OPINION

Honours list has a way to go, but the way to improve it is to get involved

Dr Karen Fox has been researching Australia's honours system for more than 10 years, and says it is important to recognise people doing extraordinary things. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/ANU
Dr Karen Fox has been researching Australia's honours system for more than 10 years, and says it is important to recognise people doing extraordinary things. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

I've been writing about the Australian honours list since the mid-'80s. Mostly, it's been about how terrible the choices are, and how it bears absolutely no connection with the real life of courageous Australians. Time after time, someone gets a gong who really, really shouldn't. It takes a criminal conviction for an honour to be removed.

Who gets recognised? Blokes, obviously. Year after year, many more men receive an honour than do women. Now the women are coming. This new list is the closest we've ever come to gender equity. Kind of. While it is true that 47 per cent of the honours have gone to women, gender equality hasn't penetrated the top ranks yet. Of the Companion of the Order of Australia appointments, the highest level of honour, only two from seven are women.

The advocacy group Honour a Woman, just five years old, is thrilled the overall balance has improved, but says we need systems in place to make sure the outcomes are actually equal. Just as the Victorian government has processes in place to nominate women (and to help with those nominations), that same system has to be in place in states and territories across the country.

I know the Governor-General is trying hard to make the list more inclusive, but it's not really his place to go hunting and gathering in all our communities. We need local action. And we still need serious collection of all the relevant data. Yes, we must know how many Indigenous people have had awards. Yes, we need to know how many migrants and those who came from other countries to help this one have been honoured. That is the only way to ensure these awards reflect our Australia.

So now we are so close with gender equality, I'd like to honour Honour a Woman - Ruth McGowan, Carol Kiernan and Elizabeth Hartnell Young - for keeping on going when the rest of us despaired at the impossibility of change. Those of us who get the early copy of the awards are sworn to secrecy, but I have to confess I rang them to say, "You are on the way." Without them, I doubt there would have been such swift action.

The honours have always been subject to critique. About three years ago I started chasing an academic from ANU because I heard she was writing about honours. She kept avoiding me until this week, when the work of 10 years, Honouring a Nation, was published. Karen Fox, senior research fellow at the National Centre of Biography, does a beautiful job of recounting how the honours have developed over time.

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When I talk to her, I explain I've been complaining about the honours system for over 40 years. She tells me I'm a little behind. There have been complaints about honours for a century, including a spike in their number when former prime minister Tony Abbott decided to briefly reintroduce dames and knights.

She argues in the book, adorably and in such a genuine way: "Some things are worth celebrating - our love and concern for our neighbours, expressed in many and varied ways ... in an era of great negativity and difficulty, of economic tribulation and 'haters' on social media, of disposable celebrities whose physical forms are admired above their hearts, of self-aggrandising politics and a me-above-others pursuit of wealth and fame, this is surely a valuable thing."

Yes. As Fox says, "We should value this system and treasure it and guard it and see it as the opportunity to recognise people do wonderful things."

Will we ever be happy with the list? Fox explains one of the key reasons the awards are so often criticised: "Merit is not a fixed idea ... it changes over time and is different."

But if you think someone deserves to be recognised, there is only one way that will happen in the short term: get in there and nominate. It's a fiddle and it takes bloody ages, although the G-G is doing his level best (remembering that in a bureaucracy everything takes more time than it should). Some folks give up in despair. Others send me glorious text messages, having given up all hope: "Great news, and God we need it this week - my family friend's OAM is in this Australia Day."

As of the time of writing I can't tell you who, but that person is very, very deserving. Who do you know like that?

  • Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist. She is also an ambassador for Honour A Woman, but trust her, there is no financial compensation for that.
This story Honours list has a way to go, but the way to improve it is to get involved first appeared on The Canberra Times.