Media Release

Australia’s Honours System is broken and needs urgent repair

Tuesday 13 October 2020 | For immediate release | Survey Results >

Australia’s Honours System is in a bad way and needs an urgent repair job, according to the results of a survey undertaken by the Victorian Women’s Trust.

The Survey ran from 16 July to 31 August July. It aimed to uncover community perceptions of the Honours System and assess its standing in people’s eyes. Over 500 people took part. Most these were women aged above 40 years, covering metropolitan, regional and rural Victoria.

Significantly, an overwhelming majority (85%) said there was merit in having a system of Honours and Awards. They appreciate that Australian society prospers and thrives when people see great service to community around them. When asked to nominate what they saw as the most important attributes in determining worthiness of recipients, respondents ranked  ‘positive and inspirational community involvement’ (88%) ‘strengthening inclusion and social cohesion’,) 85%) ‘displaying personal integrity’ (83%) and helping  achieve ‘justice and fairness’ (80%) as the four top attributes for assessing worthiness.

Strikingly, however, this strong measure of in-principle support does not translate into people’s confidence or faith in the current operation of the system.

Instead, respondents perceive the Honours System to be a gross perversion of what it could and should be, describing it as unrepresentative, biased and elitist; a system which simply entrenches the power of many who enjoy great access to resources and who are already well-rewarded. They pointed to recent appointments of people who they see as socially divisive and lacking personal and professional integrity.

Overwhelmingly, respondents believe that the Honours system fails to adequately represent women (91%), Indigenous people (86%) and younger Australians (57%). Eighty-five percent (85%) felt the Honours system fails to reflect Australia’s cultural diversity.

‘There are many people who contribute to society voluntarily, who address issues that our market system is ill-equipped to address, who represent the best ideals of what it is to be a citizen, or who otherwise invest their discretionary time and effort in causes and movements that bare for the common good.’ (Survey respondent)

Over three quarters of respondents believe politicians should be excluded from the Honours and Awards.

People had clear feelings about a series of recent appointments. Over 83%  said there were recent appointments they felt strongly about. These included Tony Abbott, Bettina Arndt and Bronwyn Bishop and Graeme Richardson.

‘The list of moral bankruptcy is too long…’ (Survey respondent)

‘To see someone who espouses incredibly harmful views and opinions…rewarded at the highest levels, is incredibly upsetting and dangerous.’ (Survey respondent)

Over 90% of respondents said there was a clear case for reforming the composition and the processes of the Council for the Order of Australia. They want to see gender parity on the Council itself (88%); a more culturally diverse Council (86%); an Independent Chair (85%), a high degree of transparency (88%); greater transparency around an appeals process (79%); and diversity quotas as to those receiving honours and awards (75%). Two-thirds of respondents felt the Head of the Defence Forces should be excluded from the Council.

‘This Council is not at all representative of the Australian community. It is significantly representative of existing power structures, white privilege and political connections.’(Survey respondent)

‘The Awards should primarily for community members who voluntarily give extraordinary service to the community and get no pay or reward – in fact it often costs them to do it.’ (Survey respondent)

‘I wrote to the Governor-General, with a paper on how the process could be improved. I spent many hours putting together a submission…which was driven by the Bettina Arndt appointment and the process for awarding Fire Service Medals (there were 2 female recipients to 28 males). I received an acknowledgement but nothing more. This suggests a certain arrogance by those who administer the process that they can’t even be bothered reading considered suggestions.’(Survey respondent)

Mary Crooks AO, Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust, said the survey findings pointed to a broken system, one which is not living up to its role as a unifying force in a modern, vibrant  democracy: ‘It is a sad indictment that Australian Governments, Federal and State, have allowed the Honours system to become so devalued that few people have any real confidence in it.’ ‘What’s more,’ she said, ‘despite review after review pointing to these problems, nothing has changed.’

Ms Crooks added, ‘usually, in other places, when the evidence points to a brand being trashed, people spring into action.  The Prime Minister and State Premiers each should now step up and start the substantial repair work before the Honours and Awards system becomes even further tarnished,’ she said.

‘Time for a change – more transparency, greater inclusion, make the community proud of who they are rather than embarrassed.’ (Survey respondent)

‘If Australia is to maintain an Honours and Awards system which plays a positive role in nation-building into the future.’ Ms Crooks said, ‘all Governments, State and Federal, should now commit to  a thorough overhaul of the system, including changes to the composition of the Council so that it more representative and relevant; tightening the nomination and assessment criteria to guarantee fairer outcomes on issues of gender parity and cultural diversity; and appointing an Independent Chair, devoid of party-political connections.’

Contact details: Victorian Women’s Trust staff are working remotely from the office due to COVID-19. Mary Crooks AO, Executive Director can be contacted by email mary@vwt, or by mobile 0422 216 181.