Friday, April 11, 2014

Bunyip Aristocracy

Aristocracy, as the Philosopher says, is the rule of the best; to-day, we have representative democracy, whereby certain elite groups compete to receive the fabled popular mandate. Tolkien said that he would prefer unconstitutional monarchy – and rulership of the sort displayed in his fiction, which seemed to mean that day-to-day affairs were almost unaffected by any government at all, most of all in the Shire, seems an excellent suggestion in these days of creeping totalitarianism. O for the days when the tithe was all the tax we paid!

Wentworth was lampooned when, in the debates before New South Wales (and several other Australian colonies) attained responsible government in the 1850's, he proposed an hereditary Upper House, after the model of the Lords in London (not of Lord's in London). This was thought ridiculous, a bunyip aristocracy of jumped-up Rum Corps profiteers and squatters, as odd as a platypus and about as useful.

But since our Prime Minister has fittingly restored knighthoods in the Order of Australia, our own home-grown system of awarding merit in right of the Crown, it amuses me to speculate on yet further prime ministerial largesse, should a Menzies-like longevity attend his time as the Queen's First Minister Downunder. Just what would an Australian peerage look like?

Peerages these days are titles and nothing else: I seem to recall that the last time a nobleman used the privilege of trial by his peers – the House of Lords – was back in the fifties or earlier; rights such as personal access to the Sovereign have fallen into desuetude; and the right most associated with power and authority, that of sitting in the House of Lords, has been taken away – only ninety or so hereditary Lords (elected by polling the peerage) still ornament that chamber named after their number. Of course it all went downhill when the mitred abbots were removed at the Reformation…

No rival to the Senate is proposed; merely that the particularly great and good (let's be honest, those great in donating to worthy causes, such as political parties, as well as those actually or merely seemingly good according to this world's passing standards) ought get not merely a knighthood but a dukedom. After all, who doesn't like Downton Abbey?

Having inquired to a very small degree, I find the surviving aristocracy of the Old Country has a little over eight hundred members (including Irish titles). For some reason, there are almost 70% more earls than viscounts, despite viscount being a lesser title than earl (then again, the name of viscount is a Continental importation, as is marquess, a rank for those not really suitable as dukes); otherwise, there are very roughly half as many peers in each succeeding rank, from the 450 barons (or Scottish Lords of Parliament) to the 24 non-royal dukes.

Now, as Australia has about one-third the population of the British Isles, it seems fair and proportionate to imagine a future local meritocratic peerage of about 280 members, allotted in proportion to state and territory populations, allowing each state at least one (so Tasmania would one day have a duke – no, not that impostor the Duke of Avram, a former state parliamentarian – even though our population is so small). I spare gentle readers the calculations; suffice it to say that Her Majesty would be asked to ennoble sufficient persons of merit that this nation gain 10 dukes, 19 marquesses, 36 earls, 71 viscounts and 143 barons…

Succession to these peerages would, of course, be open to the oldest child or nearest relative regardless of gender (a fraught issue these days in any case), unless, say, Countess Greer would wish to place her earldom off-limits to males. And it would be a matter for ecumenical consultation to see how Catholic and Anglican bishops (and abbots) would be ranked alongside the Lords temporal. Do cardinals outrank dukes?

I predict that, whatever the whining of lefties and the cultural Irish (it pleases me to imagine the outpourings of bile at the ABC), it would be quite remarkable how many fervent republicans would snap up the titles on offer; and titles would be all they would be, in plain truth, so how cheap and cheerful a present to offer to leading persons - it could help Lord Carr get an upgrade on Emirates from business to first class, for example, lest he suffer, poor man. After all, the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition was fairly muted in his criticism of knighthoods, since his mother-in-law was the first to receive one and is now a Dame.

I would retain but one restriction corresponding to the very nature of the British nobility - as they cannot sit in the House of Commons, not being commoners, neither should any future Australian title-holders be permitted to hold elected office (needed, a declaratory Act to this effect): thus Clive, Marquess of Coolum, would have to relinquish his seat in the House of Representatives upon his accession to so titanic a dignity; but of course he could still manipulate his and another party's Senators behind the scenes, in the best tradition of the Whig and Tory aristocrats of old. Many likewise would rejoice at a peerage for Senator Abetz, not least his colleagues.

Finally and most nobly, in parallel to their British titles, the members of the Royal Family could each receive a royal dukedom here: Charles could be fittingly created Duke of New South Wales (for like a Botany Bay convict he's certainly doing his time, if not in exile, yet in waiting for the throne so many years), Philip Duke of Queensland (a nice pun, that), Anne Duchess of Victoria (fittingly for a female descendent of that monarch), Andrew Duke of Tasmania, Edward Duke of South Australia, William Duke of Western Australia (full of Poms as it is), Harry Duke of the Northern Territory (given his wild adventures), and dear little George Duke of the Australian Capital Territory – how fitting for our future King George VII, long may he one day reign.

I assume there is no need to pass legislation to enable all this fantasy, since the Sovereign is the fount of all honour and it would need but the respectful advice of the Prime Minister to move the Crown to issue the patents of nobility of some bunyip aristocracy. Unlike the American, our Constitution does not forbid such grants being one day made; and Malaysia, for example, has not merely its several state sovereigns, but an elected monarch and also titles of honour and nobility, so we would be but better inculturating ourselves into the Asian area – is not Thailand, too, a monarchy? Japan an Empire (I mean, a land with an emperor)? and Brunei the equivalent of a grand duchy? does not a Sultan still reside at Yogyakarta and hold court? – by developing our own analogues to such titles.

We nowadays solemnly recognise the fabled Dreamtime, its Rainbow Serpents and mythic creatures, in ritual moments opening civic and state occasions; likewise we love and retell tales of the bunyip and the banksia men; we mock not but value the platypus and the echidna, lament the passing of the Tasmanian tiger, and emblazon the kangaroo and emu as the supporters of our national coat of arms (as neither animal can walk backwards).

Forwards then to such a future, towards a true culture of entitlement!


Kate Edwards said...

Yes but you failed to mention the greatest attraction of all for such a system, namely Duke Howard of Bennelong.

And should we base ourselves on that now debased model? Personally I think we should dump the unrepresentative swill of the current Senate for a more representative appointed one. Works perfectly well in other countries like Canada...

Joshua said...

It goes without saying that a peerage for former Prime Ministers - to keep them from ever coming back to office - would be de rigueur. However, P.M.'s if not already peers or sons thereof were usually created Earls or Countesses; the Duke of Wellington won his title for defeating Boney, long before he took the reins of government. Churchill was offered the title of Duke of London, but declined as his son wanted to enter Parliament and would have been disqualified when he acceded to the title on his father's death; I can hardly imagine Howard wishing to out-do Churchill.

A far better title for our former PM Howard would be Earl of Tampa...

Joshua said...

As for the Senate, there is no constitutional reason why all Senators should be elected from the whole State voting as one; each State could be divided into either two electorates (each returning three Senators at the usual half-Senate election), or three (each returning two), or six (each returning one).

This, combined with the introduction either of count-backs (as in Tasmania's multimember electorates) or of by-elections (if the Senators were chosen from single-member electorates), would exclude that odious invention of recent decades, the party hack appointed* to the Senate at the resignation of a Senator of the same party.

(*Technically elected by the State Parliament, but in practice this but rubber-stamps the party nomination.)