bronwyn bishop
Bronwyn Bishop (Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

Take your pick as to the most outrageous Order of Australia award over the last two or so years.

Was it to Bronwyn Bishop (AO), the former speaker of the House of Representatives whose extreme partisan behaviour besmirched the independence of the role, and who resigned from the position after misusing taxpayer funds?

Was it Nick Minchin (AO), the Liberal Party staffer, senator and standard bearer for the party’s climate change denialists who also used his parliamentary role to question the proof on whether cigarettes were addictive and harmed others?

Was it Brian Loughnane (AO), federal director of the Liberal Party for 13 years and husband of Tony Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin.

Or is it those backroom political operators, including former Liberal Party director Tony Nutt, and former National Party federal director Paul Davey, who have been “recognised” with awards by the taxpayer-supported honours system for their partisan political work?

An Inq investigation reveals these cases are just part of a partisan culture which now infects the Order of Australia awards.

Our analysis of Australia Day and Queen’s Honours awards given to (mainly former) politicians over 2019 and 2020 shows a startling political disparity. 

A total of 62 honours were awarded: 42 to Liberals or Nationals and 20 to ALP members or independents. This means 67% of all political gongs went to conservative parliamentarians.

The gap is even wider when it comes to the most prestigious categories — the Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) and Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) — where Liberals/Nationals received 14 of 18 awards, or 77%. Most honoured former state premiers and federal members.

Labor recipients included former senator Graham Richardson — a Sky News commentator, Murdoch columnist and — distantly — a “whatever it takes” NSW Labor Right heavy.

Or, as investigative reporter Kate McClymont put it:

Our investigation reveals that the stacking of the awards has come at the same time as more politically partisan appointments are made to the core group of “community representatives” — the seven individuals who consider nominations and advise the governor-general.

(Others on the Council of the Order of Australia are the eight representatives of the state and territory governments, as well as three ex officio members. These include WA Liberal Senator Matthias Cormann in his role as vice-president of the Federal Executive Council.)

Enter Shane Stone

Key changes to the council began in the first year of the Abbott government.

In 2014, then-prime minister Tony Abbott appointed former Liberal NT chief minister Shane Stone — a former national president of the Liberal Party — to be a community member of the council. It was the first time since the awards began in 1975 that a former state or territory leader had been appointed to the role.

In the 40 years before Stone was appointed, community members of the council were largely politically unaligned. They included sporting figures such as Olympic athlete Betty Cuthbert and cricketer Allan Border; television personalities George Negus, Anne Fulwood, Kerri-Anne Kennerley and Mary Kostakidis. The exceptions were trade union figures, such as Cliff Dolan and Jennie George, and a former Liberal senator Tony Messner.

In appointing Stone, Abbott had found a man close to his own heart: Stone, it has emerged, is a genuine honours enthusiast. 

As the Northern Territory’s attorney-general in the 1990s, Stone applied and accepted a commission as Queen’s Counsel as the NT’s First Law Officer.

In 1998, Stone was made a Commander of the Order of Kinabalu by the Malaysian state of Sabah. In 2006 he was elevated to the highest rank of Australian honours — Companion of the Order of Australia — under the Howard government.

Stone has also been made a member of the little-known Order of Malta. Its website notes “the main qualifications sought in those invited to join are to be a Catholic in good standing — to be verified by church authorities — and to be committed to meet the spiritual and other duties of membership”. The Order certainly comes with an attractive medal, as worn here by Stone, alongside former prime minister John Howard.  

Stone has also — before and since — collected a maze of company directorships, including of Australian Pacific Coal and Energex, a power company owned by the government of Queensland. Stone was appointed to Energex in 2012 by the Newman government and resigned when the Palaszczuk government was elected, declaring bluntly, “I don’t work for Labor governments”.

(Former Queensland premier Campbell Newman, booted out in 2015, received his Order of Australia gong earlier this year.) 

At the beginning of 2018, after four years as a community member, Stone was elevated to the additional role of chair of the Council of the Order of Australia. This too was a key break with a convention of independence.

Previous chairmen of the council (all men, incidentally) had been High Court judges, senior academics or retired armed services chiefs. Retired air chief marshal Sir Angus Houston, who preceded Stone, had been appointed by a Labor government in 2012. 

While chair of the council, Stone has simultaneously been paid more than half a million dollars per annum — $434,690 salary with a $100,000 loading, just over $10,000 a week — to act as the CEO of the federal government’s North Queensland Livestock Industry Recovery Agency (NQLIRA).

Other community members of the council appointed during Stone’s time, and on the recommendation of the prime minister, have party political ties of varying strengths.

Tracey Hayes 

Tracey Hayes, whose appointment expired at the beginning of this year, was CEO of the NT Cattlemen’s Association and also joined Stone on the advisory board of NQLIRA.

Hayes is now running as a Country Liberal Party candidate in the Northern Territory elections — a role she reportedly nominated for while still a member of the Council of the Order of Australia.

Cheryl Edwardes

Hayes was succeeded earlier this year by Cheryl Edwardes, a prominent Western Australian Liberal who was attorney-general in the Court government in the ’90s, when Stone was the Northern Territory’s AG.  Edwardes worked for a time as director of “external affairs, government relations and approvals” at mining billionaire Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting. Edwardes has also had roles with Pilbara iron ore mining company Atlas Iron and Flinders Mines.

She picked up her Order of Australia gong in 2016. (Her husband Colin Edwardes had worked on the staff of WA Liberal ministers.)

Rupert Myer

Rupert Myer, scion of the Melbourne establishment Myer family, holds several company directorships as well as board positions in the arts. He has a close association with one-time Liberal Party vice-president Tom Harley who was also a long serving chair of the Liberal-aligned Menzies Research Centre, with the two being co-directors of a not-for-profit grants organisation, the Aranday Foundation.

Electoral records show that Myer donated $3000 to the Liberal Party of South Australia in 2002 and $2500 in 2001.

Myer told Inq via email that he supports candidates from different sides of politics, particularly if he thinks they make an important contribution to the public debate. He added that he had been “appointed to and reappointed” to governance roles of Victorian and Commonwealth government statutory bodies by Labor and Coalition administrations.  

Amelia Hodge

Amelia Hodge is CEO of Australian Property Institute (API), a professional industry body. Former Abbott government minister Bruce Billson joined the API board last year.

Council denies partisanship

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet told Inq that donating to a political party was not a bar to being appointed as a community member.

And despite appearances, the Council for the Order of Australia rejected “the assumption” that any appointment reflected a politicisation of the awards. 

“For an appointment to be made, a nomination must be submitted. Every nomination is reviewed and researched using the same process and the Council considers each nomination on its merits,” a council spokesperson told Inq.

“While members of the council are recommended by governments, no member of the council represents a government. They serve as individuals, bring their own perspectives and experiences to the table and operate with complete independence.

“This independence is one of the fundamental pillars of the council and something that each member is proud of.”

They added that any change to the make-up of the council was “a matter for the government of the day”.

Next: Two years of political patronage — so who got the gongs?