Do titles have a place in an egalitarian society?

By KAREN FOX

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it looked as though the sun was setting on the institution of knighthood and its comparatively young female counterpart, damehood.

New Zealand had abolished the titles in 2000, Australia had ended the use of its home-grown version in 1986 and the imperial form in 1992, and Canada had led the pack by rejecting them as early as 1919.

Even in their ancestral home in Britain, a select committee in 2004 suggested they be phased out within five years.

But we've now seen something of a revival of the titles of Sir and Dame, which not only continue in existence in Britain, but have been restored in both New Zealand (in 2009) and now Australia in 2014.

Australia's honours system derives from the much older British one.

In the nineteenth century, residents of the Australian colonies received membership in orders of chivalry such as the Order of the Bath or, after it was reorganised as a reward for service in the colonies in 1868, the Order of St Michael and St George.

The number of Australians honoured increased considerably after the Order of the British Empire was created in 1917, to reward the many people who had contributed to the war effort during the First World War.

Importantly, the Order of the British Empire was the first major honour to admit women, bestowing the title 'Dame' on those granted membership of its top two grades.

Suggestions for a uniquely Australian national honour began soon after Federation.  In 1911 one idea was an 'Order of the Wattle Blossom'.  

But it wasn't until 1975 that a national honours system took shape, under Gough Whitlam's Labor Government. Its key component was the Order of Australia, modelled on the Order of Canada, with three grades of Companion, Officer and Member, and no titles.

After Malcolm Fraser took office as Liberal Prime Minister, two new levels of award were added - knighthoods and damehoods, and a medal.

The move created some controversy and four members resigned from the order, including author Patrick White, who said adding titles was "really quite contrary" to the concept of  "a democratic order".