On Australia Day 2018 | Reflections

Much Writing, Many Opinions, Not a lot of History. Bark of the Scribbly Gum (Eucalyptus sclerophylla), Blue Mountains, New South Wales.  Image Mohamed Mokak

I have been reading and watching and hearing the debate/conflict around Australia Day over the past few weeks, and past few years.  There are many views and opinions, so instead of writing history with footnotes this post is just another opinion, another view, to add to the – I’d like to say conversation, but that seems too genteel a word for much of what I observe.  I choose opinion rather than history because, while ‘history’ is claimed by many, few seem able to distinguish history from polemic.  After recently reading that Irish people fleeing the potato famine resisted being transported to Sydney in 1788 on the First Fleet … I gave up in despair.

First, disaggregate

My first point is to disaggregate the date (26th January) and the celebration (Australia Day), and have a look at each in turn.

26th January is the anniversary of a distinct historical event, the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove.  This was an event that has had huge and continuing consequences for the continent, and the peoples who chose to live here, and the societies around us in the South Pacific and South East Asia.  These consequences don’t begin and end at the high-water mark.  They are not contained by 21st century borders.  26th January was commemorated before 1808 as the Day of Landing, recalling journeys rather than boundaries.

The consequences for the Indigenous countries and peoples of this continent cannot be ignored or obscured.  Invasion, colonisation, dispossession.  These are traumas that last for generations, and affect both the colonised and the colonisers, and all their descendants.  I am not Indigenous, and can’t presume to speak for Indigenous peoples.  But, I think we non-Indigenous people deny ourselves the chance to come to terms with our inheritances if we continue to deny, or choose not to hear, the stories being told by Indigenous peoples about what this date means for them.  What is it that we really want to bequeath to coming generations?

I do think the 26th January should continue to be observed as a significant date – but to name it and celebrate it as we do now cannot be sustained.

Sydney Cove, where the First Fleet landed in 1788. This nationally significant historic landscape shows, for those who want to see, the true balance between inheritance and mammon.  Image mrbbaskerville

Australia Day is a celebration that has had several names and been held on several other dates.  I remember it, before the late-80s, as just another long-weekend that heralded the return to school and work after summer holidays.  Fireworks, flag-waving, parades, angst –these things were not especially apparent.  The coincidence of the date and the name dates from 1935.  The sanctification the date and the celebration dates from 1994.

It is instructive to note the contexts for this evolution.  The name ‘Australia Day’ arose when preparing for the 1938 sesquicentenary of Australia as part of the Empire.  It is an imperial name.  The awarding of honours on 26th January dates from the early 1970s and the invention of the Order of Australia.  It came as part of the ‘new nationalism’ of that period in the wake of the British government’s abandonment of the Commonwealth in favour of Europe.  Until then, New Year’s Day had been perfectly fine for announcing honours.  The specific sanctifying of Australia Day by making it a holiday on the precise calendar date of 26th January conflates it with the 1990s republic campaign.  We lost a long-weekend (except for calendrical serendipity) in another wave of nationalism.

Honours: Centenary of Federation Medal and the ‘crimson thread of kinship’. Image mrbbaskerville

These decisions were all made ‘inside the bubble’ of the political classes, not by us.  As this genealogy shows, ‘Australia Day’ is really a relatively recent phenomenon, an accumulation of events and decisions, driven by imperialism, then abandonment, then nationalism.  With each new political imperative an attempt was made to anchor it to a definitive ‘historical’ date, to add some lustre of ‘authenticity’, to put it beyond questioning and present ‘Australia Day’ as an old and enduring thing.  Each change was driven by a crumbling of previous political and ideological frameworks, and the current questioning can be understood as simply the next chapter in what is the actual ‘old story’.

Is disagreement really a problem anyway?

An argument often advanced is that Australia Day is for partying and having a jolly time without any whingers ‘spoiling things’.  ‘Be happy’, we’re exhorted (with the implication ‘and don’t be traitorous’).  But is there really a problem with debating (as distinct from crudely celebrating) the meaning of Australia Day on 26th January?  The argument does raise consciousness of the impacts of 1788, especially for non-Aboriginal people.  I wonder if that actually makes it more meaningful in some perverse way, just as republicans invariably rise to their soap boxes on the Queen’s Birthday holiday.  No other public holidays seem to attract any debate or discussion, and tend to pass quietly over a somnolent long-weekend.  Perhaps these are the two events that have truly deep resonances for Australians and their multiple identities, while all the others are just days-off?

Some suggestions have been made to change the date of Australia Day to that on which Australia becomes a republic (rarely ‘if’, always confidently ‘when’ in this rhetoric), or to replace the Queen’s Birthday holiday with this ‘national’ holiday.  Rarely is a voice raised that this is treason-talk, or that it should be silenced.  Advocates say that either change will be uncontentious and will be unifying.  Frankly, I think this is self-delusional.  Not contentious?  To quote a well-known fictional character, “Tell ‘em they’re dreamin’”.  But, being able to have that discussion is healthy and tends to confirm rather than diminish the royal holiday’s significance – because we actually talk about it rather than slumber.

To build something new from the ruins of the old means talking with each other, exploring the shades of grey. Ruins of Maley’s Mill, Greenough, Western Australia after the fire of 2013. Image LBaskerville.

Marking the seasons

Why do we have public holidays anyway?  I’m guessing they originate in rituals to mark the passing or turning of the seasons, for reasons both pragmatic and spiritual.

We already have some of these.  Perhaps the most relevant is Melbourne Cup Day, which informally marks the beginning of the summer holiday season.  26th January has been its bookend, marking the end of summer, whatever called.  A holiday at the end of summer has a pragmatic purpose as a marker, and a ritual purpose as a farewell to the holidays and returning to work.  The political overlaying of Australia Day since the 1930s has tended to obscure this informal seasonal purpose.

Another seasonal date, sometimes a holiday, is 1st September which marks the end of winter and beginning of spring.  It is known as Wattle Day or, in the earlier 20th century, as Australia Day.  It iss about rebirth, or re-emergence after winter, and the blooming of the national flower, the wattle (or specifically, the Golden Wattle).  Golden Wattle blossom ornaments the Commonwealth Coat of Arms (since 1912), provides the decorative forms for the insignia of the Order of Australia (since 1976), and its green and gold foliage provides the national sporting colours (since 1988).

Clearly, there is some coincidence of dates with the serial ordering of Australia Day referred to before, but the difference is that 1st September, like Melbourne Cup Day, is a date without any notable political significance.  That is a strength.

Sandhills or summer-scented wattle (Acacia rostellifera), Bootenal Spring, Western Australia.  This species flowers from July to December, and it is said that there is always a wattle species flowering somewhere across the continent at any time of the year.
Image mrbbaskerville

Do we even need a ‘national’ day?

While some countries have a national day that lacks contention, I’m not really sure such a thing is possible in a settler society.  It may be better to try and turn that contention towards creating change rather than trying to silence it in favour of some illusory neutral ‘fun’ celebration of beer, bbqs and beaches sans angry words.

Many countries manage to have a national holiday without the name of the country in it.  Think Bastille Day, Independence Day, Flag Day, Accession Day, a patron saint’s day, a sovereign’s birthday, Statehood Day, Longest Day of the Year, Liberation Day.  Some relate to ‘nation-building’ events, but not all.  Perhaps, whatever the date, even retaining the name Australia Day needs to be considered.

Another consequence of this debate that has rarely been mentioned but which, logically, must arise at some point, is the ‘State days’, by which I mean those dates on which the various state and territories celebrate their own ‘national’ day.  Those which mark the commencement of colonisation are WA Day, formerly Foundation Day, in Western Australia (first Monday in June), and Proclamation Day in South Australia (28 December).  Canberra Day (second Monday in March), Queensland Day, formerly Separation Day (6 June), Territory Day in the Northern Territory (1 July) and Foundation Day on Norfolk Island (6 March) are similar.  With such State Days available, is a single homogenous national day essential in a country with multiple beginnings?

A land of many flags, many stories. Image mrbbaskerville

Where to next?

A common theme in the opinion writing about Australia Day has been an unwillingness to name an alternate date, or a demand that someone name another date.  The term ‘Australia Day’ hasn’t been questioned so much, although I’m not sure there’s any compelling reason to preserve it.  Perhaps it too has ‘had its day’, so to speak, and another name without the historical baggage may be better.

This are my suggestions for replacing an Australia Day celebrated on 26th January.

26th January should be retained as a significant day, devoted to reflection and contemplation, atonement and redemption, in a secular or civic space.  Colonisation commenced on that date, and we need to face this and its consequences.  I think the original name for this date, the Day of Landing, is both historically descriptive and sufficiently ambiguous to provoke people to think about what happened, about consequences and about futures.  It should be a day with similar sensibilities as Anzac Day.

A seasonal holiday is still needed to mark the end of summer, and I think we could create a new Summer’s End Long Weekend in the first weekend of February.  This would celebrate the end of summer and return to ‘ordinary’ time, and is deliberately lacking in any political or nationalistic symbolism.  A celebratory Summer’s End first weekend in February would provide a sensitive gap after the atoning Day of Landing.  It would re-establish this holiday in its traditional ‘long-weekend’ form.  The ‘modern’ Australia Day Honours could be returned to New Year’s Day Honours, reinstating an actual tradition for honours.

Summer’s End, in The Rocks where invasion and colonisation began in 1788. Image mrbbaskerville

If we really need to have a specific national day, then at this stage 1st September is my suggestion, named either as Australia Day or preferably Golden Wattle Day.  This would enable some element of traditionalism to be included in the day, as it has a history as an informal national day, and it could celebrate the date of which the Golden Wattle was formally adopted as the national floral emblem on 1 September 1988.  It would also have the seasonal, celebratory neutrality of Summer’s End.

Finally, if we should have a national day with cultural and political resonances, then I think that can only really come in the future when a treaty or treaties have been made between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.  We must address the fundamental issue, the original sin, at the heart of our commopnwealth, to properly hear and listen and respond to that “whispering in the bottom of our hearts” described by Richard Windeyer in 1844.  The circle can never otherwise be closed.

I find inspiration in the words of the Uluru Statement from the Heart of 25 May 2017, especially in these two passages that intersect place and time:

This sovereignty is a spiritual notion, the ancestral tie between the land, or mother nature, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom … it has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.  How could it be otherwise?

This our ancestors did,

according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation;

according to the common law, from time immemorial; and

according to science, for more than 60,000 years.

Creation, common law, spirit, co-existence – how, indeed, can it be otherwise?  And yet this is what was so flippantly dismissed by our republican prime minister, avid defender of Australia Day 26th January.  Now, I suspect, it will be time for him to reap the whirlwind.

Treaty Day, or Uluru Day, on 25th May, would be an honourable day and date for which we can all strive.

How could it be otherwise? Image Parks Australia


The annual Australia Day Wars: this year’s winners

The phrase ‘a modern Australia’ is constantly used by some parts of the political class, implying any disagreement could only come from the most troglodyte of citizens. Allain de Botton wrote in The News: A User’s Manual (2014, page 11) “Societies become modern, the philosopher Hegel suggested, when news replaces religion as out central source of guidance and touchstone of authority … The news knows how to render its own mechanics almost invisible and therefore hard to question. It speaks to us in a natural, unaccented voice, without reference to its own assumption-laden perspective. It fails to report that it does not merely report on the world, but is instead constantly at work crafting a new planet in our minds in line with its own highly distinctive priorities.”


With that in mind, the last two Australia Days, in 2015 and 2016, have witnessed pitched battles through the media, each of which could be conceptualized as surrogate battles between republicans and monarchists for control of the day. Battles, this is, fought within the political class (in which I include the media), to which the general public have largely been bewildered onlookers.

The signal event in each year was the Australian knighthood conferred on Prince Philip in 2015, and the Australian of the Year Award conferred on recently retired Lieutenant General David Morrison in 2016. There were other events and debates, but these two dominated the media coverage and are similar enough to allow for comparisons to be made.

In this post, I compare and analyse press coverage of the two battles to see if any winners or losers can be detected, and our bewilderment assuaged.

I collected items in the ‘mainstream’ media (Sydney Morning Herald representing Fairfax, Daily Telegraph and The Australian representing Murdoch, and Crikey, an independent online news outlet), published between 26 and 30 January in 2015 and 2016. The items include reporting, opinion pieces, and letters from readers, totaling 390 items in 2015 and 207 in 2016.

In order to remain consistent with the language of the 1999 referendum, items categorized as ‘Yes’ means they are supportive of a republic, ‘No’ means they are opposed to a republic, or supportive of the monarchy (not necessarily synonyms), and ‘Other’ means related to the issue, but without explicit or reasonably implicit alignment with either side. Typically, ‘Other’ items relate to the national flag, gender issues and/or commentary on personal characteristics or physical attributes. This category also includes Indigenous issues, which appear to have received much less media attention than before 2015.

This post does not pretend to be a scientific survey or analysis, and these results are presented here for interest and discussion rather than as proof of any particular argument.

Some analysis

  1. Inverse relationships between media writing and popular writing

In 2015, reporting/opinion writing was 55% for a republic, 45% against; readers writing was 46% for a republic, 54% against. The reader writing was almost an exact replication of the referendum result 16 years earlier, suggesting there had been no change in public opinion over that long period.

In 2016, reporting/opinion writing was 62.5% for a republic, 37.5% against; reader writing was 39.5% for a republic, 61.5% against. They were diametrically opposite of each other, suggesting a strong polarization over the previous 12 months, and a strong disconnection between media and reader points of view. Overall, there was a consistent ratio of about 1 media article produced for every four readers letters published.

  1. Honours and honour attacked each time:

In 2015, knighthoods per se, Prince Phillip personally, and Abbott as initiator of the knighthood, were all attacked as ridiculous for their ideological (monarchical) purity, especially among media writers.

In 2016, Australian of the Year Awards per se, Lt Gen Morrison personally, Turnbull as a ‘manipulator’, were all attacked as betraying an ideological (republican) position, especially among media writers.

In both years, reader writing did not necessarily follow the media line, but over the five-day period, tended to become more consistent with it. Whether that reflects the selection processes used in each media house for publishing readers letters, or the patterns in all letters received, is not able to be determined.

  1. Surprise factor each time

In 2015, the knighthood was announced on Australia Day, with no warning. It was a complete surprise. There was some preceding news from Opposition leader Bill Shorten about starting a republic debate the day before, but no obvious connection between the two events.

In 2016, Morrison’s statement committing to republic when accepting the Australian of the Year Award announced on Australia Day eve was a complete surprise. It had a more obvious precursor in the ARM release of 7/8ths of first ministers declaring support for a republic earlier in the day.

  1. Gender issue each time:

In 2015, there were attempts to blame Peta Credlin for either encouraging or not discouraging the royal knighthood, so moving attention away from PM Tony Abbott, and discouraging attention on the merits of the knighthood.

In 2016, Catherine McGregor was castigated for saying Morrison was a ‘conventional’ appointment, so moving attention away from the Australia Day committee, and discouraging attention on Morrison’s republic commentary.

Blaming Credlin was less successful in drawing attention away from the decision maker than disparaging McGregor, whose transgender status attracted more personal attacks. The archetypal Lucretia Borgia and Mata Hari figures were, it seems, quite consciously constructed by media writers, and as such they tell us more about the writers than the two women or their supposed nefarious influences. It was perhaps an unconscious parody in this context that Crikey titled its single editorial piece ‘Time to grow some republican balls’.

  1. Media writing patterns

In 2015, Fairfax published ‘Yes’ articles every day (7 ‘Yes’ over the period, 1 ‘No’); Murdoch was more sporadic, with 3 ‘Yes’ and 2 ‘No’ articles over the period; and Crikey carried neither Yes nor No articles, but 7 ‘Other’ articles.

In 2016, Fairfax again published ‘Yes’ articles every day (13 ‘Yes’ over the period, and 1 ‘No’); Murdoch was again sporadic, with 6 ‘Yes’ (all on two days), and 8 ‘No’ across all days; Crikey carried 1 ‘Yes’ article and 0 ‘No’ articles.

Comparing 2015 and 2016, Fairfax producing multiple ‘Yes’ articles both years, and a token ‘No’ article; Murdoch was more sporadic in coverage, with a larger volume in 2016 compared to 2015, but ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ roughly balanced until the final day in the period (30 January) when ‘No’ took the lead; Crikey produced nothing in 2015, one editorial only in 2016.

These patterns suggest Fairfax writers are committed and enthusiastic republicans, as are its readers (ARM Chair Peter FitzSimons says he’s a ‘Fairfax man’, and Fairfax sponsored a NSW Australian of the Year entrant); Murdoch sees its readers as more aligned to monarchy, but has to balance that with its owner’s republican sentiments (and it tends to use more cartoons and satire, less wordy arguments); Crikey aligns with the Fairfax position, but doesn’t really seem to regard republicans v. monarchists as a core interest of its readers.

  1. Letter writing patterns

In 2015, Fairfax published letters every day, 9 ‘Yes’, 11 ‘No’ and 30 ‘Other’ letters; Murdoch also published every day, 21 ‘Yes’, 38 ‘No’, 64 ‘Other’ letters; and Crikey also published every day, 17 ‘Yes’, 7 ‘No’, and 63 ‘Other’ letters.

In 2016, Fairfax again published every day, 12 ‘Yes’, 10 ‘No’, 22 ‘Other’ letters; Murdoch again published every day, 8 ‘Yes’, 56 ‘No’, 26 ‘Other’ letters; Crikey also published every day, 4 ‘Yes’, 7 ‘No’, 10 ‘Other’ letters.

Comparing 2015 and 2016, Fairfax published a similar volume of letters, roughly balanced between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, but with ‘Other’ topics higher; Murdoch published a larger volume in both years, but with a dramatic increase in ‘No’ and decrease in ‘Yes’ and ‘Other’ letters in 2016; Crikey published a low volume of letters, with ‘Yes’ and ‘Other’ falling, while ‘No’ remained steady.

These patterns suggest Fairfax letter writers are ‘rusted on’ to Fairfax, talking to each other, and perhaps avoiding direct confrontation through ‘Other’ topics; Murdoch letter writers may have been unsure in 2015, but in 2016 were firmly in the ‘No’ camp; and Crikey letter writers counter-intuitively switched from ‘Yes’ to ‘No’, but only because of fall in ‘Yes’ letters rather then rise in ‘No’. It is also worth noting that the two media in which letter writers changed views, Crikey and Murdoch, have more continental audiences (although no letters from WA, NT or Tasmania were published), while Fairfax letter writers’ addresses are mainly in the southeastern capitals. This would not be an auspicious sign for any advocate of constitutional change.

  1. The ‘Other’ category counts items that relate to the issue, more or less directly, but without explicit or reasonably implicit alignment with either side.

In 2015, the other issues were changing the flag, desirability of a republic, role of Credlin and her gender (cast as a scheming femme fatale controlling an implicitly de-masculinised and effete Abbott), the credibility of knighthoods, abolition of knighthoods, personal attacks on Prince Philip, and warnings of Abbott’s impending doom if he didn’t focus on ‘proper’ political issues such as the economy.

In 2016, the other issues were changing the flag, demands for a republic, conflation of demands for another republic referendum with equal marriage and Aboriginal recognition referenda, role of the Australia Day committee, credibility of Australian of the Year awards, personal attacks on Morrison, Turnbull’s ‘breaking hearts’ and treachery (implicitly a hollow man chasing power), complaining about Australian of the Year recipients hectoring and lecturing people with trendy ‘politically correct’ views, and sniping about gender issues (McGregor was cast as a hysterical queen undermining the sound republican Morrison).

Some conclusions

The most critical conclusion is probably that popular opinion moved strongly towards the monarchy between Australia Day 2015 and 2016, and even more emphatically after Australia Day 2016. Views hadn’t really changed much since 1999, but the public battle over Prince Philip’s Australian knighthood had a polarizing effect with the letter-writing public noticeably cleaving to the monarchist position.

The political class (in which I include the mainstream media) has moved decisively over the past twelve months towards a republic, while popular views have moved just as decisively towards the monarchy, suggesting a strong disconnection between the political class and the public. Some of this polarizing may come from a revival of the old, remembered divisions leading up to the 1999 referendum that people either do not want, or want to delay, re-visiting.   Such a conclusion is consistent with the trend in polling on the issue. Even the self-selecting Sydney Morning Herald readers’ panel, which on 30 January 2015 voted 72% for a republic and 20% against, had evolved by 30 January 2016 to 59% for a republic referendum now, 22% for waiting until the Queen dies to hold a referendum (who may vote Yes or No) and 14% supporting monarchy.

In both cases, these battles originated in the Prime Ministers’ Office. The knighthood was a personal decision of PM Abbott. The Australian of the Year Award was a decision of a body located in the Prime Ministers’ Office of PM Turnbull. In neither instance was the decision made within the traditional honours system, located within the Governor General’s household, of which the Order of Australia is the best-known component. The cumulative effect of the two battles has probably undermined public respect for the honours system generally through a perception of a blatant politicization of honours processes and outcomes. It is a clear illustration of why all honours must be kept separate from partisan politics.

In terms of the tone of the media coverage, the republican-aligned press was clearly surprised by the reaction in 2016. It did not recognize any near-identical flip side of 2015 reactions. The derisory responses to Prince Philip’s knighthood appear to have set the rules and tone for the counter-response to Morrison’s Australian of the Year Award. For example, in 2015 a Fairfax write described Prince Philip as “Phil the Greek … the most mocked and least useful member of the royal family who is not currently accused of sex orgies with teenagers”. In 2016, a Murdoch writer described Morrison as having a “…fierce, almost jihadist fanaticism in his eyes, the tightened facial muscles, what might be taken to be self-righteous vindictiveness lurking in his delivery”. Similarly, Abbott was mocked as a Quixote-like medieval knight, and Turnbull was derided as a Benedict Arnold-like traitor. Prince Phillip and Morrison, Abbott and Turnbull have had their defenders among the letter writers, many of who seemed repulsed by such insights into the vulgarity of political class thinking. The characterizations are demeaning and their purpose remains obscure (to outsiders, at least), but 2015 seems to have set a template for 2016.

The attacks on Credlin in 2015 and McGregor in 2016 point to a propensity to attribute the cause for perceived ‘failures’ by men in this matter (Abbott, Prince Phillip, Turnbull, Morrison) to cunning, sexually threatening women. This points to the primal emotions involved in issues around monarchy, identity and honour, emotions that go way beyond any black-letter legalism.

The ‘surprise factor’ is evident in both years. Making surprise announcements, especially on an “it’s done, get over it” basis, concerning identities, monarchy, honours and symbols will produce very negative reactions. This indicates the level of deep emotion involved, and the need for proposals for change to be preceded by long lead times with lots of public foregrounding and open discussion. Such changes cannot be airily cast as ‘simple’ constitutional matters. The surprise story of the premier’s ‘declaration’, released on the morning of Australia Day-eve, probably antagonized the monarchists and primed them for outrage that evening. It had vanished from the media coverage by the 27th (possibly to the quite relief of some first ministers), replaced by accusations of Turnbull’s betrayal of the cause, suggesting the declaration had a contrary effect to that intended.

Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, speaking to the National Press Club, reportedly separated Aboriginal constitutional recognition from republican issues, for which he was attacked as an apologist for Abbott. But there is no necessary connection, in the letter writers, between supporting monarchism and opposition to equal marriage, gender equality, Aboriginal recognition, flag changes or honours (despite some cranky Colonel Blimp letters). One Murdoch opinion writer referred to ‘jingo bandana republicanism’, a label illustrated by the response to McGregor’s critique of Morrison’s appointment: she was attacked by Fairfax republicans and Murdoch conservatives alike as the political class closed ranks around what this analysis suggests is regarded as ‘its’ cause. As FitzSimons said, “Morrison is one of ours”.

Opinion pieces on the last day of the survey were consistent in each media house: Fairfax writers defended the Australian of the Year awards, saying they should not be debased, and blamed ‘nostalgic’ monarchist reactionaries for the conflict; Murdoch writers all professed their true republicanism, but said the time is not yet right to pursue republicanism, it must wait for a while, and blamed FitzSimons for blokey impatience. The Sydney Morning Herald editorialized “The Herald knows the selection board will look closely at the 2016 process…” with all the confidence of an insider.

One final thought around the labeling of republican and monarchist among the media writers. It’s a labeling that harks back to the 1990s and its divisiveness. All the Murdoch writers professed their republicanism, all the Fairfax writers stuck to their stated editorial policy of republicanism. The only professed monarchists were among the letter writers. This whole analysis could be based upon a false binary of republican v. monarchist, when really the battles have been between republican factions (minimalists, direct electionists, jingo bandanistas) seeking to appropriate Australia Day to their cause. But, that’s an issue for another post.

So, who won the battle in 2016?

It could be said, in the annual Australia Day Wars, that the 2015 Battle of Philip was won by the red bandanas, the 2016 Battle of Morrison was won by the gold crowns. The battlefields have both been within the honours system, displaying an iconoclastic disregard for its integrity. The question now is on what grounds will the 2017 be battle fought, who will ‘win’, how will it be reported, who will report it, and will the Australian honours system be further demeaned by crude politicization?


Vale Australia’s Third Knightage

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week announced the abolition of the third Australian knightage – or, as the jubilant Fairfax-Murdoch press complex and the even more triumphant social media opinionists shouted, he “abolished knights and dames”. What a man!

I have in earlier posts (Why Knighthood Matters in 21st Century Australia, Honours for the Honourably Challenged) supported the restoration of the knighthood level in the Order of Australia or elsewhere within the Australian honours system. I continue to do so. However, the enraptured celebrations of the Turnbullistas, and the square metres of media space given to the gleeful FitzSimons-Turnbull republicans to broadcast their support for this bold, brave move, have given me pause to reflect upon the nature of the latest abolition and the character of the responses to it.

The responses, as far as I can guage, fall into six main categories: the anachronistic, the nationalistic, the vulgar, the Abbott-hating, the derisive and the simply confused. It’s quite a raffish, larrikinish ensemble, and I’ll consider each in turn.

The anachronistic. Anachronism is one of the principle reasons given by the PM for abolition. Describing something as anachronistic means it is in the wrong time (like an 18th century clock in a 21st century room).  In the academic world it is a pejorative, but it is used in the vernacular to mean something like old-fashioned or out-of-date, although not necessarily bad. Apparently, it doesn’t apply to titles such as Adjunct Professor or Honorary Doctor, and it certainly doesn’t apply to the Melbourne Cup, won a few days later by Prince of Penzance (although I heard one sports commentator this morning, apparently desperate to stay in the new zeit, call it Pirate of Penzance!), with the jockey described in much of the press the next day as the Cup Queen of Queen of the Sport. Anachronism, it seems, can be quite desirable in some circles.

The nationalistic. This has perhaps been the most bellicose of the responses, with all sorts of claims about imperial honours, toadying to the palace and the general un-Australianess of allowing someone to have the uppity pre-nominal title Sir or Dame which is contrary to our legendary egalitarian (and I mean, legendary). The knighthoods were a level within the Order of Australia, and unless Australia is now an Empire, and they are awarded to imperial subjects in oh, I don’t know, say Manus or Nauru or Mawson, such claims are the ultimate in 1950s cultural cringe made by nationalistic Rip van Winkel’s still stuck nostalgically reading the Bulletin of the 1890s.

The derisive. In many ways a variant on the anachronistic and nationalistic strands, found especially in the medium of cartoons that can be relied upon to depict the characters in some sort of medievalist setting and, by implication, casting anyone not antagonistic to knighthoods as anachronistic and deserving of being cast out of the polis. The fact that these depictions and allusions bear little, if any, relationship to the actual medieval world is beside the point. This is the Medieval Australia we never had, but apparently must have now, to show the cleverness of the anti-knights, to have existing prejudices confirmed through a cartoon medium that always contains a sense of epicaricacy.  To be ahistorical is to be modern.

The vulgar.  Another variant on the nationalistic, and particularly favoured in the cold anonymity of social media commentary. Those not sufficiently opposed to knighthoods, those who received knighthoods, and of course Tony Abbott, are generally described in very short, often single-word sentences that, in a sort of unconscious anachronism, rely almost exclusively on a broad knowledge of terms popularly considered to be old Anglo-Saxon words for cursing and describing those who have annoyed or offended, and intimating physical violence will be used on dissenters.

The Abbott-hating. The focus of these responses was on characteristics attributed to the former PM, with nationalism and vulgarity heavily featured. A key element in these responses is the acceptable racism of Brit-bashing, in which a circular narrative positions Abbott as a foreigner because he was born in Britain, and because of that he must retain some sort of genetic loyalty to a foreign monarch, which means he is British and so un-Australian (any nationality can be inserted into this old formula). There is a strong whiff of American birtherism and Social Darwinism in some of these responses, which along with the nationalistic and vulgar strands points to the capacity for the internet to both connect closed minds and to keep them truly closed.  It is an ironic response in a migrant society.

 The simply confused. All of the above strands will be evident in these responses to some degree. It is characterised by the ad nauseam references to imperial honours, and illustrated in one Fairfax opinion piece that, on the one hand, actually said something sensible and even supportive of Prince Charles, but then, almost as if surprised by this, concluded he would have made a suitable candidate for an Australian knighthood. Prince Charles was made a knight in the Order of Australia in 1981! Never let historical accuracy get in the way of political rhetoric.  A Murdoch opinionist demanded to know why the Queen had to approve changes to the rules of the Order, in a casebook example of never letting actual knowledge about the Order get in the way on forthright opinionising.

These responses reveal much about the people who use these tropes. They suggest that the media savvy anti-knighthood warrior is one who is thoroughly and consciously modern (although in a post-modern world, does that make them already anachronistic?), who is truly, really, 100% Australian (with no qualms about living on stolen land), who is never short of a clever phrase, sharp response or derisory smirk to anything that offends them, who can easily hurl the rude or tasteless witticism at any time, who may have a special reserve of bile for Tony Abbott and/or any or all current or former elected office holders, and who, perhaps more than anything else, wears their mind-numbing ignorance of the Australian honours system or honours generally as a badge of pride.

Some things have not been evident in the responses, most notably any actual knowledge of the Australian honours system, any real signs of actual republicanism or monarchism, and perhaps most disconcertingly in a liberal democracy, anyone brave enough to stick their head above the parapet and question, let alone dispute, the abolition. The reported response from the leader of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy saying the abolition was simply revenge by a republican for 1999 may contain some shard of truth, but it essentially conforms to a rhetorical framework set up by the abolitionists in which such responses can be cast as fuddy-duddyism and turned to support their characterisations of those who don’t agree with them. Passion in the face of derision will only ever encourage the tormentor.

This post is not a defence of Tony Abbott’s approach to the Australian knightage. As Prime Minister, Abbott mishandled this whole issue from the beginning. The surprise announcement of their restoration, apropos of nothing at the time, was a bad omen from a man who had promised a ‘no surprises’ government. The quality of the early appointments seemed to overcome this surprise until another surprise, an Australia Day appointment of Prince Philip as a knight. Australia Day is the nationalist’s day, when they try and pretend there was no invasion in 1788, and so their online response at what they perceived as the hijacking of their day became the story du jour in the ‘old’ media, who needed to do little to turn such frothing content into printed words other than give instructions to some cartoonists. They had such fun with that that it became impossible for anyone to defend the appointment without also being subject to a self-righteous bollicking in the middle-class press.

By the time Abbott tried a tactical retreat on the issue by returning the right to nominate knights to the Order of Australia Council (from which it should never have been removed), he had inflicted a grievous wound on the third knightage. More than anything else, the interaction (or failure of interaction) between Abbott’s office and a content-hungry media revealed to the public the shemozzle within the political classes. The knightage had been dangerously politicized, worse in a way than the old honours-for-mates knighthoods of the 1980s that finally killed off the first knightage. The Order of Australia Council could have made recommendations for knighthoods after this point, but seems to have instead opted for silence.

Tony Abbott had a chance to invest some of his political capital, while it still existed early in his term, in a broad public discussion of the Australian honours system and how it could be improved (and there’s plenty to improve). That would have provided a context for introducing the idea of restoring knighthoods, and ensured a more reasoned discussion. Even if the outcome had not been a restoration then, it would have opened up discussion about appropriate means to honour achievement and merit in ways that are more inspirational than the current system and that may, one day, have provided a space for restoring the knightage. Rather, a hubristic moment was allowed to prevail over an opportunity for introducing a considered and enduring change that could appeal to tradition, to moderation and to the generations who had not experienced the ignominy of the end of the first knightage and were curious about the idea.

Instead, we have now had to endure the degrading spectacle of the mainstream and online media yet again participating in and shaping the hunt, well-blooded by the recent years of priming the leadership battles with which the political classes have been amusing themselves. Bringing down a prime minister is now passé, but nasty personal attacks on Prince Philip, criticisms and sly imputations that people such as Dame Marie Bashir or Sir Peter Cosgrove were just grubs with their snouts in the trough, and any number of ever-more bizarre conspiracy theories, especially online, really showed an ugly, callous and spiteful element in the character of our country and, indeed, in many of us.

Abbott’s method of restoring the Australian knightage proved to be unacceptable, and in this his cryptic personality played a role. However, the virulence of the anti-knights is cast from the same mould, as is the pseudo-casual and smug manner with which Prime Minister Turnbull dispatched the third knightage. If only one lesson is learned from this whole fiasco, it should be that neither politicians nor the media (that is, the political classes) should be allowed anywhere near the honours system, especially in shaping the system and its rules, or participating in the nomination or assessment components of that system, although they should remain eligible for awards. As it is, any chance to review and ‘modernise’ (in the current lexicon) the Australian honours system now seems to have been lost for another generation.

And what we are now left with? Dame Quentin Bryce, Dame Marie Bashir, Sir Peter Cosgrove, Sir Angus Houston and Prince Philip, and by implication Sir Ninian Stephen and Prince Charles (from the second knightage) none of whom were politicians, and who each have been recipients of the highest honour bestowed by the Commonwealth of Australia, have had their reputations questioned, their dignity trashed and even their physical appearance ridiculed by an ugly mob sharing the shadenfreude delights of the political classes, in our very own Australian virtual Place de la Revolution. That’s cause enough for national shame, but even worse is that the ugly mob was us. No-one defended our actual, living, feeling ‘knights and dames’. They were, by our silence, thrown to the arm chair revolutionaries, and we all played the role of Madame Defarge, click, click, click. By our silence we let it happen to them, and no amount of disruptiveness, agility, nimbleness or modernity will hide that.  It was an expression of sublime anachronism.

 Vale the Third Knightage.

Why knighthood matters in 21st century Australia

(inspired by snatches of a conversation I overheard between Alain de Botton and Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National Breakfast 26th March 2014, and written the next day)


The Prime Minister’s recent decision to resume nominating pre-eminent Australians to the Queen for the award of a knighthood or damehood within the Order of Australia has attracted the usual loud but confused and largely ignorant response from the political-media classes. Beyond the noise and movement, however, the ‘return’ of knighthood offers us, as a whole society, a comely mirror for reflection upon the role of citizenship in the early 21st century.


At its simplest, the resumption of knighthood (and within that collective noun I include both knights and dames and their partners) is the rational action of the state turning the example of modern celebrity to its own purposes. The pre-nominal title Sir or Dame confers upon its recipients a certain status that conveys a message to the citizenry at large that in the lived actions of these knights and dames can be seen the values of a ‘good citizen’. It also contains the message that every citizen can achieve this status, signified by the title, by how they choose to live their life, by how they choose to give back to their communities and society over their own personal advancement, because it’s the right thing to do.


Leading British educational entrepreneur  Dame Asha Kemka after her investiture in 2013: “I am finding it difficult to express how proud and honoured I feel.  I am immensely grateful to Britain for recognising my strengths and enabling me to achieve my dreams.  But I will never forget my Indian roots.”  Image and quote: http://www.indianewsbulletin.com/nri-asha-khemka-dazzles-in-saree-at-buckingham-palace-as-prince-charles-awards-her-damehood.

In this sense, knighthood is contrasted with the meaninglessness of celebrity in our times that is conferred through the media, by for example television programs marketed as talent, weight loss, cookery and other quests in which the celebrities are celebrated for little more than being celebrated. Their celebrity celebrates vacuousness. It is celebrity for its own selfish sake, is generally fleeting, and involves the celebrity being cast aside, as soon as their ratings begin to fall, in favour of a new celebrity. The private commercial interests of the media owners remain, of course, hidden in this vacuity.


This meaningless celebrity can also be seen in the practice, well known in academic circles, of external people, usually business people, being invited to lecture to students for a semester or some other short period and in return being granted the temporary title of Adjunct Professor. For the temporary academic, the true value of this is the possibility (often realized) of then styling themselves Professor Smith (or whomever) for the rest of their life, which they use to gain a certain professional cache within their own circles and, more importantly, promote their private commercial interests to prospective clients. Whether this devalues the expertise of an actual professor in the real academy is rarely, if ever, discussed in public.


As notions of citizenship have to evolve in the rapidly changing world of the early 21st century, the core values of knighthood, which are explicitly and traditionally about service to others, beyond the self, for a greater good, are the values that the state will seek, indeed needs, to articulate and promote in the state’s own self interest. These values support the ideals of social cohesion, and run counter to the fragmentation of those ideals that is inherent in the cults of mindless self-obsessed commercial celebrity described above. The strategic and controlled use of the crown and knighthood by the state is a clear example of the state learning from the example of celebrity, observing its strengths and defects, and then turning that learning to its own advantage through the ideal of knighthood as meaningful celebrity, or celebration full of meaning.


Danish artist Mikael Melbye painted this self-portrait in 2006 after he was appointed a knight in Denmark.  In revealing the insignia of knighthood in his portrait he invites the viewer to “encounter all that is not revealed right away”, an encounter far deeper than mere celebrity.  Image and quote http://www.mikael-melbye.com/en/gallery/figures/index.php?pid=2

The resumption of appointments to the Australian knighthood is a clear sign, for those who take the time to actually read it, that the state, always dynamic, is evolving in the new circumstances of the new century. It is the ultimate example of egalitarianism because every citizen can aspire to appointment through truly outstanding and inspiring actions. Such actions must clearly place the community and society above the self and the personal. The new knighthood speaks to the real meaning of commonwealth in the early 21st century. It illustrates the state’s need to use the crown’s status as the sole ‘fount of honour’ to harness the values encompassed by the ideals of knighthood to fostering a socially cohesive and dynamic society suited to the demands of the new century.


Of course some of the political-media class don’t like it. They forge words such as medieval, colonial, British and bunyip into weapons to hurl at their opponents, in substitute for any actual argument. The very idea of an Australian knighthood directly affronts their self-assumed right to mediate between the citizenry and its leaders. This is illustrated in claims that the Order of Australia is already much admired and perfectly egalitarian as it is, as though putting the title after the recipients name rather then before is somehow more ‘equal’! It remains a moot point whether, had the new knights and dames been required to only use their post-nominal letters of AK or AD rather than their pre-nominal titles of Sir or Dame, the equity criterion set by the gatekeepers would have been satisfied.


Irish citizen Bono was appointed an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2007, and is shown here after he received his honour at the British Embassy in Dublin.  Instead of the pre-nominal title of Sir, he can use the post-nominal letters KBE.  Image http://www.today.com/id/17854722/ns/today-today_entertainment/t/bow-his-demigodness-bono-knighted/

In their noisy objections they reveal they have long ago captured the higher levels of the Order – and it works perfectly well for them, promoting their own in a cosy self-deception of faux egalitarianism that lets them then lecture the rest of use for not being Australian enough. It also reveals a distinct lack of any critical thinking, an intellectual enslavement to quaint old ideas of 1990s Australian nationalism and its obsession with all things British that blinds them to the evolving character of citizenship, the state and the crown in Australia that is occurring all around them.

I’m no fan of the government’s policies on the environment or asylum seekers, and the method by which the prime minister made his decision will be open to question from within his own ranks, but the actual decision is exactly right for this time. The ‘return of knights and dames’, as some media commentators and some politicians insistently, deliberately and incorrectly term it, is actually a logical and rationale response by the state to the evolving ideas of citizenship in a culture that is awash with opinionated media ‘reporting’ devoid of any real meaning (or even reportage for that matter).



Malaysian artist Kheng Guan Toh created this word cloud for ‘knighthood’ in 2006, illustrating a depth of emotion inherent within the concept of knighthood that is capable of evoking a greater sense of connection through service.  Image http://www.123rf.com/photo_5361099_word-cloud-concept-illustration-of-chivalry-knighthood.html

The values of the contemporary knighthood that will now develop in Australia will have the capacity to provide both inspiration and aspiration to service beyond the self in the interests of a larger common good. It will provide a pathway to social cohesion in which service and duty provide an alternative to materialism and cults of individualism. It also has the capacity to provide, at least for some people, an ethical secular alternative to the exclusive and, in some cases, tainted morality of organised religion. It will enrich the Order of Australia by daring it to live up to its purpose as an ‘order of honour’


The prime minister’s decision is courageous, and I don’t mean that in any Appleby-esque way. Welcome Dame Quentin and Sir Peter, and those who come after you, in making the Australian knighthood a crucible for forging the inclusive, cohesive and inspirational citizenship we need for the new century. I support the resumption of the Australian knighthood.

Honours for the honourably challenged

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).

The Star and Collar of a Knight Grand Cross of...

The Star and Collar of a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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).

Ninian Stephen

Sir Ninian Stephen AK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are currently 55 different formal awards within the honours system, and these sites describe the current quite complex system used in Australia: It’s An Honour and Wikipedia

Some Issues

MeritThe 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.

Matthew Mitcham, gold medal olympian - but meritorious enough for the Order of Australia?  Image Wikipedia

Matthew Mitcham, gold medal olympian – but meritorious enough for the Order of Australia? Image Wikipedia

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.

Sir Douglas Nicholls was the first Aboriginal Australian to be knighted (1972), and the first to appointed a State Governor (1976).  Image SLSA

Sir Douglas Nicholls was the first Aboriginal Australian to be knighted (1972), and the first to appointed a State Governor (1976). Image SLSA

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.

The coat of arms of the Canadian Heraldic Authority, combining traditional Anglo-French design practices with Canadian native plants and animals and imagination.  Image CHA

The coat of arms of the Canadian Heraldic Authority, combining traditional Anglo-French design practices with Canadian native plants and animals and imagination. Image CHA

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[1].  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.

 FederalismThe 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[2].  Encouraging State and Territory honours is consistent with Australia’s federal structure and should be encouraged for the same reasons as above.

The proposed new Order of St David in Wales.  Image BBC

The proposed new Order of St David in Wales. Image BBC

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[3].  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.

Sachin Tendulkar being invested with the regalia of an honorary Officer of the Order of Australia.  Image SMH

Sachin Tendulkar being invested with the regalia of an honorary Officer of the Order of Australia. Image SMH

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[4].  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[5].  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[6].  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.

A recent appointee to the Medal of the Order of Australia.  Image Multicultural Community Centre

A recent appointee to the Medal of the Order of Australia. Image Multicultural Community Centre

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.

Dame Nellie Melba was appointed a Dame of the British Empire in 1918, one of the first Australia women to be honoured with a damehood.  Image NGA

Operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba was appointed a Dame of the British Empire in 1918, one of the first Australia women to be honoured with a damehood. Image NGA

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.

Canadian Honours.  Image Christopher McCreery

Canadian Honours. Image Christopher McCreery

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.

Akram Azini of Western Australia, Young Australian of the Year 2013.  Image Zimbio

Akram Azini of Western Australia, Young Australian of the Year 2013. Image Zimbio


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.

[1] 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

[2] A Matter of Honour, paragraphs 56, 100-101, 174-175, 183-185, recommendation 11

[3] ‘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.

[4] Sydney Morning Herald, 11th June 2013, letters to the editor and cartoon.

[5] Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General, Annual Report 2011-12, Office of the Official Secretary, Canberra 2012: 42

[6] ibid, Appendix B ‘Order of Australia Awards’: 64-65