Hors d’Oeuvres of Australia: To him that hath shall be given

Hors d’Oeuvres of Australia have always been a particularly odd accoutrement to our national life. They were introduced as a bit of constitutional minimalism to convert the royal honours system into a more nationalistic system during Whitlam’s time. But they still had the crown on them and they’re still bound up with royalty. As the most luke warm republican in the whole country I can hardly object to the crown remaining on them.

Sadly however, in their minimalism they replicate all the most odious things about the system of knighthoods only by demystifying the royal honours they are made more offensive.

On the one hand we are no longer corralled into calling people with gongs ‘Sir’ or ‘Lady’ so and so. On the other hand they are given little badges which means they are expected to run around advertising their gong. Are there any other countries where one gets badges from the government one is expected to wear on one’s lapel in ordinary life (as opposed to official occasions). I guess so, but would be interested if anyone can throw any light on this.

I always think of a great Patrick Cook cartoon on the occasion of there being fewer honours than usual. Her Maj was stirring her morning tea with Prince Phillip and said by way of explanation “Perhaps more of them got caught this year dear”.

In any event hors d’Oeuvres of Australia seem to be devoted to the proposition that to him that hath shall be given.

Thus they are all ordered in ranks. There are military ones and non-military ones. What’s the point of that? Well no doubt it’s explained somewhere, but it doesn’t jump out at you.

If you’re some saintly scrubber who’s devoted your whole life to relieving the misery of those worse off than yourself, then don’t bother about the top gongs. You might get the bottom or the second bottom gong.

If you’re a fireman who’s saved lives with your heroism, then don’t bother. All the top gongs are reserved for people who have already established their profile. Many of them are very impressive people of course. Many are not much better than establishment time servers, and some of course are crooks (some discovered, others like Sir Robin Askin who kept up the farce long enough to depart this scene before the shit hit the fan).

We have reviews of the system from time to time which I’ve not followed, but the system appears to remain very much the same. In any event I was reminded of all this reading Stephen Mayne’s good piece on it in today’s Crikey which is reproduced over the fold.

There are two major stories which routinely get badly or under-reported in Australia the link between political donations and public policy and the twice yearly release of gongs on Australia Day and the Queen’s Birthday. Why on earth does the mainstream media continue to openly laud recipients rather than rigorously critiquing the merits of those gonged? For instance, when John Howard gonged Barbara Williams AO in 2004, The SMH produced a laudatory piece rather then asking whether it was appropriate that the PM’s long-time secretary receive such an honour.

Campaign finance is the largest source of political scandal globally, and while we’ve all seen the “donations for honours” scandal hit the Blair Government in recent months, no-one in Australia has even had a decent look at our system, let alone assessed it corruption.

The latest 817 people honoured certainly raises plenty of eye-brows. Adelaide shock-jock Jeremy Cordeaux was a cash for comment pioneer but now he can add “AM” to his name. Presumably being Andrew Peacock’s son-in-law and a staunch Liberal promoter helped him score the gong.

And why would sacked 60 Minutes reporter Jeff McMullen also get an AM, along with The AFR’s health columnist and Frank Lowy biographer Jill Margo? Paddy McGuinness and Michelle Grattan were arguable AO recipients in previous years, given long service to journalism, but the bar seems to have been lowered a touch this year. If someone from 60 Minutes was going to get one, surely a posthumous honour for Richard Carleton would have been more appropriate.

With tens of thousands of gong recipients over the years it is hard to critically assess them all, but the first division recipients of the prestigious AC titles still only number a couple of hundred. The most dubious AC recipient this year was undoubtedly Shane Stone, the lacklustre former Northern Territory chief minister who, after pioneering mandatory detention, went on to become the almost invisible President of the Liberal Party, famed for his “mean and tricky” memo of 2001.

The other six inductees into the AC club yesterday had all previously featured in the second division with an AO. Stone’s only previous honour was QC but he appointed himself to that exalted position when in office.

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Jonno
Jonno
15 years ago

Sadly only too true. Is it possible to have an honours system that isn’t simply rewarding those who already have privilege?