The Australian Honours System: Abolition or Reform?

In the last few years, each six months when the office of the Governor-General reveals the names of new recipients of Honours under the Australian system, now 45 years old, widespread criticism erupts briefly but is soon forgotten. Now, halfway towards the next set of announcements might be the time to re-start a longer debate.

The major public criticisms have included a failure to sufficiently honour Australian women, the politicisation of the committee that decides the awards, and the alleged awarding of honours to politicians for just doing their job. Other criticisms have included alleged gaming of the process of nomination by large organisations and failure to respect the requested confidentiality of the nominating process. Other issues include lack of transparency around the application of the criteria for each level of award and delays of up to two years in making decisions.

A starting point in the debate might be to ask does Australia really need an honours system? What benefits does it bring to our society which is notionally said to be egalitarian? We have done away with the Imperial system of knights and dames. Why not abolish the system altogether? However, the chance of getting agreement on dumping the system is similar to the chance of ever getting agreement on a unitary system of primary and secondary education – namely zero – so unless there are silent supporters of abolition, it is probably of more use to look at some possible reforms. Reforms can be considered under the headings of the leadership and composition of the awards committee, the nomination process, the range of awards and the criteria for making awards.

The leadership of the awards committee: There is an urgent need for the Federal Parliament to examine and revise the leadership of the Council of the Order of Australia. The chairperson of the committee should never be a politician, ex-politician or person who has played a major role in partisan political processes. Ideally the chair should be a woman or man who can be trusted by the vast majority of the population to be non-partisan and capable of making fair decisions. Obvious places to look for an acceptable chair will be to the federal and state highest courts and to former governors-general. Another option is to copy the Canadian honours system introduced in 1967, the Council of which is statutorily chaired by the Chief Justice of Canada.

The composition of the awards committee: As well as leadership, the composition of the Council needs further consideration. Presently the committee has nineteen members made up of eight community representatives, one representative of each of the State and Territory governments and three ex-officio members who are public office holders. Ten of the members are currently women which is encouraging. At least one of the community members is a former politician and it could be argued that this is inappropriate. It is unknown what criteria are used by the State and Territory governments in making their nomination but it appears that all are senior public servants. The three ex-officio members: are the Chief of the Defence Force, the Deputy Secretary, Governance Group, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Vice-President of the Federal Executive Council.

In my view, the Council first and foremost needs gender balance so presently this need is met. It could be argued that the State and Territory nominees should not be public servants and one has to ask if this was the intent of the designers of the scheme in 1975. Ideally the membership should seek to reflect our multicultural society yet at the same time, members chosen on such a basis will need to resist the temptation to promote the interests of any ethnic group.

Given the size of the Australian continent, consideration should also be given to not having any state or territory over-represented. In any reconsideration of the composition of the Council, an examination of the criteria for membership of the Canadian equivalent will be desirable. The Canadian committee is smaller and contains a roughly equal proportion of community members and designated holders of high office, e.g. the President of the Royal Society of Canada. It is doubtful that we can learn much from the British system of awarding honours although in any review of the Australian system, the UK system and its critics should not be ignored.

Who should make the appointments? At present appointments to the Council of the Order of Australia are made by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister (and each State and Territory government where relevant). As politics in Australia seems to become more partisan by the year, consideration should be given to a broader-based appointments recommendation process. The process needs to be at greater arms’ length from the Prime Minister of the day, as is clearly the case in Canada, where community members are selected by the Governor-General.

How should nominations for awards be made? The current scheme calls for any nomination to be made without the knowledge of that person. It would be interesting to know how consistently this secrecy is honoured. The concept is a good one but has one possible flaw: the main nominator and the secondary referees may not be fully informed of all the contributions that the individual has made to Australian society, thereby accidentally understating those contributions.

What can be done to make the process more efficient? A smaller Council membership and more frequent meetings could help. At present Council meets just twice per year, presumably just for one day. If the long delays between nomination and decision reflect a lack of resources for the awards secretariat, this can be readily remedied.

Should any reform be revolutionary? Should the tiered structure of awards be altered? An argument can be mounted for reducing the three highest levels (Commander, Officer and Member) to a single Order of Australia honour. This would mean doing away with the fine judgements needed by the Council as to precisely which award is appropriate for any person.

One of the strengths of the current honours system is that exceptional service to local communities, local organisations and minority groups is well recognised via the award of the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for ‘for service worthy of particular recognition’. Any change to the current tiering must not endanger this valuable category.

The last external review of the Australian Honours system, commissioned by the relevant Federal Minister, was conducted in 1995. The report ran to 450 pages. Its recommendations were ignored as shortly after its handing down there was a change of government. A fresh independent review is needed now to revive public confidence in our honours system.

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Kerry Breen AM is a retired physician and gastroenterologist and past President of the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria. He is a co-author of Good Medical Practice: Professionalism, Ethics and Law, published in 2016 (4th ed).

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