Australia says goodbye to knights and dames. Is the queen next?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reversed his predecessor's unpopular decision to bring back the Australian knighthood, prompting monarchists to worry what other royal vestiges Australia will shed. 

Rob Griffith/Reuters/File
Queen Elizabeth II receives flowers from schoolchildren waving national flags after the Commonwealth Day Service in Sydney, in 2006.

"Do you still throw spears at each other?" Britain's Prince Philip asked an Aboriginal Australian man in 2002. 

Comments like these were just one reason Australians groaned at former Prime Minister Tony Abbott's decision to knight Queen Elizabeth's husband with the Order of Australia (an honor she herself had to approve). Many expressed concern that Philip, already medal-bedecked, and not even Australian, may not have been the model candidate.

This being Australia, Mr. Abbott's unilateral 2014 decision to bring back knights and dames after its three-decade retirement was also met with ridicule. 

On Monday, Australia's new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced that the Queen of Australia, Elizabeth herself, had approved the government's request to remove knights and dames from the Order's honors, a tradition he called "anachronistic, out of date, not appropriate, in 2015." 

While most Australians seemed to feel it was high time, a few worried that nixing knights and dames signaled the beginning of the end for the Commonwealth's constitutional monarchy, in which the Queen is head of state, a largely symbolic role.

The decision "gives all those who value constitutional security and stability cause for concern that this is just the beginning of another campaign of republicanism by stealth," the Australian Monarchist League said, accusing Mr. Turnbull of "[breaking] this nation's heart," using his own words against former Prime Minister John Howard in 1999, when a constitutional referendum to make Australia a republic and abolish the monarchy failed in every state.

At the time, Turnbull led the Australian Republican Movement.

Today, he has toned down his anti-monarchist views, suggesting that the country has more pressing issues at hand. 

But some say the republican cause is just waiting for the right moment to step back into the limelight. 

"It will be the first of a series of moves," journalist Peter FitzSimons predicted for the Australian Broadcast Corporation's "The World Today," saying he believes the Republican Movement would like to ask Australians whether they want an Australian head of state, not a British one, within the next five years. 

If republicans are biding their time, however, they may have to wait a while.

Many of the first Europeans to enter Australia did so unwillingly, as convicts banished to the Land Down Under. As recently as 2007, more than one in five Australians could still claim a criminal ancestor, yet seemed to appreciate the King's decision to send their forebears halfway around the world: last year, only 40 percent wanted to make Australia a republic, while about 42 percent opposed. 

Some credit Prince William, his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, and their young family with reviving affection for the monarchy, after Prince Charles' years in the public eye failed to inspire confidence in him as a future king. 

Others claim Australians' opposition to a republic is based more on short-term practicalities, not deeply-held views, such as squabbles over how to elect a new head of state to replace the Queen. 

With the tact that's helped her through six decades of rule, to become the United Kingdom's longest-serving monarch, Elizabeth II has said she will "respect the wishes of the Australian people," whether they want her in titularly in charge or not.

And Prince Philip? He can keep the Order of Australia among his 70-odd titles: previous recipients will not have their medals revoked by Turnbull's decision. 

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