Australia Day has been plagued by controversies in recent years, and 2020 has been no different. Contentious issues include whether it is appropriate to celebrate on the day of mourning for our First Nations peoples and whether a dress code should be imposed on those attending citizenship ceremonies.
The latest controversy centres on who should receive an award. Bettina Arndt, sex therapist and proud anti-feminist was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to gender equity. Many have condemned this move on social media. Rosie Batty, a former Australian of the Year and domestic violence campaigner has been reported as being “shocked” and “dismayed” at Arndt receiving this award.
Australia Day awards not only recognise the contribution of individuals to Australian society, but also send a powerful message to the community about what is valued. Bettina Arndt’s questionable contribution to gender equality includes being supportive of convicted paedophiles Nicolaas Bester and George Pell. Arndt also claims that sexual assault on university campuses is exaggerated, despite the findings of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s inquiry which found over a fifth of students had been sexually harassed at university.
Arndt has shown support to the misogynist men’s rights movement. Giving her an award therefore endorses and legitimises these beliefs. This toxic version of gender equality sees men as victims — the pendulum has swung too far, and women have gained at men’s expense.
This contrasts with the views of a recent Australian Government Minister for Women. In 2018, Kelly O’Dwyer stated that “gender equality isn’t about pitting girls against boys, or women against men […] gender equality is recognising that girls and women deserve an equal stake in our society and economy”. Australia Day awards are part of this recognition.
Awarding Arndt, however, is a manifestation of backlash. In essence, this action sends a message that gender equality has gone too far and men’s rights are to be valued above women’s and children’s rights. Gender equality benefits both men and women — it is not a competition which men have to win.
Australia has slipped from being 16th on gender equality in 2006, to now being 44th out of 149 countries. Clearly, Australia has some way to go before gender equality for Australian women is achieved. Awarding those who undermine genuine gender equality is unlikely to raise Australia’s status on global gender equality, or assist Australian women.
The awards process is opaque. Nominations are made to the Council for the Order of Australia, which consists of 19 members. Liz Broderick, former Sex Discrimination Commissioner is on this council, which makes Arndt’s award even more curious.
Nominations are considered twice a year, and assessed according to three criteria, including “demonstrated achievement at a high level”. The website does not state whether awards are awarded on a consensus or majority vote of the council. Transparency in the process would assist our understanding of exactly how awardees are chosen.
Arndt’s award should be revoked. Section 4(4) of the Terminations and Cancellations Ordinance enables the governor-general to revoke an award if the awardee has “has behaved or acted in a manner that has brought disrepute on the order”. In order to maintain the integrity of the awards process, and the validity of those awards already given out, this revocation should occur as a matter of priority.
Dr Sue Williamson is a Senior Lecturer, Human Resource Management at UNSW Canberra and is an expert in workplace gender equality. These views are the author’s own and are not to be taken to be the views of UNSW Canberra. Dr Williamson acknowledges the contribution of BlackHeart_Bish for drawing her attention to the relevant legislation.