Whitlam didn’t really end our old honours system. We’re still handing Orders of Australia to the wrong people

By Nicholas Gruen

Monday February 10, 2020

We think of Gough Whitlam’s government as the most radical in our post-war history, dedicated to its leader’s “crash through or crash” style. (In the end, it crashed.) But Whitlam’s approach to Australian honours was bold only on the surface.

Imperial Honours were scrapped. Today it’s rare for Australia’s worthies to run round town being called “Sir Bruce and Lady So and So” or “Dame Raylene” by every Tom, Dick and Harry in the street (or Sir Tom, Sir Dick and Sir Harry at the club).

Prime Minister Tony Abbott briefly reintroduced the titles “Sir” and “Dame” in 2014 but it didn’t end well. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser had a (less controversial) go four decades earlier.

However, when you look closely, it becomes clear that the Whitlam government didn’t so much change the old system as re-brand it.

Read more: We’re awarding the Order of Australia to the wrong people

In the imperial days there was a hierarchy of awards, and although there was some correlation between your achievement and the level of the honour you received, where you already stood in the social hierarchy counted for more.

If you were out there selflessly contributing to your local community, you might eventually get an MBE (that’s a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).

If you got luckier and had made more of a splash, you might get an OBE. That made you an “Officer” of the order. Above that was the CBE, which made you a “Commander”.

We’ve had the hierarchy the wrong way round

At the very serious end of this spectrum were two awards. A prominent departmental secretary or businessperson might be made a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or a Dame Commander if she were a woman. They could call themselves Sir Bruce or Dame Raylene. (I know of no transitions from Knight to Dame of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, but for all I know they’re all over this back in the Home Country alongside the official coins and tea towels honouring Brexit.)

If you were really special – say you were a governor-general or ex-prime minister or perhaps an internationally recognised scientist or a top business figure, you might become Knight Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire or Dame Grand Cross. Still, in everyday life, you only got called “Sir Bruce” or “Dame Raylene”, so mostly only Sir Tom, Sir Dick and Sir Harry down at the club would know that you were a cut above them.

Sir Robert Menzies, circa 1963.
Unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery

There was all manner of gongs to be won even above that for the very, very special, at which point the fancy dress came out and the fun really got going.

Australia’s longest-serving prime minister Robert Menzies couldn’t get enough of them.

On the death of the incumbent in the position (Sir Winston Churchill), the Queen invested him Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle, which included an official residence at Walmer Castle for his annual visits to Britain.

Under the new Australian honours system brought in by the Whitlam government, there were no more Sir Bruce and Lady So-and-So or Dame Raylenes. But virtually everything else was left intact.

The new Australian Honours were described as “orders of chivalry” which is quaint. And chivalrous I guess. They were formally instituted not by the Whitlam government, but by Her Majesty (on Prime Minister Whitlam’s advice) and her crown sits atop all the Australian Honours medals. As previously, there’s a civilian and a military division.

What’s changed? The awards are more visible

Letters appear after people’s names if they want to use them, just as in the old days. But these days there’s a twist. No, I’m not talking about all the people who write “AM” on their Twitter profile. If you’re awarded an honour, in addition to the medal placed around your neck at the ceremony, you get a lapel pin.

Paul Miller/AAP

Because all the honours get one and most seem to wear them around town, and not just at official functions or in Anzac Day marches where those who won medals are celebrated for them, in some ways the new awards are more conspicuous than the old ones.

And the values that drive them are much the same. The rank or status of the reward you receive depends mostly on your social status rather than your achievement.

People in high-status jobs receive the overwhelming bulk of the high-status honours (ACs and AO). The low-status orders go to people of lower status who are often doing good things in their own time rather than as part of their job.

As I noted last year, the level of gratitude among recipients seems to follow an equal and opposite arc. Those at the bottom seem the most thrilled for being recognised the least. As Anne Summers lamented in 2013:

“Seven years ago I nominated a woman I admire for an Australian honour. It took two years but it came through and she was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for a lifetime of work with victims of domestic violence. I was disappointed she had not been given a higher award – I had hoped for an AM (Member of the Order of Australia) at the very least – but she was thrilled and so was her family.”

In the run-up to commenting on these honours last year, Lateral Economics sampled about half of them from 2018 back to 2013. We’ve now looked at both the Australia Day and Queen’s birthday lists from 2019 and the 2020 Australia Day list.1 I can report that the features I was most critical of last year are alive and well, though in one respect they’re improving (slowly).

Things are improving, a little

The under-representation of women seems to be improving, if very slowly. And it is unclear how secure the gains are, given that women’s under-representation increased quite sharply in 2014 and reached its recent zenith in 2017.

(I note it surged after the election of Coalition in 2013, but I’ve insufficient data at this point to be confident of trends.)

Last year I reported that, with the exception of the highest award (the AC, of which there are very few) women were substantially best represented in “lowest” award, OAM.

Since then the representation has become more even.

We also looked at how many honours went to those whose “official honours” biographies include work done without personal gain.

Here, as you can see that, again with the exception of the volatile AC results, the more selfless you are, the lower in the hierarchy your award is likely to be. There is no sign of change.

Thanks to Shruti Sekhar for research assistanceThe Conversation. This article was first published at The Conversation, and has been expanded here by the author.


1. About five percent were not included for reasons of data quality – for instance, biographies were not available from the Government House site.

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
The Mandarin Premium

Insights & analysis that matter to you

Subscribe for only $5 a week

Get Premium Today