Australian knighthood.

This had a spillover effect on the Queensland State election a week later, and was undoubtedly the deciding factor in putting the opposition over the line.

Abbott survived a party-room vote for a leadership spill, but has been left with the certainty of a harrowing descent from top dog to oblivion before the next election.  He had been consistently on the nose with the electorate ever since he was elected, demonstrating his opposition skills did not transfer to actual leadership.  He has clearly not grown with the job, as recent media attested.

The biggest puzzle here is: why did Abbott give Prince Phillip a knighthood?  The following is the only rational explanation I can find.

First, a brief history.  Australia’s own honours awards were established in 1975; prior awards to Australians were under the British system.  However, it wasn’t until the conservative Liberals were elected in 1976 that knighthoods were awarded.  These lasted only until 1983, when Labor abolished knighthoods again.  The next conservative PM (Howard) didn’t re-establish them, but Abbott, a long-time monarchist, did in 2014, after a gap of 30 years.

This was “advised” to the Queen, signed and gazetted from April 2014.  Honours are awarded in June (the “Queen’s Birthday” public holiday on the second Monday in June) and January (Australia Day, the 26th).

Clearly, to give Prince Phillip a knighthood, it would have to be squared with the Palace in advance, say four months.  My thinking is that Abbott effectively gave him a knighthood at the first available opportunity.  But the question is, why?

I suspect that as a monarchist, Abbott had such a plan from way back.  He may have felt that the republican sentiment of recent times was a little close to the bone, and the best way to draw back from that was to bring the monarchy closer to Australia.  A royal tour, yes, and we’ve had two since Abbott was elected.  But if a Royal with sufficient gravitas was knighted, surely that would bring the two countries closer together?  Of course, this excludes the younger ones who inhabit the pages of the gossip magazines.  So who’s available?

Surprisingly enough, Charles was given an Australian knighthood, in 1981 – possibly in anticipation of his wedding.  So there’s a precedent.  Can’t do the monarch, so who’s left?

Now Phillip’s not that bad.  Harmless, shows he has a sense of humour.  And if he’s a bit of a duffer, surely the larrikin in the typical Australian will warm to this as we draw him closer to us.

So the plan was put in train as soon as possible after Abbott became PM in September 2013.

However, that didn’t allow for Abbott’s poor reception with the voting public – which only compounded when his actual policies floundered (and foundered) at the hands of a less-than-sympathetic Senate.

Sometimes, when faced with unpopularity, Abbott spoke glibly of his prerogative to make “Captain’s calls”.  Come January 2015, he didn’t want to lose face with the “Palace” by withdrawing the Sir Prince proposal, so he figured he’d just have to grit his teeth and take a tiny bit more flak for one more Call.

He must have known it was a stupid call, because he admitted to “consulting” only one other person beforehand: the Chair of the Order of Australia Council – Angus Houston – who, as it happened, was the only other Australian whose knighthood was announced for the same day.

In the cloistered world of his own opinion, Abbott may have thought Australians would put up with this Captain’s Call with few grumblings, especially since the electorate had apparently voted in favour of monarchy in 1999.  But the depth of the subsequent backlash must have surprised many.  Even within his own party, a significant groundswell of opposition was publicly voiced.

Australia has a strong tradition of not electing governments for a single term only.  However, the Victorian election in November gave the lie to this, and the Liberals were booted out.  Surely this couldn’t happen in Queensland, where the Liberals comprised 78 out of the 89-seat parliament, and Labor had been reduced to a rump of seven?  Although one might expect a backswing at the next election, but not normally such a reversal that the Liberals were defeated.

So my story is one of a Prime Minister who came from a presumption of prerogative, then later felt he couldn’t lose face with the Palace and back down from a risky move, even at a dangerous time.  It speaks to a particularly autocratic leadership style, one that is not inclined to the consultative.  This is reflected in both his Captain’s Calls, and his strong affinity to a chief of staff (Peta Credlin) who is by all accounts particularly capable, but just as authoritarian – even to Cabinet Ministers.

There is no Get Out Of Jail for Abbott by now.  His several electorates have stopped listening, and the slips he is still making are not being indulged.