Awards and honours


There are depressing signs from the 2005 Australia Day honours list that, like its predecessor, the Australian honours system is being politicised.

The criteria for awards in the Order of Australia are clear enough, or at least seem to be on first reading. The system ‘celebrates the outstanding achievements and contributions of extraordinary Australians’ says the preamble to the nomination form. It is ‘about recognising people in the community whose service and contributions have had the effect of making a significant difference to Australian life, or more broadly, to humanity at large.’ Just in case we haven’t got the message, ‘the system recognises the actions and achievements of people who go above and beyond what could be reasonably expected.’ Each of the four levels of the Order contains the words ‘service’.

The 2005 list gave honours to five former politicians and three current or former party political workers – all from the Coalition side. Two of these honours are at the highest level – Companion, out of seven at that level. The two recipients were Tim Fischer, the former leader of the National Party and former Deputy Prime Minister who might be best remembered for wearing hats like plates; and Jeff Kennett, the former Premier of Victoria, whose enduring characteristic for most is the sheer scale of the defeat of his Government. The Fischer citation lists nothing outside his political activities, while the Kennett citation lists (last) development of ‘mental health awareness strategies’.

How Tim Fischer made ‘a significant difference to Australian life’, or went ‘above and beyond what could reasonably be expected’ is far from clear: the contrast with the non-political Companions is marked. The same is largely true of the Kennett award, saved only by the work he is now doing on combating depression and for which he deserves much credit. But as noted, this is listed last, after what are supposed to be his political achievements (‘the introduction of initiatives for economic and social benefit’ – a description which is likely to have excited derision in Victoria).

The other three ex-politicians are two former backbenchers from the Australian Parliament and one from the Victoria Parliament. One has other strings to his bow, but the citations for the other two again simply list their parliamentary activities. If there is an ex-politicians’ waiting list for honours, those on it will need to be patient: one of the current trio left the Parliament in 1993.

For the party workers, there is even less excuse. The former Federal Director of the Liberal Party is made an Officer of the Order, the next rung down after Companion. At least the citation is honest (well, almost): ‘for service to politics’. More accurately, ‘for service to party politics’. The present Consul-General in New York (not a career diplomat) becomes a Member of the Order ‘for service to the business and finance sectors, to international relations as Consul-General in New York, and to the community for fundraising for charitable organisations’. Presumably the Liberal Party is not a charitable organisation, but according to The Sydney Morning Herald of 3 February 2005, the Consul-General is also a former ‘NSW Liberal Party fundraiser’. The other recipient may now be largely forgotten: he becomes a Member of the Order ‘for service to public administration and as an adviser to government in the development of public policy’. The identity of the government he served is carefully omitted: the recipient was Nick Greiner’s right hand man before and during Greiner’s term as Liberal Premier of New South Wales.

Further checking might well turn up more party people.

Sporting figures are the other group of people who feature too prominently in the Honours list, again reflecting the Prime Minister’s interests, particularly as a cricket tragic. Every winner of a gold medal at the Athens Olympics is rewarded again with a Medal in the Order of Australia, in each case for ‘service to sport’. How could they reasonably be said to have made ‘a significant difference to Australian life’? The same question might be asked of other sporting figures whose main qualification seems to have been that they are or were top class. The decision to give a posthumous award to Keith Miller serves mainly to emphasise the failure to give him one while he was still alive. There used to be an Australian Sporting Medal, which was presumably instituted to recognise Olympic champions and the like, but it seems to have fallen into disuse.

Party political considerations apart, the whole system needs an overhaul. Defence people rightly get numbers of awards confined to them, and there are other restricted categories and special awards for public servants, police officers, and ambulance and emergency service officers. Yet some in each of the last four categories (but not Defence) appear in the general Order of Australia lists, which may suggest either that these categories are too small or that the criteria for deciding who gets what need sharpening. Some who received awards appear to have been the victims of indifferent summaries of their qualifications, which suggest that they were only doing their jobs. Fairness might require that fuller explanations of reasons for awards be posted on the Order’s website

It may be that part of the problem lies in the composition of the Council for the Order of Australia, which is said in the Order’s website to be ‘an independent advisory body’that recommends to the Governor-General, the Chancellor of the Order, who should receive awards and at what level.

There are three categories of persons on the Council. The first group comprises three ex-officio people: the Vice-President of the Federal Executive Council, the Chief of the Defence Force, and the relevant Deputy Secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Vice-President is currently Senator Minchin, who was a long-time Liberal Party apparatchik before he ascended to the Senate. Like his ex-machine counterparts in the Labor Party (which has too many such people in the Parliament), he comes across as fluent and articulate but quite without passion or conviction. Presumably he may be relied upon to carry out the Prime Minister’s wishes – as may the Deputy Secretary, who has to assist him in this role a branch of the Department, no less, entitled ‘Awards and National Symbols’. The Chief of the Defence Force presumably concentrates on the nominations from the Defence forces.

The members of the second group are representatives of the State and Territory Governments. Commonly they are the heads of the Premiers’ and Chief Ministers’ Departments, as are four of the incumbents whose offices can be identified. The Victorian representative is not only the State Governor’s Official Secretary, but an old Harrovian to boot. Their primary task is presumably to see that their Governments’ corners are protected as to the nominations coming from their States, not only for public servants, police and the like but also all others. It is hard to see them resisting nominations from the Prime Minister, no matter how they are made.

The final group comprises ‘community representatives’ who are ‘appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister’ – not an auspicious sponsor in the current climate.

There are now eight such people, there having been only three when the Council was first established. One of them is the Chairman, that post having originally been filled by the Chief Justice of Australia ex-officio. The current Chairman is Sir James Gobbo, a former Governor of Victoria and a former Supreme Court Justice in that State. Only one of the eight does not already have an honour and she is the only Council member not in Who’s Who. If she is from the Northern Territory, then the Council has a person from each State and Territory (tick). The Council has gender balance, and indigenous and multicultural representation (tick). All but two are already members of the Order, thus diminishing the chances of persons pushing their own barrows (tick). Three members are or have been medical practitioners, thus giving the appearance of favouring one profession (cross). One is a former Senator and Minister – Liberal of course (cross).

With great respect to this last group, it is hard to see them doing other than going with the flow. The Council meets only twice a year, presumably mainly to deal with nominations for the awards which are announced each Australia Day and Queen’s Birthday. The members of the other two groups have, by virtue of their positions, considerable clout and also resources available to them should they wish to do any checking of nominees or canvassing of names. The ‘community representatives’ have no such clout and few resources.

The apparent politicising of the Order would disappoint its founding Prime Minister, so to speak, Gough Whitlam. ‘A politician can sponsor an award in the Order of Australia’, he wrote, ‘but no politician can decide that it will be given.’ Further, ‘There have been constant cases of political favours in appointments in Imperial Orders. There cannot be such cases in the Order of Australia.’ The latest list shows that the Order is not immune to political favours.

One way to put the Order further away from the reach of politicians of whatever stripe is to re-constitute the Council so that it is comprised of eminent persons who have filled high offices. Former Governors-General, former Chief Justices of the High Court, and former Chiefs of the Defence Force would be the core of such a group, supplemented if and when the numbers fell by members of such other groups as former State Governors and former Chief Justices of State and Territory Supreme Courts. Short of some such move – and how realistic is it to expect politicians to enact such a self-denying ordinance? – the future of the Order looks bleak, as increasing party politicisation will mean fewer distinguished people agreeing to serve on the Council, and more people declining awards because of the company they would be required to keep.

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