Inside Story

The Order of the day

The case for changes to Australia’s honours system has become overwhelming

Frank Bongiorno 26 January 2021 1164 words

Former Nationals leader Warren Truss receives his Order of Australia from governor-general David Hurley in September 2019. Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

Public confidence in Australia’s system of national honours has now reached sub-basement level. If reforms are not urgently made to a system that remains obscure to most Australians, the Order of Australia will become both a standing national embarrassment and a source of individual discomfort to those legitimately in receipt of awards.

I am among the latter group, having become a Member of the Order of Australia, or AM, on 26 January 2019. When I saw an email in my inbox from Government House a few months before that announcement, my expectation was that I was being asked for a reference for another nominee: I’d written a couple in the past. Like many who receive such awards, the news that I was to be a recipient came as a pleasant surprise, but I had no difficulty thinking of plenty of others — including in my own field of endeavour — who seemed equally or more worthy.

I was also conscious of being honoured for doing my well-paid job, a frequent criticism of these awards. I justified it to myself with the attitude that, like many professionals, I do more than what strictly might be considered “my job.” That said, I don’t think that what I do involves anything like the devotion or sacrifice of the many Australians who spend decades involved in voluntary work for no pay and limited recognition. Many of these are to be found in the list of people receiving Medals of the Order of Australia, the lowest award in the hierarchy. We know less about those who miss out entirely.

The hierarchy itself is open to criticism: isn’t this a perpetuation of class structures, reminding us of how our awards replicate those of the United Kingdom, even as they gradually replaced the old imperial honours from the mid 1970s? The addition of knighthoods to the Order by Malcolm Fraser and, later, Tony Abbott was a further reminder of where our system’s origins lie — in the British Empire — and the kinds of symbolic national work being attempted by those who fiddle with it. (Not very successfully in either case, as it happened: John Kerr and Prince Philip are among the few recipients of the AK.)

Defenders of the system say the community nomination process demonstrates the more democratic nature of the Australian system, yet it is obvious that some groups are very active, organised and successful in promoting recognition of their own. It is all very well to enjoin people to use the nomination system instead of whingeing about it, but this is easier for the better-off, better-educated and better-connected than for other Australians. The inequalities of outcome, in terms of gender, ethnicity and class, reflect this problem and will not easily be overcome.

There is also a growing suspicion that community nomination provides ample opportunity for ideologically motivated individuals and groups to use the system for trolling the rest of us. I don’t see this as an argument for getting rid of the system: when I scan the lists each Australia Day and Queen’s Birthday I see hundreds of deserving winners. The major controversies have admittedly been about a small number of decisions, usually out of left field — or more likely, right field — in each announcement, which perhaps get more media attention than they deserve. But I do see need of serious reform.

One possible way forward might be to adopt a devil’s advocate system. The Council for the Order of Australia should already be asking itself a simple but important question about every potential award: will this decision bring the Order into disrepute? If it is already asking this question, there are signs it isn’t always coming up with the right answer.

The appointment of a devil’s advocate would create a parallel process in which serious research is undertaken into decisions with the potential to bring the Order into disrepute. It would be the role of this individual, supported by a small research team, to gather information that might tell against a particular proposed awardee. That would then be fed into the decision-making. The bar for exclusion would be high — it should only happen rarely — but the declining reputation of the system would suggest that the bar is currently in the wrong place.

I am well aware that this might seem like a “political correctness” test, or even a proposal for “dirt files.” But the reality is that handing out these awards is a fundamentally political exercise: amply demonstrated, as if one needed to make the case, by the significant number of politicians who receive the highest gongs in the Order.

Those involved in making awards like to assure us that they leave their politics at the door, and that what one believes should not determine one’s choice of who deserves a gong. This is nonsense, of course. Every time an award is handed out, it’s a statement about what kinds of behaviour and belief we consider within the pale, about what those who are influential in these processes value most, and about which achievements they see as less worthy or even unworthy.

Happily, I have never seen anyone honoured for “services to the white supremacist community.” The award of an Order of Australia to a neo-Nazi would get the public bollocking that it deserved. That’s because the community largely regards the views held by such people as outside the field of decent values and legitimate debate.

But we do see politicians getting the very highest awards for their part in policies that many of us might find thoroughly objectionable. Tony Abbott received his, in part, for contributions to “border control.” To argue that this is apolitical is just gaslighting. Others, who don’t believe in same-sex marriage, might resile from Malcolm Turnbull’s having got his gong partly for his role in achieving “marriage equality.” Still others, who campaigned long and hard for this cause even when it was unpopular, might resent Turnbull’s wandering in to claim it as his own.

Government House would do well to cease mentioning policies and causes in cases such as these. It should simply state that Abbott and Turnbull received their ACs for their public service as parliamentarians, ministers and prime ministers. That’s enough.

More seriously, the Council has now, by its actions, effectively told the Australian people that it considers the public denigration of LGBTQ people to be within the field of legitimate behaviour by those receiving its very highest honour. There is a price to be paid for this kind of faux “neutrality,” and the Council — as well as the governor-general, who has formal oversight of the process — are now paying it in the form of reduced public confidence and widespread cynicism.

A national system of honours can’t thrive unless it has broad public support. This is a system that needs fixing. And it needs fixing before the next round of decision-making for the Queens’s Birthday list. •