Some years ago, I declined to provide a reference for a well-known public figure who was being nominated for an Order of Australia. I had not been a referee for this woman’s initial nomination, but the office at Government House in Canberra that administers the awards had sought my views as to her suitability.

Rather than put in writing my low opinion of this particular person, I simply replied that I would prefer not to comment. Whether my refusal to endorse her amounted to an effective veto I cannot say. All I know is that she has never received an award and while she would be none the wiser, since nominations are supposed to be confidential, whoever put her name forward must wonder why on earth the nomination did not succeed.

We keep being told by Sir Angus Houston, who runs the advisory council to the awards, and by Sir Peter Cosgrove, the Governor-General, that the only way to increase the paltry number of women receiving awards each Australia Day and Queen’s Birthday is for us all to nominate more.

The numbers of women honoured has never exceeded a patently unjust 30-odd per cent (after being much lower until very recently), and there are no signs of this changing, especially at the most prestigious upper levels of Companion of the Order (AC) and Officer of the Order (AO).

And it is not going to be fixed by increasing the number of nominations.

Apart from the implied insult that it is somehow our fault – for not nominating more – that so few women are apparently deemed worthy of being honoured by their country, this is simply not a practical or realistic way to change the system.

Nominations can fail – as my anecdote illustrates – but the biggest flaw in the system of deciding who will succeed and at what level is that it is capricious, secretive and hypocritical.

There is no transparency to the system. If your nomination fails, you are not told, let alone given a reason. If you try to probe you will be told, in the nicest officialese, that it is none of your business. Freedom of Information laws do not apply to the awards, a decision upheld by the High Court in 2013 after a concerted campaign by a Queensland woman, Karen Kline, to access the documents used to assess her several failed nominations of a man she felt was eminently deserving.

We are told that no one is honoured who has not been nominated, and that the process from nomination to being honoured generally takes 18 months to two years.

If that is true, how is it that John Howard received an AC in the 2008 Queen’s Birthday honours, just seven months after he lost the prime ministership, whereas Julia Gillard had to wait 3½ years, until the 2017 Australia Day awards, to get hers, and Kevin Rudd is still waiting?

Why is it that Adam Goodes in 2014 and Rosie Batty in 2015 were deemed worthy to be Australian of the Year but neither has received an Australian honour?

It’s not just women who are under-represented in our honours system. No count is made of Indigenous or people of CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) backgrounds so officially we don’t know, but a quick scan of the lists each six months gives you a pretty good idea.

This is not going to change until we have the courage to be assertive, to rely less on nominations, and reserve at least a portion of each set of honours for people who are actively sought out for consideration. Call it quotas or call it affirmative action. It’s what the British do, and their recent lists have been 50 per cent women, more than 9 per cent from a BAME (Black, Asian or other minority ethnic) background, and 8 per cent had a disability. Plus, they honour recent heroes such as Olympic champions in the same year as they won gold for their country.

We don’t do that. But we could.

We could ensure that our lists of honorees look like the Australia that exists, where a wide range of people of both sexes excel as citizens and deserve our recognition, not just the usual safe white bread parade of businessmen and academics.

It won’t happen under the current highly selective and secretive vice-regal system.

We could emulate the British and move the process to the Cabinet office in the Prime Minister’s Department. We could also set up small committees of experts in areas such as sport, the arts, science etc, and empower them to recommend worthy people for consideration and implement fast-tracking to supplement those nominated by the community. And to be mindful of gender and other overlooked backgrounds.

It shouldn’t just be former Liberals PMs who get such special treatment, nor those – and I know people who have done this – who’ve figured out how to game the system to get AOs and ACs.

This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald.


Sectors: Government