'Time has killed British Australia but has not yet put much in its place.' So wrote an ambitious young journalist in the commemorative edition of The Bulletin published in 1988, marking the Bicentenary of the First Fleet's arrival in Sydney Cove. This week Tony Abbott, who has since graduated from the press pool to the prime ministership, seemed intent on single-handedly reviving its corpse.
Of course, Australia has always been sluggish at enacting what Donald Horne described as 'the final casting off' from its former colonial master. The word 'British' appeared on Australian passports until the Whitlam era. 'God Save the Queen' survived as Australia's national anthem well into the 1980s, long after the public had indicated a preference for Advance Australia Fair. It took until 1993 to remove references to the Queen from the oath of Australian citizenship. Elizabeth II, barring some unforeseen political upending, will end her reign as the Queen of Australia. Her face will continue to adorn the $5 note for the foreseeable future, just as her blurry profile will remain on the dollar coin.
However, the return of these knightly trappings marks something new. The long and anguished process of detaching Australia from Britain – or 'consciously uncoupling', to deploy the phrase of the moment — has seemingly been put into reverse.
Tony Abbott has actively sought to strengthen the sentimental and constitutional bond. Thus, at a time when the country is overhauling its antique founding document so that it finally recognises indigenous Australians, the prime minister is figuratively wielding the yellow fluorescent marker pen to highlight the constitution's opening line: 'Whereas the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and under the Constitution hereby established.'
His intention is to celebrate Australians, of course, but he has done so by reviving a colonial relic, and bestowing what feels still like a distinctively British honour.
In some ways, the surprise move is reminiscent of Robert Menzies' audacious attempt in the 1960s to rename the Australian pound the Australian royal, a gambit met with scepticism and mockery even then. The difference this time is that, for all the jokes and guffaws, the writ of the prime minister will hold sway.
The question germane to readers of The Interpreter is 'Does this matter in the international sphere? Is it a gesture of diplomatic significance?'
Given how few gongs will be bestowed – only four per year – an argument could be mounted that this is trivial. Nobody outside of Australia will probably even notice.
But notice they have already. Even as attention focused near myopically on the search for the missing MH370, the international media has been unable to resist the temptation to lunge at such low-hanging fruit. Globally, it has made Australia in the Asian Century look more like Australia in the British Century. It reinforces the sense that the one-time executive director of the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy views his country through sepia-tinted spectacles, and prefers the world as it was rather than as is.
In terms of positioning Australia, it also adds flesh to the bones of a speech he delivered in December 2012 at his Oxford alma mater, Queen's College (inevitably), an oration which became known as the Anglosphere speech.
'China, Japan, India and Indonesia are countries that are profoundly important to Australia,' the then opposition leader noted. 'Size, proximity and economic and military strength matter. Of course they do; but so do the bonds of history, of shared values, and of millions of familiar attachments.'
Abbott also insinuated, more controversially, that Anglo-culture was pre-eminent: 'Western civilisation (especially in its English-speaking versions) provides our comparative advantage among the cultures of the world'. His knight move is a further sign that he believes Australia should remain resolutely Western rather than becoming more Asian.
To prosper in the Asian century, as it has done already, Australia need not radically alter its national identity or shed its Anglo-centric heritage. It is more a case of being receptive to Asian influences, and signaling a greater willingness to engage, not just economically but mentally. That is the problem with the restoration of knights and dames. It could be interpreted as a statement of regional separatism; a sign that Australia's new prime minister is still wedded to the land of his birth and post-graduate education rather than the region he inhabits now.
He sent the same signal when Prince Harry traveled to Australia for last year's international fleet review. Delivering his own variation on Menzies's famous 'I did but see her passing by' encomium, he enthused: 'I regret to say not everyone in Australia is a monarchist, but today everyone feels like a monarchist.'
Tony Abbott entered office claiming that his approach would be more Jakarta than Geneva. This heraldic scheme may send a contradictory message: that his view of Australia is more Buck House than Beijing.