In October 2014, I was surprised to receive a letter from Canberra in an envelope bearing an embossed crest. It was from the governor-general’s secretary, advising me that I was being considered for investiture with the Medal of the Order of Australia, and asking if I would be willing to accept such an honour.
The truth is, I had always regarded such formal honours as the preserve of the rich, the powerful, or the conformistas. So I was somewhat cynical as to my eligibility.
But I resolved to consider the offer carefully, particularly in the knowledge that the Australian honours system had been created in 1975 by then prime minister Gough Whitlam “for the purpose of according recognition to Australian citizens and other persons for achievement or meritorious service” — which sounded quite noble.
It was also, of course, designed to replace the pre-existing British awards which tended (one way or another) merely to reinforce the class system. So I applauded its probity.
Whitlam had worked hard in his time to achieve a more egalitarian society. Indeed, many of my heroes and social champions have been awarded Australian honours over the years. So (on deep reflection) I felt that I was in honourable company, and that this was an honour in which I could participate.
Nevertheless, it was a hard decision. Many people whose services to the Australian community have been dubious to say the least have been awarded the Order of Australia — the names of Rolf Harris, Eddie Obeid and John Maitland immediately spring to mind (though all three have since been stripped of their honours).
There have also been many whose only contribution has been to belong to the “right” political party, or to know the “right” people.
But there are always bad apples.
The reality is that honours should be awarded regardless of political allegiances or the degree to which those allegiances polarise society — and that requires a degree of objectivity that is often hard to achieve.
The Council of the Order of Australia sometimes has a difficult, if not impossible, job in balancing rectitude and impropriety with respect to controversial politicians. It is so much simpler to consider the political task of “policy formulation” as being beyond the bounds of “ethics”, and those who create policy as being innately honourable. To do otherwise would, it seems, bring an improper political perspective to the role.
But politicians fall into a class of people whose specific function is the furtherance of the interests of the communities they (ostensibly) serve. The good works that they perform should be regarded as “their job”, and their remuneration by way of salary and perks and pensions should (it could be argued) be more than sufficient reward.
What would otherwise be considered to be “extra-curricular” work, such as membership of local clubs or voluntary associations, should be seen as an extension of their political jobs for which their salaries and perks reward them, and from which they benefit when the next election roles around. The “bad works” that politicians do should be remedied — the argument continues — in the ballot box or by legal sanctions (such as would be recommended by a federal ICAC, if we had one).
For these reasons — if for no other — there is a compelling argument that all politicians should be exempt from Australian honours while they hold office, and for a period of several years after leaving politics. That would insulate the honours system from the common criticism that it is merely “mates looking after mates”.
Adrian Lipscomb is a retired lawyer and author.