There are certain fine traditions associated with Australia Day, and one of the oldest of them is that I complain bitterly about the under-representation of women in the Australia Day Honours List.
This year, though, to set a good example for those responsible for establishing the day’s date, ceremony, and dress code, I’m going to abandon this time-honoured custom. I’m going to complain about a different aspect of the list.
We’re not only giving the honours to the wrong people, we’re honouring the wrong things.
We’re rewarding celebrity, and finance, and skill, and luck, when we should be using our civic honours to reward the civic virtues.
The Order of Australia currently is awarded in four levels of rank the highest being Companion of the Order (AC) for “eminent achievement and merit of the highest degree”, ahead of an Officer of the Order (AO) for “distinguished service”, then the Member of the Order (AM), and finally Medal of the Order (OAM).
Honourees are required to have demonstrated achievement at a high level or made a contribution over and above what might reasonably be expected of them as employees, or made a contribution to the community that means they stand out from other volunteers.
In practice, however, “eminent achievement” and “distinguished service” mean “holding a high-status job”.
As economist Nicholas Gruen pointed out in a commentary for The Conversation on the day before the honours were announced: “Barely more than a quarter of Order of Australia recipients recorded voluntary work in their biographies.
And those that did were more likely to be near the bottom of the awards ladder.
More than a third of those receiving the very bottom award, the OAM, were engaged in obviously selfless work, compared with a fifth at the top (just two out of 10 ACs).”
Gruen thinks that we should redirect our awards to people who are performing community service, and away from those who have reached the peak of their profession.
As he points out, the thing about achievement is that it tends to be its own reward.
People who are ennobled for services to business have already made the rich list.
Science winners are professors, not graduate students, and athletes who make the Honours list have already won Olympic medals. To those who have, more is given.
Australia’s incentive structure is counterproductive enough as it is (a top merchant banker gets paid as much as a schoolful of teachers), and the last thing we want to do is put a cherry on top of that.
I believe nobody should get an award for anything other than their community work.
“Eminent” isn’t the same as “important”.
What counts is not getting to the top of the heap, but doing good for others, wherever you happen to be now.
Australian civic awards should be for Australian civic spirit – for voluntary and unselfish service to the community, at every level.
We don’t have a problem recruiting state premiers – we do have a problem recruiting a treasurer for the local historical society.
Governors-general already know they’re appreciated; volunteers running the school tuckshop often feel that nobody loves them.
I’ll go further. If we’re rewarding pure commitment to the public good, we won’t need all those levels.
The present system reproduces and sanctifies the peculiar class hierarchies of Australian society.
Queen, aristocracy, subjects; officers, non-coms, and other ranks; bishops, priests, and laypeople; test captains, state captains, and Big Bash players: a place for everybody, and everybody in their place.
Movers and shakers get the AC, team players get the AM, and after that it’s trickle-down.
It would be easy to install some good old Australian egalitarianism.
We’ve rejected the idea of knights (three times now) because we don’t like the idea of people lording it over us.
Let’s go the whole hog and just have everyone as Members of the Order of Australia, full stop.
In the meantime, for next year’s list, do get online and nominate someone who’s helping to hold your community together – preferably someone who’s a woman, or a person with a disability, or an indigenous activist, or all of those things. We’re not there yet.
(You can see our guide to nominations, with a focus on women at: www.ourcommunity.com.au/advancingwomen)
Looking down the road, I want an Australia that’s more equal, more unselfish, more inclusive, more supportive, and less self-satisfied.
And I want an Australian honours system that reflects those ideals.
Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping the country’s 600,000 not-for-profits