Those inducted last month into the Order of Australia, "with the approval of the Sovereign by instrument signed by the Governor-General", should be as pleased as punch and other citizens should be content that sterling efforts have been so recognised.
Nevertheless, the system must be seen, in the nicest way, for what it is - a bunyip aristocracy.
It's the hierarchical British Imperial honours system with different designations, minus the knighthood honorific. The awards are pointedly announced on the commemoration of the Queen's birthday and the arrival of Captain Arthur Phillip's fleet on our shores.
The derivative nature of the OoA, especially its hierarchy, is at least partly the cause of discontents affecting it, prominently the under-representation of women in the higher levels of the awards.
It's claimed this is improving but in the latest list women snagged 30 per cent of gongs in the top two levels (the AC and AO) although about 45 per cent at all levels. As the top two levels are predominantly the preserve of what might be fancied as society's "upper echelons" - judges, senior private and public sector personnel and professors - in which women are under-represented, the OoA awards reflect that. For example, in the last month's lists, professors took 20 or 40 per cent of the AOs although only four of these were women.
The hierarchy of OoA relies on criteria through which an oil tanker could be driven and it requires value judgments that would tax Her Majesty and the Governor-General, still less those advising them. The criteria are:
- AC - "for eminent achievement and merit of the highest degree in service to Australia or to humanity at large"
- AO - "for distinguished service of a high degree to Australia or to humanity at large"
- AM - "for service in a particular locality or field of activity or to a particular group"
- OAM - "for service worthy of particular recognition."
Nominees are also expected to have "made a contribution over and above what might be expected through paid employment".
A few comments on this mish-mash.
- The Oxford Dictionary defines "eminent" and "distinguished" as synonyms.
- It's arguable that service to "humanity at large" can be taken to encompass a range of merit far wider that that recognised by ACs and AOs.
- If Florence Nightingale had been an Australian, a literal interpretation of the criteria might get her an AM.
- "Service worthy of particular recognition" overlaps the other three criteria.
The need for contributions to be "over and above what might be expected through paid employment" is absurd as it could rule out those who have made stupendous contributions only in that way.
Public servants could be awarded on an equal footing with other citizens, including the military.
Moreover, it is clear from award citations that this requirement is routinely ignored. For example, the official justification of an AO for Ms Peta-Louise Credlin, Mr Tony Abbott's former right hand woman and now, apparently, a "media personality", is confined to her "distinguished service to parliament and politics, to policy development and to the executive function of government".
While comparisons can be awkward, the system requires Her Majesty and the GG to make them and it therefore invites observations on their decisions. For example, Ms Credlin has been ranked one level above the Canberra Raiders' Ricky Stuart and two above the noted author, Lily Brett and the former Raiders' titan (pun intended), Glenn Lazarus (a.k.a. "The Brick with Eyes").
While citizens may have mixed feelings about Ms Credlin's inability to save Mr Abbott from the chop, Ricky, Lily and Glenn, via their entertainments, including on the international stage, must have at least matched her contribution to the spiritual contentment of droves of Australians and "humanity at large".
It's difficult to devise criteria for decisions about where worthy nominees should be placed in the OoA hierarchy; the current definitions, however, are haplessly unsatisfactory.
They leave too much scope for wonderment about why some are at one level and others at another with consequent effects on public confidence in the Order's integrity.
There are no such difficulties with the Public Service Medal. It has a single level of award provided to the loftiest heads of agencies and those in the most junior ranks.
Herein there is a lesson, for the PSM seems to eliminate representational distortion obvious in the OoA. Thus, in the June lists, women attracted 58 per cent of the PSMs. On the basis of the June results, a single level in the OoA would give an almost equal ratio of men and women.
There is, however, a problem with the PSM - its existence.
The interdepartmental committee that provided advice leading to its introduction was divided. In light of growing public prejudice about public servants getting OoA gongs, some saw a PSM as a means of acknowledging good work without attracting public odium.
Others thought that any such odium should be stared down and that if officials deserved recognition it should be provided within the OoA rather than in a separate category of an unavoidably lower prestige. After all, the British Imperial honours system essentially was based on providing awards to those who served the executive government. Anyway, in this contest of pragmatism vs principle, pragmatism won, as it usually does.
Finally, there is the council that provides advice to the GG and the Queen on OoA and other awards. It has 18 members, including a serving politician (the Vice President of the Executive Council) and at least one departmental official subordinate to a minister. How any council with so many members can effectively come to grips with the assessments it must make is a mystery.
Moreover, there is a risk of politicisation from the presence of a minister and public servants subject to ministerial direction, a risk recently put on shameless display by Defence Minister Peter Dutton's inappropriate interference in the Chief of Defence Force's decisions to remove unit citations in the line with recommendations of the Brereton report on the alleged behaviour of some ADF personnel in Afghanistan.
So, to pinch a phrase from one of the 20th century's most repulsive politicians, what is to be done?
First, in the best traditions of mythic notions of knock-about Australian equality and consistent with the current rules for the PSM, the OoA could be reduced to a single level of award. This would cancel all misgivings about representation, under for women, over for professors or up the creek for any other group, and public confidence in the system would be bolstered.
Further, it would remove from the council, the Queen and the GG the near to impossible discriminations in worthiness now an integral part of the existing class based hierarchy. The decision would be a simple yes or no.
Second, a single level of OoA would allow the PSM to be abolished as the basis of public misgivings about public servants getting their snouts too much into the honours trough would be nullified. Thus public servants could be awarded on an equal footing with other citizens, including the military.
Third, the notion that awards should be dependent on contributions made other than through "paid employment" could be removed thus allowing claims for superior contributions through such employment to be considered on their merits and without the inconsistency in the present application of this requirement.
Fourth, the advisory council could be reduced to 10 members including a smattering of state representation but minus any politician or public servant subject to political direction.
Is there a prospect any of these suggestions might be taken up? Of course not. That chance was missed when the OoA was established in 1975. Consider the unease of a professor under a new one level scheme being given the same award as lowly ranked ones such have recently been allowed for "entertainment journalism", "parachuting" and "the liturgical arts", when one of his university colleagues had received an AC or an AO.
That would be too cruel.
- Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. firstname.lastname@example.org.