THE Abbott government will reintroduce the honour of knights and dames of the Order of Australia to celebrate pre-eminent Australians such as outgoing Governor-General Quentin Bryce.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on Tuesday afternoon that up to four knights or dames will be appointed in any year.
The first dame under the changes will be the outgoing Governor-General Quentin Bryce and the first knight will be incoming Governor-General Peter Cosgrove. All future governors-general will be appointed a Knight or a Dame.
Mr Abbott said the honour would be extended to Australians of "extraordinary and pre-eminent achievement and merit".
The categories of Knight and Dame of the Order of Australia were created by the Queen, on advice from the Fraser government, in 1976 and were discontinued under advice from the Hawke government in 1986.
Knights and dames will be approved by the Queen on the recommendation of the prime minister. The chair of the Order of Australia Council will be consulted on any such recommendation.
Mr Abbott said: "My intention is that this new award will go to those who have accepted public office rather than sought it and who can never, by virtue of that office, ever entirely return to private life."
Mr Abbott said he expected these people to include governors-general, state governors, chiefs of defence forces and chief justices rather than politicians.
He described the change as an "important grace note in our national life".
Speaking on Sky News, shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus questioned the Abbott government's priorities.
"Even the arch-monarchist John Howard didn't bring back knights and dames," Mr Dreyfus said. "I don't think we need to go back to knights and dames."
Opposition leader Bill Shorten said: "It's good to see the government has a plan for knights and dames – where's their plan for jobs?
"I'm concerned the Abbott government thinks this is a priority – what about jobs, health and education?"
Although Mr Abbott said the honour was not intended for ex-politicians, Attorney-General George Brandis said former prime minister John Howard would "absolutely" be worthy of a knighthood.
Mr Brandis told radio 2GB there is "no honour too great for Mr Howard".
Mr Abbott had said as recently as December that he had no plans to reintroduce damehoods and knighthoods, which were abolished by the Whitlam government, reintroduced by the Fraser government and abolished again by Bob Hawke.