MUNGO MacCALLUM. Do we really need an honours system?

The hard fact is that the lists which bulk up the morning papers each year are far from representative of our diverse population, and suggest that there is at least a vestige of the despised British class system still lingering at the edges of the cultural cringe.  

The divisive detritus of our booze-fuelled celebration of jollity and jingo has been shovelled away for another year.

Now we can get on with what is really important — dual citizenship, religious privilege, arguing about energy and of course money – especially the rainbow gold of tax cuts in all their manifestations.

But before we get back to what we laughingly call normal, one quick look back at January 26, 2018: do we really need an honours system?. Do we really require an order of accoladed ranks, a hierarchy of gongs determined by a group of unelected worthies (dare one call them an elite?) which, on the face of it, appears an affront to the ideal of Australian egalitarianism and democracy?

It is less exclusive than it used to be – more women, a fair sprinkling of what are still called ethnics, and thankfully less political hacks and apparatchiks – although it should be noted that Brian Loughnane, whose sole contribution to the public good has been propagandizing for Tories at home and abroad, gets another reward. And the emphasis of scientists and doctors, perhaps driven by Turnbull’s advocacy of innovation, is a bit smarter than the slew of sportspeople and entertainers who normally swell the numbers.

But the hard fact is that the lists which bulk up the morning papers each year are far from representative of our diverse population, and suggest that there is at least a vestige of the despised British class system still lingering at the edges of the cultural cringe.

The very names of the order give them away: they are unashamedly derived from those of our pre-colonial British imperialist masters. Malcolm Turnbull has mercifully scrapped Tony Abbott’s knights and dames, although not retrospectively — Prince Phillip remains a tenured member of the bunyip aristocracy But we are left with companions (but not mates), officers (but not other ranks) and members (but not commoners) – and at the very bottom something called an OAM, which may stand for an Ordinary Also-ran Medal.

Then there are separate categories for the military, awards for police, firefighters and ambulance workers, and even a Public Service Medal, whose recipients’ work is invariably described as “outstanding” – this presumably means that they have been there for a long time without conspicuously stuffing things up.

The convenor of the annual ceremony, the Governor-General Sir (an Abbott award) Peter Cosgrove, insists that it is really pretty transparent: after all, anyone can nominate anybody. But obviously very few can be bothered to do so, and those that do self-evidently have barrows to push.

There are always calls for the honours list to be more inclusive; feminists in particular want the current gender ration of about two-to-one against them to be improved. But before they agitate too fiercely, it might be worth adapting Groucho Marx’s famous remark: do you really want to be a member of a club that condescends to admit you? And for that matter, does any independent, fair minded Australian?

Which brings us back to the point: do we really need our honours system? And more importantly, do we really want one in a modern multicultural society which, we are assured, is committed to a fair go for all?


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12 Responses to MUNGO MacCALLUM. Do we really need an honours system?

  1. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    …for which, examples, surely the OM (Order of Merit) is apt?

  2. John ellis says:

    Mungo i would have an australian award system that recognises people for extraordinary service. This would exclude politicians, people carrying out their normal duties, ie they are being paid to do it. VOLUNTEERS loom large for deserving awards. Our normal sporting heroes should have a time to serve before being eagerly given gongs by drooling pms, and scientists should be encouraged. Writers, thinkers top of the list. Maybe a list not approved by pollies. You should certainly have one by now.

    • Rosemary O'Grady says:

      … also: if we’re serious about confronting and contesting family/civic violence & misogyny – then investigations into a nominee’s history of abuse ought be a disqualifying factor (and NOT requiring a criminal conviction for ‘proof’ : mere reputation should be sufficient). I know of some awardees whose awards I have contested by letter to the awarding/nominating authorities on the basis I know them to be bullies and person-abusers. Result: Laughter, insult, gratuitous ‘legal’ advice. The Awards are barely worth a candle, but to impose these sorts of criteria will at least reduce the amount of space, time and public frittered-away on them.

  3. Malcolm Crout says:

    It’s funny how the ex Australian Republic champion morphed into dithering Prime Minister, lacks the intestine to use his time as leader of our fine country to raise the republic cause again ……………….. and face down the ire of the conservative loons jiggling the strings on his shaky career.

    This chameleon PM would earn enormous public respect in the twilight of his Government if he contracted his watery loins and just went for it!

    What’s that oinking thing flying past my window?

  4. Barry Reynolds says:

    The “classes” are still around. If you ever want to witness it pay a visit to the Northern Midlands of Tasmania. The Squatocracy is very much alive and kicking particularly amongst the “old” families.

  5. Jim KABLE says:

    Oh, and I have nominated one or two people in the past – never heard back what happened – why the names were not given an Order of Australia.

  6. Jim KABLE says:

    The name of party apparatchik Loughnane had me doing the usual week-bix choke – and I’m totally with J Deacon – no more Public Service or Military or, indeed, any politician or politician-connected recipient to receive any awards. I would make an exception to the Military awards – but only if awarded below the rank of officer – to the ranks – privates and corporals – for acts of courage – of bravery in the service to the nation – but not outside the nation. No awards merely for doing one’s paid employment. That makes a total mockery of it. I’m happy if all awards are of the one level – I can’t figure them out in any case – a simple Order of Australia is sufficient.

    • a Panjkov says:

      I don’t agree on ruling out people who earn a nomination for activities carried out in their paid job. This would rule out exceptional scientists and inventors, doctors, charity workers, artists, musicians and writers, but would include priests. I think Ian Stewart’s gong was well deserved, as was Brian Schmidt’s. They were being paid while making the marks that they were nominated for.

  7. Gerald Lynch says:

    There is practically nothing to commend in the current honours system which largely “rewards” people who were either paid for or chose to pursue the activity for which they are given an “honour”. In either case their reward has been received already. Civil awards serve no real purpose and the gradations are demeaning. If any awards are justified they should only be for self-sacrifing actions of bravery of some kind.

  8. We do need an honours system. It should be more representative. I don’t think the titles are irredeemably offensive. But we probably need something between AO and AC to move more of Mungo’s also-rans above the starting gate.

  9. J Deacon says:

    Good question, and with Brian Loughnane in mind, the answer should be No. But I do like the idea of people being given recognition for “outstanding” work. Rosie Batty is a shining example. There are many others. My first change would be to preclude anyone receiving an award for what was in effect paid employment. That eliminates the purely political Loughnane case. And I would also delete the category “Parliament – political” . Again because its paid employment, and also because its open (as in the case of Loughnane) to political patronage and nothing else. Perhaps what we need is a review of the whole process, the appointees who get to decide, the nomination process itself, the final decisions. And definitely a tightening up of the categories. So on balance, I would definitely keep the Awards but give the whole process a good spring clean.

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