Edmond Leighton, The Accolade (1901)
Almost a decade after they were abolished, in 2009 knighthoods and damehoods returned to the New Zealand honours system. Five years later, in 2014, they were also restored in Australia, reversing a trend towards the disappearance of titular honours across the Commonwealth of Nations. Although Australia and New Zealand are culturally similar in many ways – including cherishing an ideal of egalitarianism – opposition to the reinstatement of titles was considerably fiercer in Australia. Potential explanations for this divergence include the structure of the two countries’ respective honours systems, the personal popularity of their prime ministers, and the different political histories of honours in each nation.
Disagreement over the suitability of titles of honour is not new on either side of the Tasman; such disputes have occurred for well over a century. This paper explores attitudes to titles in the Australasian colonies during the 1880s and 1890s – a period commonly associated with a growth in radicalism and nationalism in Australia – and investigates in particular recurring themes in the tone and content of discussions about knighthood. The use of titular distinctions was regularly debated in the colonies, and they were evaluated in terms of ideas about egalitarianism, democracy, nationalism, and imperialism. Through an analysis of common discourses in debates about knighthood in nineteenth-century Australasia, the paper seeks to provide a historical background to contemporary opinions of titles in New Zealand and Australia.
Karen Fox is a Research Fellow at the National Centre of Biography and a Research Editor for the Australian Dictionary of Biography in the School of History, Australian National University. She has published widely on the history of honours in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, and is currently researching a book on the history of the Australian honours system.