The fastest growing demographic in Australia is the 65 years and over group which has increased from 11.9 per cent in 1995 to 15 per cent in 2015 and in that group those aged 85 and over have increased by 1.1 per cent to 2 per cent in the same period.
Yet one group – almost entirely in the 65 years plus group – is declining and the rate of decline is accelerating.
They are the holders of knighthoods and dame-hoods. At last count there were 49 Australian knights (excluding baronets who inherit their title) and a mere nine dames alive. This lasting disparity reflects how woefully unbalanced the awarding of these honours to women were in less enlightened times.
Of the knights, 12 are 90 years or older and a further 25 are in their 80s. The oldest is Sir Lenox Hewitt, 99, the former secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department under PM John Gorton (1968 – 1971) and later Chairman of Qantas. He will turn 100 on May 7, 2016.
The youngest is Sir Jonathan Mills, 53, who, although an Australian, was knighted in 2013 by the British Government. He is a celebrated composer and festival director who lives in the United Kingdom. Political strategist Sir Lynton Crosby, 59, is another Australian who was knighted by the British Government in 2016 and the Australian born Sir Chris Clark, 56, is professor of History at Cambridge University was knighted – again by the British Government – in 2015.
The most recent knight, and probably the last, is Angus Houston, 69, the former chief of the Defence Force. He is properly known as Sir Alan Houston – he was dubbed Angus by his Australian workmates after he migrated from Scotland aged 21.
Former prime minister Sir Robert Menzies had two knighthoods – the Knight of The Order of the Thistle awarded when he was PM in 1963 and, later in retirement, he was created a Knight of the Order of Australia.
However, our most distinguished knight is former governor-general, Sir Ninian Stephen who is 93. He not only received a knighthood from the Order of Australia but also the most senior level of knighthoods, the Order of The Garter which is a personal gift of the Queen.
All Australian knights prior to 1983 on the Commonwealth Government list were created under the British Imperial honours although these Imperial honours were continued by the Queensland and Tasmanian Governments until 1989. One of the first things incoming Queensland Labor premier Wayne Goss did on being elected in December, 1989, was abolish the 1990 New Year’s Honours List created by the outgoing National Party government.
The Australian Honours system was established in 1975 by Labor PM Gough Whitlam and, in 1976, Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser introduced knights and dames into the Order of Australia. These knighthoods were discontinued in 1986 by the Hawke Labor government but briefly reintroduced by Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott in 2014 and 2015 before being abolished again by PM Malcolm Turnbull.
Between 1976 and 1986, there were 12 Australian knights and two Australian Dames created while in 2014 and 2015 there were five awards for two women and three men.
Two foreigners have been awarded a knighthood of the Order of Australia – Prince Charles in 1981 and his father Prince Philip in 2014. In both cases the Queen had to sign Letters Patent to amend the Constitution of the Order of Australia as neither her husband nor her eldest son are Australian citizens.
Of the nine living dames, the oldest is Dame Beryl Beaurepaire, 92, a charity worker and Liberal Party activist. Two of the living dames, Dame Janet Ritterman, 74, a former director of the Royal College of Music and Dame Val Beral, 69, a celebrated medical researcher at Oxford University live in the UK although both are Australian born.
The most recent dames, created in 2014 and probably the last, are Dame Marie Bashier, 85, former Governor of New South Wales and Dame Quentin Bryce, 73, former Governor General.
Several important honours remain the personal gift of the Queen meaning that she does not have to consult the Australian Government if she wishes to award Australians. There are a total of nine such awards and four of them bestow the title of Knight or Lady/Dame.
In 1990 after his retirement as official secretary to the governor-general David Smith, now 82, was created a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order – one of the “Queen’s Gift” honours. He is chiefly remembered for reading, on the steps of the now old Parliament House, the governor-general Sir John Kerr’s letter dismissing the Whitlam Government in 1975.
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