page loader

Published in The Cabberra Times and in On Line Opinion 16 January, 2012

Is there Merit in a Republic?
The man who slew the Republic.

What has John Howard in common with, Joseph Lister, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Edward Elgar, John Galsworthy, John Masefield, Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Bertrand Russell, Albert Schweitzer, Henry Moore, Isaiah Berlin, Kenneth Clark, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Leonard Cheshire, Sydney Nolan, Graham Greene, Mother Teresa, Tom Stoppard, David Attenborough, David Hockney and Nelson Mandela?

Nothing at all, except that they are all recipients of that very quaint British royal insignia, The Order of Merit. John Howard was invested on 1 January 2012.

According to former British diplomat, Stanley Martin, who has written an exhaustive and rather pompous history of the award, “The Order of Merit”, it was instituted by the dissolute, Edward VII on 26 June 1902. It was to have been the date of his coronation but instead he suffered acute appendicitis and his crowning, by necessity, was delayed.

Even Stanley Martin thinks Bertie an unlikely founder of the award, which sensibly he never awarded to himself – merit not being one of his strong points.

Bertie’s father said of him, ‘his intellect is of no more use than a pistol packed in the bottom of a trunk if one were attacked in the robber-infested Apennines’.

Bertie received inspiration for his award from his German relatives. In 1740 King Frederick II of Prussia instituted an award known as the Pour le Merite. It was an Order into which military officers and civilians could be admitted. In a portent of things to come, King Frederick William III, in 1810, decreed that the award should only be given to military officers. The award had a French name because in common with the Russian royal family, the language of the Prussian court was French.

The award was commonly known as the Blue Max, and was handed out to German pilots in WWI who shot down their British and allied counterparts. In any event, when Bertie’s brother-in-law, King Frederick III (father of Kaiser Bill) died in 1888, after a considerate 99 day reign, Bertie was a bit cut up and at the compulsory funeral, in conversation with his sister, decided to implement an equivalent British award. His mother, in common with other well known monarchs, was not as accommodating. Bertie , had to wait until 1902 and by that stage things were becoming a little competitive with nephew Bill, who was starting to strut his stuff.

The Statutes of the Order of Merit were promulgated on 23 June 1902. Stanley Martin says, “The Preamble, with all its royal flourishes, recites the authority of the Letters Patent passed under the Statutes…The Order of Merit is to have a Sovereign and one class of Members. That class is to consist of Ordinary and Honorary Members. The Ordinary Members are to be subjects of the Crown who:

may have rendered exceptionally meritorious service in Our Navy and our Army, or who may have rendered exceptionally meritorious service towards the advancement of Art, Literature and Science.”

There can only be 24 Members at any one time. Prince Philip and Prince Charles are both members; Philip because he is the royal consort and Charles because he is the heir to the throne and a conservationist, so already we see the merit thing being stretched a bit.

There is no doubt that many of the recipients are people of exceptional merit. However, one looks to see where John Howard might have achieved exceptional merit. So why was he recognised in this way by a foreigner, who also happens to be our head of state?

John Howard has not excelled in the Arts, Literature or Science, so a reason for his investiture must be sought elsewhere. Several Commonwealth Prime Ministers have received the Order of Merit, they are, Jan Christian Smuts of South Africa, William Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson and Jean Chretien of Canada. Reasons for giving the award are not provided but all of the above rendered a service by maintaining the influence of the crown. On this basis it would seem that John Howard’s claim to the award was his wrecking of the Republican Movement in Australia and saving the country for the Queen. Both in this and in accepting the award Howard has shown himself to have interests other than the Nation at heart.

Despite claims in the Australian media, former Prime Minister, supporter of the monarchy and admirer of the Queen, Robert Menzies, did not receive the OM. He did not increase or in any way save the influence of the crown. For his fawning and loyalty to the crown he received a Companion of Honour, was invested as a Knight of the Thistle and made Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, I kid you not.

I was of the school that the Queen was a harmless and dear old thing. She was a part of my life. As a child I waved flags as her car went past during royal visits. I thought she should be allowed to serve out her term before we once again looked at the question of the republic. Not anymore. She has shown that she is concerned above all else with preserving her influence and in this Howard connived with her.

Shackled as we are to a mouldering monarchy, burdened with past scandals and a feeble heir, Australia has little to be proud of. Lacking self-confidence we have been prepared to allow the United States to dictate our foreign and defence policies. We have a reduced vision of the future and our place in the world simply because we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves.

As a matter of course the Queen notifies the Prime Minister of the award of OM to a citizen. Although the award is the gift of the Monarch, as we have seen others can come into play. Stanley Martin says, “In the highly unlikely event of an ‘outrageous’ appointment, especially if it had political overtones, the Prime Minister could not realistically absolve himself from all involvement.”
Lloyd George successfully opposed the nomination of Gilbert Murray. Stanley Martin says, “Nevertheless, he was daring the King to over-rule his advice – and have it known that he had done so. No monarch could afford to do that, then or now.
A careful – and apparently successful – balance has therefore been struck between the Sovereign’s special rights in relation to the Order and the Prime Minister’s ultimate constitutional responsibility.”

It can safely be assumed that Julia Gillard was informed by the Palace of the intention to bestow the OM on John Howard and it can equally be assumed that she concurred in what I believe to be an outrageous appointment. Having acted with such blatant self interest Howard has, in my view, substantially pushed the envelope toward an Australian Republic.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, retired diplomat and supports a republic.