When Prime Minister Tony Abbott restored knights and dames to the Australian honours list in 2014, I said in an Age column that in the symbolic landscape of Australian civic culture, his move stood as one of the most pompous, pretentious, nostalgic and self-indulgent prime ministerial decisions in a generation.
Abbott got away with it. Imperial-era gongs were awarded to outgoing Governor General Quentin Bryce and her replacement, General Peter Cosgrove. Long-serving NSW Governor Marie Bashir was next in line. These champions of public service and community were warmly and rightly praised irrespective of the archaic honour they were receiving.
But the consequences of the Prime Minister's decision on Australia Day to add the Duke of Edinburgh to the list goes far beyond the rarefied air of national symbols.
It goes directly to the image of this country in its own region and the wider world. Since the 1960s both Liberal and Labor governments have set about abolishing these kinds of colonial anachronisms, whether it be by removing the words 'British subject' from the cover of Australian passports or replacing God Save the Queen with Advance Australia Fair as the national anthem. At every stage of this exit from Empire, leaders on both sides of politics have pointed to the more modern, outward-looking, self-confident idea of the nation that such changes project to the rest of the world.
Since that time, updating the trappings of nationhood has been inextricably linked with how Australia wants to be seen by both its regional neighbours and global partners. Prime Ministers from Holt to Gorton have all, in their own ways, made this connection.
So how does Abbott's decision square with his foreign policy ambition to look more to Asia than to Europe (more 'Jakarta than Geneva', as he once put it)?
It's an odd signal to send. Paul Keating used to fume about Australians carrying the symbols of yore – principally the Union Jack in the corner of the national flag – into the region. Going with the 'ghost of empire about us', he once commented, 'remains debilitating...to our destiny as a nation in Asia and the Pacific'. Keating's point, in essence, was that Australians had to be 'unambivalent' about who we are as a people and how we carry ourselves into the region.
So what will leaders and governments throughout Asia make of this decision? The chuckles and guffaws must be rippling through the cables being sent back to their diplomatic masters.
There is one precedent in recent Australian history that shines a light on the Prime Minister's bizarre decision, and that is the announcement in June 1963 by Prime Minister Robert Menzies that the unit of Australia's new decimal currency would be named the 'royal'. Just as in recent days, the reaction of the press was swift and relentless, producing a groundswell of popular disaffection. As Stuart Ward and I argued in our study of post-imperial Australia, The Unknown Nation, it was arguably the greatest public outcry of the Menzies era.
Sydney's Daily Mirror led the charge: 'What in fact we've been given for our new decimal currency', it roared, 'is the most outlandish hotchpotch of medievalism you could find in fact or fiction...The Federal government has leant so far backwards that it has tumbled off the ramparts and finished up in the moat, dripping with alien imbecilities. Today we stand bewildered, angry, humiliated, incredulous'.
Other newspapers were equally unforgiving. The Courier-Mail condemned Menzies decision as 'an antiquated throwback to medieval thinking', while the Age observed pointedly that the government had 'misjudged public opinion on this matter...like money, the currency of loyalty can be debased by excess'.
Comments elicited from a broad section of community leaders echo many of those made in reaction to Abbott's so-called 'captain's call'. The idea of naming the currency the 'royal' was 'not progressive', had 'no Australian flavour', was 'unimaginative and undistinguished', 'quite useless and purposeless', reflected a 'taint of colonialism' and would inevitably become a 'joke'. The president of the Victorian Housewives Association summed up the feelings of many: 'what a ghastly choice. It's so terrible it leaves me speechless'.
A poll by the Brisbane Telegraph at the time found 97.3% of respondents against.
To be sure, the Menzies Government's 'royal' decree was the outcome of months of deliberation and community consultation. Treasurer Harold Holt had personally headed the special Cabinet Committee assigned the task of naming the new currency, a position that enabled him to quickly put aside tongue in cheek suggestions such as the 'coo-ee', the 'sheepsback', the 'bonzer' and even – wait for it – the 'bobmenz'. One more serious candidate, 'austral', was disqualified due to the unfortunate but inevitable slurring that would be produced by multiples ending in the letter 'n' – thus 'fourteen Australs' spoken quickly risked becoming 'forty nostrils'.
But the choice of the 'royal' (over the other shortlisted candidate, the 'regal') was at Prime Minister Menzies' personal behest.
Holt himself, not unlike many of today's federal ministry, was embarrassed at the backlash. The public and political outcry in 1963 ultimately forced the Menzies Government to retreat. 'There can be no doubt', Holt said subsequently, with barely a hint of understatement, 'that we have made a very unpopular choice of name'. Cabinet then ended the controversy – after a particularly rancorous meeting – by adopting the 'Australian dollar'.
There are surely lessons here for the Prime Minister. He can now hardly repeal the honour he has bestowed on the Prince. But the public cynicism towards Menzies' decision on the 'royal' came when Australia was slowly and painfully emerging from Britain's shadow and trying to find a new post-imperial footing. How ludicrous it must seem to even the most impartial of observers today, then, to observe the Prime Minister's tumble into Menzian farce.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.