In this ‘Out of the Cabinet’ series, Canberra writer Ian Warden immerses himself in the Cabinet records of the 1983 Hawke Government, and highlights policy decisions that captured his imagination. In this issue, he reveals how Cabinet ended the damehood dream of Australia’s most famous housewife.
There are some deeply shocking revelations about our national treasure Dame Edna Everage in Barry Humphries’ authoritative 2010 biography, Handling Edna. Perhaps the most shocking of all – worse, even, than the discovery that she had a dalliance with Frank Sinatra – is that she is not a genuine dame at all!
Australian knights and dames
More of the Humphries’ revelations in a moment. But first, in the 1983 Cabinet records of the Hawke Government recently released by the Archives, we get a glimpse of the Australian political climate that made it next to impossible for Edna to achieve the authentic damehood she craved.
The records show Cabinet deciding, on 14 December 1983, to abolish the existing practice of creating Australian knights and dames under the Order of Australia system. Cabinet also decided to strengthen and enhance the utterly Australian honours system.
That system, the Order of Australia, had been brought in by the Whitlam Government on 14 February 1975. Whitlam’s Order of Australia abandoned Australian knights and dames – in fact, abandoned titles altogether.
But after Whitlam’s government lost office later in 1975 the more imperially attuned Liberal government of Malcolm Fraser restored an upper level of knights and dames to the Order. This return to the imperial ‘way we were’ was controversial and some early recipients of awards in the Order of Australia, including author Patrick White, resigned from the Order in protest. This was the existing state of affairs in December 1983.
Australia’s identity and status
Minister Kim Beazley’s submission asked that the guidelines of the Order of Australia ‘be amended to remove the Knight/Dame level’. Beazley argued that there should be an ‘early resolution’ of these matters because Labor’s platform, taken to the March 1983 election, had promised ‘No Imperial honours or titles to be granted but appropriate recognition be given for exceptional national or community service’.
‘The aim’, Beazley submitted, ‘is to ensure that Australian honours and symbols appropriately reflect Australia’s identity and status as an independent nation’.
A matter of honour
To be clear, what Beazley asked for and what Cabinet agreed to was not quite the end of Imperial honours. In December 1983, Cabinet was discussing the abolition of those Order of Australia honours, knight and dame, that to some ears (but not to Dame Edna’s) had a funny old Imperial, un-Australian ring to them. It was already Hawke Government policy, announced soon after the election victory of March 1983, not to nominate Australians for British honours.
This had been notional Australian Labor Party policy since 1918. Then in 1975 the Whitlam Government took a great leap towards achieving this Labor dream by introducing the Order of Australia system. This didn’t wholly ban the awarding of British honours to Australians but it did help intensify a mood for change. The authors of a 1995 review of the Australian honours system noted that this shift in public opinion was ‘probably fuelled by the perceived overuse of the system for political reasons in the 1950s and 1960s’ – 18 members of the first Menzies Cabinet were knighted or appointed Privy Counsellors.
Australia’s chronic shortage of dames
So Mrs Everage’s cravings for damehood came at an unpropitious time for her. It was a time, Humphries reports in his biography of the Dame, when ‘Australia was very short on Dames due to a creeping republicanism, and we only had Dame Joan Sutherland’.
But, he continues, ‘Edna had taken to calling herself “Dame Edna” ever since a socialist Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, had in jest addressed her as “Dame Edna” during the filming of a documentary. Edna had leapt at the title, insisting [untruthfully] that the Queen had ratified the honorific’.
What Humphries saw as the ‘creeping republicanism’ of Labor governments in the matter of honours is there in the mood and tone of the December 1983 Cabinet submission and decision. And yet, decisive-sounding as the 1983 decision sounds, nothing was done immediately. The Order of Australia provision for the creation of knights and dames wasn’t abolished until Australia Day 1986 when the Hawke Government ushered in a comprehensive system of Australian honours and awards.
And it wasn’t until October 1992, 17 years after the first institution of an Australian system of honours, that Prime Minister Paul Keating was able to announce that the Queen had agreed that no Australian federal or state governments should ever again recommend Australians for British honours.
But by then all of this could have been of only academic interest to Dame Edna, who had somehow long since achieved unofficial Damehood, all against the creeping republican tide.