Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott was on Tuesday facing a backlash over his surprise move to knight Britain’s Prince Philip which has prompted ridicule and questions about his leadership even from conservative supporters.
Abbott, whose personal approval rating has plunged in recent opinion polls, said the decision to make the Duke of Edinburgh — the 93-year-old husband of Queen Elizabeth II — a knight of Australia was his own initiative for Australia Day on Monday.
But it provoked anger within Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition, with unnamed politicians reportedly describing the move as “stupid” and “near impossible” to explain to ordinary Australians.
Liberal-National parliamentarian Warren Entsch said: “For the life of me, I can’t understand why” Abbott would knight a British royal.
Entsch said he was “not pushing for a change in leader, I’m looking for significant change in leadership”.
Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, which dubbed the story “Abbott’s Knightmare”, quoted a government politician as saying “the feedback is horrendous”.
Another unnamed MP said the move was “a stupid announcement” and “manifestly amazing in the worst possible way”, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.
Government frontbencher Michaelia Cash defended the call Tuesday, saying Prince Philip was “extremely deserving” for the contributions he had made to Australia over many years.
“The backlash will be the backlash. Some people don’t agree with the decision,” she said.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann agreed Philip had made significant contributions but did not want to be drawn on the issue.
“I’m not a commentator,” he said. “That was a decision that was made by the prime minister.”
Those outside conservative politics spoke freely.
“This is a bit like giving Bill Gates an abacus,” independent Senator Nick Xenophon said of the award to the Duke who already boasts a long list of titles. “I don’t know what he’s going to do with it.”
Abbott, a life-long admirer of British royalty, faced accusations of being in a “time warp” when he reintroduced the titles of dame and knight in Australia last year and has struggled to get his message out and backtracked on several policies.
“Already vulnerable over his idiosyncratic revival of British imperial honours… Abbott can ill-afford to alienate his colleagues right now,” wrote The Sydney Morning Herald’s chief political correspondent Mark Kenny.
“Yet his bizarre selection of the husband of the British monarch for Australia’s top civic award has done just that. Ridicule abounds.”
The Australian newspaper said in an editorial that the decision lacked leadership and gave those who would lampoon Abbott a “right royal charter”.
The fact that Abbott made the announcement on Australia’s national day stoked emotions further.
“It’s Australia Day, we are not a bunch of tossers, let’s get it right,” Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles said.