Politics

The view from Billinudgel

Do we really need an honours system?
Australia Day honours are at odds with our democratic ideals

Source © Commonwealth of Australia 2016

The divisive detritus of our booze-fuelled celebration of jollity and jingo has been shovelled away for another year.

Now we can get on with what is really important: dual citizenship, religious privilege, arguing about energy and, of course, money – especially the rainbow gold of tax cuts in all their manifestations.

But before we return to what we laughingly call normal, one quick look back at January 26, 2018: do we really need an honours system? Do we really require an order of esteemed ranks, a hierarchy of gongs determined by a group of unelected worthies (dare one call them an elite?), which, on the face of it, appears to be an affront to the ideal of Australian egalitarianism and democracy?

It is less exclusive than it used to be – more women, a fair sprinkling of what are still called ethnics. Thankfully, there are fewer political hacks and apparatchiks – although it should be noted that Brian Loughnane, whose sole contribution to the public good has been propagandising for Tories at home and abroad, gets another reward. And the emphasis on scientists and doctors, perhaps driven by Turnbull’s advocacy of innovation, is a bit smarter than the slew of sportspeople and entertainers who normally swell the numbers.

But the hard fact is that the lists that bulk up the morning papers each year are far from representative of our diverse population, and suggest that a vestige of the despised British class system still lingers at the edges of the cultural cringe.

The very names of the order give them away: they are unashamedly derived from those of our pre-colonial British imperialist masters. Malcolm Turnbull has mercifully scrapped Tony Abbott’s knights and dames, although not retrospectively – Prince Philip remains a tenured member of the bunyip aristocracy. We retain, however, companions (but not mates), officers (but not other ranks) and members (but not commoners) – and at the very bottom something called an OAM, which may stand for an Ordinary Also-ran Medal.

Then there are separate categories for the military, awards for police, firefighters and ambulance workers, and even a Public Service Medal, whose recipients’ work is invariably described as “outstanding” – this presumably means that they have been there for a long time without conspicuously stuffing things up.

The convenor of the annual ceremony, Governor-General Sir (an Abbott award) Peter Cosgrove, insists that it is really pretty transparent: after all, anyone can nominate anybody. But obviously very few can be bothered to do so, and those that do self-evidently have barrows to push.

There are always calls for the honours list to be more inclusive; feminists in particular want the current gender ratio of about two-to-one against them to be improved. But before they agitate too fiercely, it might be worth adapting Groucho Marx’s famous remark. Do you really want to be a member of a club that condescends to admit you? And for that matter, does any independent, fair-minded Australian?

Which brings us back to the point: do we really need our honours system? And more importantly, do we really want one in a modern multicultural society that, we are assured, is committed to a fair go for all?

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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