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Honouring Whitlam’s legacy in more than name

Gough Whitlam memorial
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A state memorial service in Sydney Town Hall is just the send-off Gough Whitlam expected, with the highest office holders in the land acknowledging the contribution of a man who did so much to shape it as a contemporary modern democracy.

Last month I had the great honour of receiving my Order of Australia from Sir Peter Cosgrove. Ditching the old imperial honours and replacing them with our own system was one of the reforms brought in by Whitlam. He believed it was time to bring our national constitutional arrangements and symbols in line with ourselves as a mature, independent polity. His dream was to see an Australian head of state, one of us, as the ultimate expression of that autonomy.

In pictures: Gough Whitlam’s memorial service

To set the ball rolling he rebadged the Queen of England as the Queen of Australia. Monarchists were delighted, republicans confused.

Julia Gillard at Gough Whitlam's memorial
Julia Gillard arrives with flowers at Gough Whitlam’s memorial service. Photo: AAP

His next pitch was to rid the nation of any suggestion we would be glorifying a bunyip aristocracy. So dames and knights went out the window. It took almost another 25 years for the republic to be put to a referendum vote. One of its most articulate and fierce opponents was the current prime minister, Tony Abbott.

The Abbott campaign portrayed the republican model on offer as the plaything of politicians and the elite. Curiously, monarchists argued the Crown of England, one of the most elite institutions on earth, was somehow a mystical safeguard of our democracy.

For 15 years after the success of the ‘No’ vote, the egalitarian style of the Australian honours system was left intact. Not even John Howard, Tony Abbott’s right royal ally and mentor, brought back knights and dames. This Prime Minister, despite assurances to the contrary, surprised the nation.

He imposed the title on the outgoing Governor-General Quentin Bryce, a republican. And Mr Abbott foreshadowed that, unlike other honours in the system, he alone, a politician, would decide who would receive it. He said the honour would be rare and seemed to reserve it for governors and judges.

What this has done of course is devalue the other ranks, and this caught out Peter Cosgrove at the latest honours ceremony.

Three exceptional Australians were appointed Companions (AC), until now the highest rank. The Governor General congratulated them on receiving the highest recognition the nation can give. He immediately recognised his error and corrected it: “Er, among our highest honours.”

Tony Abbott’s high-handed restoration of knighthoods has politicised the award system. A future Labor prime minister will abolish them again. So this blast from the past will not survive as long as his success in kyboshing the republic.

Gough would at least be grateful for that small mercy.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He is Contributing Editor for Network Ten, appears on Radio National Breakfast and writes a weekly column on national affairs for The New Daily. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

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