Is it possible to rehabilitate the Order of Australia awards? Or should they be put out of their misery, written off as another Coalition monument to political cronyism — just as the Albanese government has done with the once independent and respected Administrative Appeals Tribunal?
This week, a new batch of 1000 or so honours awards will issue forth from the governor-general’s office on Australia Day.
In years gone by, as Crikey has reported, senior honours were handed to friends of the Coalition government at a dizzying rate. Our trawl through the awards made to politicians in the Australia Day and Queen’s birthday honours of 2019 and 2020 showed that out of a total of 62 honours 42 went to Liberal or National party figures while 20 went to ALP and independents.
This means two-thirds of all gongs went to conservative parliamentarians.
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There was a large difference in the distribution, too. In the most prestigious categories, the AC and the AO, Liberal and National party grandees received 14 of 18 awards.
Awards went to former Liberal/LNP/National premiers Ted Baillieu, Denis Napthine, Campbell Newman, Barry O’Farrell and Mike Baird. The backroom operative Tony Nutt, barely known outside Liberal HQ, picked up an award. So did Bronwyn “helicopter” Bishop, the partisan speaker of the House of Representatives.
On the ALP side, the former ALP figure-turned-Murdoch-media-favourite Graham “whatever it takes” Richardson was honoured for his high service to the nation.
Let’s not forget 2021 when former tennis champion turned Pentecostal pastor Margaret Court received an award upgrade under the reign of Scott Morrison. Morrison later journeyed to Court’s Victory Life church in Perth for the official opening of its prayer tower and to deliver a sermon in which he promoted the role of God over government.
Speaking of which, there were the Tony Abbott-George Pell-inspired awards of 2016 which saw the second-highest honour, the AO (Officer of the Order of Australia), go to The Australian’s Greg “I loved George Pell” Sheridan for his “distinguished service to print media as a journalist and political commentator on foreign affairs and national security, and to Australia’s bilateral relationships”.
Catholic ethicist Dr Bernadette Tobin, a prominent voluntary assisted dying opponent, received the same high honour in 2016, in her case for “distinguished service to education and philosophy, to the development of bioethics in Australia as an academic, and as a leader of a range of public health advisory and research councils”. It is perhaps only tangentially relevant that Tobin is the daughter of right-wing Catholic royalty BA Santamaria, and great friends with the late cardinal. Looking for a common link here?
Abbott, another great Pell man, had only recently departed the prime ministership, and given the long lead time on an Australia honour it is surely not beyond the realms of possibility that his mitts were all over the appointments.
Of course all of this was rendered quite unremarkable in the shadow of the greatest howitzer of all: Abbott’s decision in 2015 to award an Order of Australia knighthood to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich, Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Member of the Order of Merit, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order upon whom had been conferred the Royal Victorian Chain and Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter.
What to do with this legacy of cronyism, favouritism and left-field lunacy?
There is now a new breed and a new broom at the awards. In October Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced four appointments to take over the machinery of the Australian honours.
The new chair of the Council for the Order Australia is Shelley Reys (AO), a Djirribul woman of Far North Queensland. Reys was the inaugural co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, where she had a significant role in the Rudd government’s official apology to the Stolen Generations. Her long career in reconciliation bristles with governance credentials, as Albanese’s announcement was keen to highlight — along with the fact that she was the first woman and First Nations woman to be appointed chair of the council.
There is huge symbolism in her appointment of Reys, taking over from Liberal Party stalwart Shane Stone.
Albanese also made three appointments to the seven-person advisory council, meant to represent the community. All appointments are strategic in their own way.
Annie Butler, a registered nurse, is federal secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, Australia’s biggest union, with more than 300,000 members, and is a formidable campaigning force.
Cathy McGowan was the independent federal member for Indi who — legendarily — ousted the Liberal’s Sophie Mirabella and in the process set the template for the success of other community independents, notably the teal candidates who swept aside Liberal MPs and ministers at last year’s election. McGowan’s sister Ruth has been a driving force of Honour A Woman, which lobbied hard to fix the gender disparity which has been ingrained in the awards.
Professor Samina Yasmeen AM is an academic from the University of Western Australia and director and founder of its centre for Muslim states and societies.
This week Reys wrote an opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which was a rallying cry for more diversity in nominations as the way to change who actually receives an award. This was likely also to be a spoiler alert to forestall any disappointment at this week’s awards. The process of nominating someone for an award and doing the necessary check takes around two years.
Reys’ pre-announcement announcement focused too on slaying the myth that the honours go to the well known at the expense of the little person who toils away unacknowledged for years.
But she didn’t mention the years of absurd and overt political cronyism which has made a mockery of the awards — what we might call AAT syndrome, where an institution is so leached of integrity that it no longer has our trust.
It is also hard to take a system seriously when it professes to be powerless to remove honours given to Pell after royal commission findings on his knowledge of child abuse and his failure to take proper steps to act on complaints about dangerous priests. Or that it was powerless to remove the highest honours in the land from former High Court justice Dyson Heydon, after he was found to have sexually harassed junior court staff. Heydon quietly relinquished his honour in October, without public explanation, around the time of Albanese’s appointments.
The system also operates in near total secrecy. The governor-general’s office never comments on specific awards and the processes are exempt from freedom of information laws.
Rather than attempt to renew, reshape, rebrand and relaunch the honours, maybe it’s time to start all over again.
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