The Order of Australia system: a bunyip aristocracy

Feb 15, 2023
Order_of_australia_gcmg_kcvo-c Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Order of Australia system is a bunyip aristocracy that reflects the hierarchies of British society in which the high and mighty get the cream and others are left with the skimmed milk.

Just before the country slipped into its raucous celebrations for Australia Day last month, Mr David Hardaker served up in Crikey a tart criticism of the Order of Australia (OoA) system. He claimed for it a legacy of “cronyism, favouritism and left field lunacy” and said that “rather than an attempt to renew, reshape, rebrand and relaunch, maybe it’s time to start all over again.” Hardaker’s criticism is hyperbolic. For example, he sniffs at a woman given a high ranking award because she “is a daughter of right-wing Catholic royalty, B A Santamaria” and says that it is “not beyond the realms of possibility that” Tony Abbott’s “mitts were all over” a range of awards. Hardaker also says that the new chair of the Council of the Order complained in a newspaper article about “the years of absurd and overt political cronyism which has made a mockery of the awards” – the article says no such thing.

In his enthusiasm to get stuck into the OoA Hardaker misses the main strands of legitimate criticism and ends up being unable or unwilling to suggest what could be done to make it better.

So what are the OoA’s weaknesses?

First, it’s a bunyip aristocracy that has more or less taken the imperial honours schema and changed its titles. That is to say, it reflects the hierarchies of British society in which the high and mighty get the cream and others are left with the skimmed milk. Thus, it is little wonder that certain classes are over-represented in the top awards. For example, in the latest round, professors, admittedly a burgeoning population in academia although a miniscule one in the general community, snavelled 22 of the top 53 gongs while no one from much larger secondary education sector got a look in. How odd is that?

Second, as if to emphasise its derivative character, all awards in the OoA need to be approved by “the Sovereign”. Thus, the country bends its knee to King Charles and relies on him as the final formal arbiter of who should get what.

Third, while the system is reasonably well protected from political influence, it is, and has been, vulnerable in several ways. For example, former politicians have been chairs of the Council or members of it. The Vice President of the Executive Council, a federal minister, is a Council member, as are several public servants who are subject to direction from Ministers and governments.

Fourth, the criteria by which the Council of the Order, the Governor-General and King Charles are required to slot people into the award hierarchy are beyond rational comprehension and evenhanded administration. For example, a top award (an AC) is for “eminent achievement and merit of the highest order” while an AO is for “distinguished service of a high degree”. The Oxford dictionary defines eminent as distinguished and vice versa; they’re synonyms. And distinctions between “highest order” and “high degree” would test the sharpest of Jesuits. Here height cannot be measured as it if were a pole vault contest.

It gets tougher. An AM is “for service in a particular locality or to a particular group” while and OAM is “for service worthy of particular recognition”. These criteria are for practical purposes identical. For example, would “service worthy of particular recognition” ever not occur “in a particular locality or to a particular group”?

As none of this makes semantic or logical sense, most awards appear to be granted on the basis of places in the social order – professors, judges and their kin on the top and rugby league players, nurses and health gender advocates lower down. In her recent press article the chair of the Order’s Council, Ms Reys, says that the OoA “must represent the diversity of the Australian community”; it will never fairly do that given the assessment criteria with which she, her Council and King are shackled.

Fifth, much is often made of the need for awards not to be given, in Ms Reys words, for people “simply doing their jobs” and that awardees should be involved in “volunteering, mentoring or doing charitable work”. That’s nonsense as it would rule out those with few extra curricula activities because their day jobs are all consuming and would risk cancelling the chances of many worthy nurses, school teachers, emergency service workers and others who often are more pressed for time than judges and professors. Sure, doing good works should be recognised but all work should be judged according to its essential quality whether it be doing one’s job or doing anything else.

What could be done to heal the OoA’s wounds?

To begin, the ties to the British monarchy could be severed. The King has enough on his plate without the pro forma fuss of ticking off awards to Australians who should be happier to be recognised by a system unreliant on the British Crown.

Minus the imperial umbilical cord, the OoA could be turned away from its foundations in the social hierarchies of the Old Country. In particular, as it is near to impossible to devise workable criteria on which to make distinctions in claims for recognition, the Order could be converted to a single level of award, a celebration of Australian egalitarianism that is too often honoured in word than in deed.

All claims for awards could be assessed purely on the basis of the merits of individuals’ achievements, taking into account any extra curricula activities but not make them a distorting pre-condition.

Then to better insulate awards from political influence, all former politicians could be disqualified from membership of the Council of the Order and the Vice President of the Executive Council and all serving public servants and military officials could also be excluded.

Such all too simple steps would do much to realise Ms Reys’s ambition for the OoA to “represent the diversity of the Australian community.” It’s too bad they’ve not a hope in Hades of being seriously entertained.

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