Not since 1976, and after Gough Whitlam won the approval of the Queen for an Australian system of honours and awards in 1975, has any prime minister until now wanted to revive remnants of the British Imperial system.
Before then prominent and deserving Australians were included in the Order of the British Empire.
Some Australians, though, have been knighted in the years since – as a personal gift of the Queen.
They include Sir Ninian Stephen, a former governor-general, who was made a Knight of the Garter in 1994 and Joan Sutherland who was made a dame in 1979 and included in the Order of Merit – a dynastic order recognising distinguished service – in 1991.
Before 1975 the Queen personally honoured among others two other governors-general, Baron Casey and Sir Paul Hasluck, Nobel Prize winner Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnett, Lord Florey and Sir Sydney Nolan.
Now Abbott is restoring knights and dames in the Order of Australia after a 30-year absence.
The first of his dames will be outgoing governor-general Quentin Bryce and the first knight will be her replacement, General Peter Cosgrove.
Two other pre-eminent Australians may be added later in the year.
Abbott says the new honour will be limited to four people each year.
His intention is that the new honour will go to those who have accepted public office rather than sought it and who can never, by virtue of the office they have held, entirely return to private life.
That might or might not rule out a politician, especially one such as Howard who is Australia’s second-longest serving prime minister.
The longest serving, Robert Menzies, was a multiple recipient of Imperial and international honours including Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle.
Abbott, though, hasn’t gone as far as New Zealand.
Prime Minister John Key restored knighthoods and dames to the NZ honours system in 2009, reversing a decision by his Labor predecessor Helen Clark who did away with the such titles in 2000.
Abbott wants his knights and dames reserved for special recognition, extended to Australians of “extraordinary and pre-eminent achievement and merit” in their service to Australia or to humanity at large.
“I believe this is an important grace note in our national life,” he said in defending what appears to be a personal decision.
Labor and republicans, unsurprisingly, are not impressed.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus summed up the sentiment by suggesting the government was rushing back to the 19th century.
That was when Queen Victoria was monarch of the British Empire and Empress of India.