In early August 2013 I launched an ON-LINE PETITION (here) asking the incoming prime minister to review the Australian honours system. The most interesting responses I received were along the lines “do we have one?”, “what’s an honours system?” and “I suppose we still use something British?” This post is partly a response to these questions, and provides some other background information.
What is the ‘Australian Honours System’?
At its simplest, an ‘honours system’ means the ‘system’ (its not always particularly systematic) of various awards made to the citizens of a country to recognise meritorious or other outstanding service to the community. They are generally divided (in British-descended societies) into civil, military and royal honours. This post, and my petition, relates only to the civil honours.
The Australian Honours System commenced in 1975 when the Queen of Australia approved the establishment of the Order of Australia and the Australian Bravery Decorations. Before 1975, Australians were eligible for and received British, or as they were then called, Imperial honours. These began in Australia in 1869 when James Martin, the Premier of New South Wales, was appointed a Knight in the Order of St Michael and St George (an Order created especially for colonial politicians and public servants).
Any Australian citizen can nominate any citizen or organization for an honour. The federal, state and territory governments nominate the members of the Council of the Order of Australia that considers the nominations and recommends appointments. The Governor-General, a State Governor or a Territory Administrator (or, if overseas, a High Commissioner or Ambassador) conducts the actual investiture ceremony, whereby a person is appointed to their honour. Investitures usually take place in the autumn and spring of each year, usually in the relevant Government House. A list of people honoured is issued every Australia Day (26th January) and every Queens Birthday (early June).
There are five grades within the Order of Australia, each signified by postnominals, or letters after the person’s name. There are currently two knights of the Order of Australia (AK, Sir Ninian Stephen and Prince Charles) and no living dames (AD). No new knights or dames have been appointed since 1984. The next grade is Companion (AC), then Officer (AO), and then Member (AM), followed by the medal of the Order (OAM).
Merit. The Order of Australia was created as “an Australian society of honour for according recognition to Australian citizens and other persons for achievement or meritorious service”. However, achievement and merit are not the same things. Although merit is one of the two grounds for recognition, that merit is currently based on community esteem (through the community nomination system) rather than objectively achieved merit. By ‘objective merit’ I mean merit achieved against a measurable standard, such as an Olympic gold medal, or a Nobel Prize in the arts or sciences, or appointment as Australian of the Year. Community nomination provides the Order of Australia with its great strength of allowing the community to honour its own high achievers, but there is no guarantee that a Matthew Mitcham (Olympic gold medalist 2008) or an Elizabeth Blackburn (Nobel prize in medicine 2009) or a Mick Dodson (Australian of the Year 2009) will be recognized through the Order of Australia.
The establishment of a new Order of Merit, based on measurable achievements in sports, arts, sciences and culture, would provide a better way to recognize meritorious achievement. Such an Order would be based on a different logic to the Order of Australia, which could then clearly focus on community esteem as the basis for recognizing achievement.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. With constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples highly likely within the next few years (given all main political parties have given their support for a referendum on the issue), a significant symbolic marker would be the establishment of a new Order to recognize achievement in, by or for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Whether Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would want such an Order created, what its name and rules would be, and so on, would a matter for discussion and preferably driven by indigenous communities. The Australian Honours system, however, could provide a space that allows for such a new Order to be created. The symbolism of creating such a new Order, especially if it takes place as an action arising from the achievement of constitutional recognition, would be a significant sign of the evolving maturity of the honours system and of the evolving place of Indigenous peoples within the broader Australian society.
Heraldry. The Canadian honours system includes the granting of coats of arms and other heraldic devices to individuals and corporate bodies. Heraldry was introduced to the Canadian system in 1988 (when heraldic authority was formally patriated). Heraldry provides a further nuance to the Canadian system as coats of arms are granted, not on the basis of achievement (through community nominations) or merit (through measurable standards) but on the basis of contribution to society (through a direct request to the Governor General).
The Canadian system has been very successful, using and developing visual symbols of beauty and identity that could also be available to Australians. Canada’s heralds have created a new and exciting language of personal and communal symbols, using an ancient art form, which has been widely taken up by First Nations peoples, English and French speakers, and multicultural communities reminiscent of Australian society. This capacity for promoting nation-building and social cohesion is one of the most innovative aspects of the Canadian honours system.
Heraldic honours allow a whole family to share an honour with the individual family member. It also provides a companion to other honours that, unlike them, can be passed on to descendants as an inter-generational reminder of the original honouring in which descendants can take great pride. Canadian heraldic honours are gender equal (that is, can descend from either parent to all children), and about 10% of all personal grants since 1988 have been to women.
Heraldry also allows whole communities to be honoured and recognized, in a way that other forms of honours, with their focus on individuals, cannot. This communal or collegiate aspect of heraldic honours means that community organizations, municipalities, public bodies and private corporations can be appropriately honoured. Since 1988, 45% of all grants have been to such communal bodies.
The 2004 review of the British honours system recognized a need for collegiate or collective honours. The Australian system is similarly focused on individuals, with no capacity for honouring achievement or merit by community or corporate organizations. The inclusion of heraldry within the Australian honours system would make this possible.
Federalism. The States used to have own honours systems, in a sense, within the Imperial honours system as they made their own recommendations for honours alongside the Commonwealth. However, this independence was gradually lost with the creation of the Order of Australia, and the last State honours were recommended in 1989.
This paralleled a similar story in Canada where the provinces responded from 1966 by creating their own provincial honours systems. By 2001 all ten provinces had their own honours. This allows citizens whose achievements may never attract national attention to be honoured at a more intimate level, and for activities that may be significant in a local or even family context to be given proper consideration, especially when driven by community nominations.
Within the United Kingdom, Scotland retains its own honours in the form of the Order of the Thistle (established 1687). The 2004 review of the British system concluded, after looking at the Canadian examples, that the British national honours system should be complemented with regional English, Scottish and Welsh honours to allow for a more equitable distribution of honours at the regional and local levels of society. Encouraging State and Territory honours is consistent with Australia’s federal structure and should be encouraged for the same reasons as above.
Too nationalistic? The patriation of Australian honours since 1975 was driven by, among other forces, late 20th century nationalism and a drive for distinctively Australian symbols of identity.
One unfortunate side effect, especially it seems in recent years, has been a tendency for the awarding of honours to sometimes be an occasion for a certain xenophobia. When Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar was appointed an honorary Officer in the Order of Australia in 2012, the Sydney Morning Herald letters page carried several letters complaining that this was an insult to Australians volunteering for charitable work, or that it was a cheap political point scoring exercise. No-one disputed Tendulkar’s achievements or merit, but the undercurrent of bigotry was clear. Our country was honouring a great sportsman, but some Australians were unable to see beyond his nationality or ethnicity. Sixteen honorary appointments were made to citizens of other countries in 2011-12, such as Mr Sevee Charuruks and Ms Catherin Chua for restoration of the Sandakan war memorial in Sabah and assistance with commemorative services at the memorial. None of these other appointments seemed to attract public opprobrium. On the other hand, 5,900 Australians received appointments within the honours systems of other countries during 2011-12, with most coming from East Timor, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. Words like hypocrisy come easily to mind, and sadly the honours authorities seemed to take no action to respond to the ugly reactions to the Tendulkar appointment.
Not inclusive enough? Another response to the Australian honours system was evident when the Queen’s Birthday honours list was announced in June 2013. The Sydney Morning Herald letters page carried complaints that there were few ‘non-Anglo’ names on the list, while ‘non-Anglos’ make up a third of the population. A check of the awards list shows a total of 607 awards within the Order of Australia were announced, of which 12% could be considered ‘non-Anglo’ names, although this hardly a scientific survey. The annual reporting for the Order, as for other statistics in Australia generally, does not reveal the ethnicity of appointees (mainly because such statistics are not collected in the first place), and it is difficult to verify such complaints.
The most recent annual report dealing with the honours system notes that while fewer women are nominated for honours, those that are have a higher rate of success. The appointments made for 2011-12, when 65% of all women nominated went on to be honoured, whereas only 56% of men were appointed, illustrate this. However, women still only formed 30% of the overall appointments for the year. Men received the majority of appointments in almost all 31 categories within the awards, with only the ‘Industrial Relations’ category achieving parity, and ‘Local Government’ and ‘Tourism’ categories having women outnumber men. Overall, since 1975 women have received 30% of the appointments to the Order. It is unclear whether or how these issues are being addressed, although the Council of the Order of Australia recently decided not to implement any sort of appeals system.
The Council, as noted earlier, is composed of members nominated by the federal, state and territory governments. At least one of the federal nominees must be an Indigenous person, and overall the membership currently consists of 12 men and 6 women. However, one obvious exclusion from Council membership is any representation from the external territories, particularly Norfolk Island that has the same level of self-government as the ACT and NT. It is not clear why membership eligibility stops at the continental high water mark.
As the British Empire broke up into separate countries during the second half of the 20th century, each newly independent country inherited the single system of Imperial honours. See here for a useful history of imperial honours awarded to women in Australia. Most patriated (that is, transferred authority over honours from the British crown to its national successors) the concepts and structures of the imperial honours system, but adapted and naturalized in separate national forms. The foundation of the Order of Canada in 1967 provided the model for the Order of Australia in 1975.
Between 1975 and 1992 the awarding of Imperial honours was gradually replaced in Australia by the awarding of specifically Australian honours. The Queen of Australia still honours Australian citizens with royal honours such as the Venerable Order of St John. These are the royal prerogative, or personal gift, of the Queen, and are neither part of the old imperial honours system nor recommended by any government agency.
For some comparisons with other honours systems with which the Australian system shares common origins and practices, see Canada (highest level companion), New Zealand (highest level knight or dame), United Kingdom (highest level knight or dame), India (no titles or postnominals, but a graded Order), Jamaica (highest level right excellent) and Papua New Guinea (highest levels grand chief, knight or dame). Ireland after achieving independence from Britain, abandoned rather than patriated authority over honours, and currently has no honours system, but proposals for re-establishment are regularly made.
Rather different systems of honours include the French (highest level chevalier, or knight), and Italian (highest level cavalierie, or knight) systems, to both of which are appointed a much larger number of people each year than in the Australian or other similar systems. The United States has no overall honours system as such, but a bewildering array of medals and decorations are awarded by all branches of government and many government agencies. The Papal honours (highest level knight), influenced honours systems in the British Isles before Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 1530s, and so (along with the Imperial system) has a genealogical connection to the Australian system. It still operates within Catholic communities in Australia, separately from the official Australian honours system.
The total number of people appointed to each grade in the Order of Australia over the 38 years since 1975 are AK/AD – 14; AC – 372, AO – 1,930, AM – 16,621, and OAM – 16,521. About 42 Australians received Royal honours between 1930 and 2012. I have not been able to determine how many of these appointees are still living.
Other useful links are It’s An Honour the official website maintained by the Prime Minister’s Office, and this page which lists further components of the honours system such as the Australian of the Year awards. The Order of Australia Association also provides useful information.
Support MY PETITION to the next prime minister of Australia, whoever that may be after the 7th September general election, for a review of the Australian honours system to address the issues I have raised, as well as issues raised by other people.
 Public Administration Select Committee, A Matter of Honour: Reforming the honours system, HC 212-1, House of Commons, London 2004, paragraphs 190-191, recommendation 18
 A Matter of Honour, paragraphs 56, 100-101, 174-175, 183-185, recommendation 11
 ‘Gong for little master knocks Indian media for six’, Sydney Morning Herald 17th October 2012; letters to the editor 18th October, 19th October and 22nd October 2012.
 Sydney Morning Herald, 11th June 2013, letters to the editor and cartoon.
 Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General, Annual Report 2011-12, Office of the Official Secretary, Canberra 2012: 42
 ibid, Appendix B ‘Order of Australia Awards’: 64-65