Game of thrones as Australian government seeks knightly distraction
Sydney Letter: reintroduction of knight and dame honours takes heat off corruption inquiry
Quentin Bryce inspects the Federation Guard during a ceremony to mark the end of her term as Australia’s governor general, in Canberra last month. Prime minister Tony Abbott subsequently announced that Ms Bryce had been made a dame. Photograph: Stefan Postles/Getty Images
The walk of shame to the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s offices on Sydney’s Castlereagh Street has in recent years been the almost exclusive preserve of state Labor MPs and their cronies. But a federal Liberal minister and his mates have now joined their ranks.
Senator Arthur Sinodinos has temporarily stepped aside from his position as assistant treasurer – Australia’s ministerial guardian of corporate governance – until the commission’s inquiry into the affairs of a company called Australian Water Holdings (AWH) has ended.
Having previously said he would be exonerated, Sinodinos gave nervy, unsure testimony to the inquiry last Thursday. He answered “I don’t recall” or “I don’t remember” to questions on 50 occasions, and drank several litres of water while in the witness box.
When it was put to Sinodinos that for his $200,000 (€135,000) salary at AWH he had worked somewhere between 26 to 45 hours a year, he replied: “Does that include travelling time?”
He also claimed not to have been aware of $72,000 (€49,000) in donations AWH made to the Liberal Party – despite being chairman of AWH and treasurer of the Liberal Party at the time.
Given that a good head for numbers is a prized skill in an assistant treasurer, some of his colleagues are already measuring the drapes in Sinodinos’ office.
The affair has taken the spotlight off the opposition Labor Party, which in recent weeks has seen both a former MP and former party president jailed for corruption.
At least Sinodinos has his Officer of the Order of Australia medal (which he got for service to politics and economics) to give him some comfort, but even that is looking a bit second best after prime minister Tony Abbott reintroduced knight and dame honours, which Labor has twice done away with in the past.
Labor leader Bill Shorten says he’ll get rid of them a third time when his party is back in power
. . . despite his mother-in-law, former governor general Quentin Bryce, having been made the first new dame.
Abbott acted unilaterally – without consulting his Liberal and National coalition colleagues – in restoring knights and dames. He said the honours are a “grace note” for Australian public life and that: “I think the prime minister is entitled to make these sorts of decisions with the monarch.”
That he did so would not surprise anyone who read his speech to Oxford’s Queen’s College 18 months ago, where Abbott spoke of flying back to his country of birth to take up a Rhodes scholarship in the early 1980s.
“When the plane bringing me back to Britain flew low up the Thames Valley,” he said, “and I saw for the first time as an adult Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London, I had a sense of belonging, not because I was born here, but because our culture was.”
The federal communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who is a former head of the Australian Republican Movement, gently mocked the back-to-the-future honours, saying 2014 was “an interesting time to see knights and dames coming back”.
Labor’s Sam Dastyari got loud laughs when he opened a speech to the senate with: “Hear ye, hear ye. My lord, lady and lieges, I’m shocked and horrified that people are ridiculing the bold and inspirational leadership of the people’s prime minister, Sir Anthony Abbott of Warringah.
“While some may claim that returning to knighthoods is taking the country backwards – I can think of no more important policy for our realm right now.”
Even former Liberal prime minister John Howard, who was a mentor to Abbott, let it be known he viewed the return of imperial honours as “somewhat anachronistic”. But the public may well be on Abbott’s side. In the most recent poll on the issue, 58 per cent of Australians supported retaining the monarchy, with 35 per cent supporting a republic.
In June 2013, after the senior barrister’s title of Queen’s Counsel was restored by the Liberal-National Queensland government, 70 out of 74 of the state’s senior counsels chose to become QCs.
Such changes point to Australians, despite liking to be seen as rebels against authority, actually being innately conservative.