governor-general David Hurley
Governor-General David Hurley (Image: AAP/Tracey Nearmy)

The Order of Australia awards made a proud announcement earlier this year: 41% of all 2020 award categories had gone to women, its highest result yet. Yet what was a matter of pride for it was further proof for others that the system still doesn’t work.

“The system is broken — it needs to be fixed,” founding member of activist group Honour a Woman Ruth McGowan told Inq. “Obviously if you keep getting the same output after 45 years — which is inequality — then the system needs to be fixed up.

“You can’t keep saying: ‘Australians, you’ve got to nominate more women’.”

In 1995 a major review chaired by Clare Petre, a former ABC identity who has held senior positions in government and community organisations, reported that 27% of awards went to women — the highest proportion, 36%, was in the medal division, the least prestigious of the four divisions.

Once it reached the most prestigious category, the Companion of the Order of Australia, the figure was 15%.

Figures supplied to Inq by the Council of the Order of Australia show a gradual creep up in the number of awards going to women across all categories over the last three years, with a peak of 43% across the top two categories in 2019.

The figures might be out of the 30s and into the 40s, but to Petre they tell a depressing tale 25 years on. “You could say not a lot has changed, sadly,” she said.

“I see the same dominance in the higher awards and that the hierarchy of the awards is still an issue.”

If there’s a bias, does it matter?

If there is a structural bias against women in Australia’s honour system, does it matter?

McGowan, who was awarded an OAM in 2014, says there are distinct career and financial consequences.  

“When you are recognised it gives you a level of gravitas that can’t be bought,” she says.

“When you hear someone speaking has an AO or an AM immediately your ears prick up and you know that person has credibility and the gravitas to speak on their issue because they’ve been recognised at the highest level in our country.

“The second thing is that when women are recognised they become role models … And young women, girls, more mature women, look up to women that have been recognised and they go ‘Look at what she’s done’, and celebrating the stories in the media of those women who have done amazing things is a way to lift the horizons for many Australians, particularly women.”

‘It’s just bloody fair’

“And lastly, look I think it’s just bloody fair,” McGowan says. “These awards increase the opportunities for people in their career. When men get an AO or an AM they get on the speaking circuit. They get promotions. So it’s only fair that women have access to this accelerant to their careers as well.”

It is the promise of a boost to career and financial reward that forms part of the business pitch of British firm Awards Intelligence which helps craft persuasive nominations for British awards such as the MBE and OBE.

It advertises a success rate of 65% for British awards compared with about 10% when friends and family put forward a nomination.

Its chief executive Mark Llewellyn-Slade says it has been hired by “more and more Australians” to write nominations for an Order of Australia award.  The price? 4000 pounds, or about A$7,200 on current exchange rates. 

“We started marketing our service in Australia about three years ago on Google and demand has steadily grown,” Llewellyn-Slade says.

“An honour … will raise your profile — or that of the causes dear to you — enhance your reputation and instill trust, that vital ingredient for success in all walks of life. I couldn’t put an exact monetary value on it but would say it’s invaluable.”

And who’s paying? 

“We tend to be approached by family, friends or colleagues wanting to nominate through the Australian system,” he says. “The nominees are usually successful entrepreneurs or people doing great work for charity or in the community, often a mix of all three.

“Also professionals like leading surgeons, academics and lawyers who are pushing the boundaries.”

The Council of the Order of Australia was not aware of the claim.

“Regardless of how nominations are prepared, all go through the same research process: claims made are cross-checked and referees are sourced independently to validate claims,” it said.

Professionalising nominations reflects a trend Petre observed in the mid-1990s: “There was a feeling that for some highly paid professions an Order of Australia is part of the package. It’s part of the professional recognition, reputation. 

“We found that many of the professional groups are very well organised. They have a template, they rotate the professors and the doctors and … they’ve got a system and they know how to make a good recommendation.”

That people are prepared to plough thousands of dollars into winning a gong undercuts the image the Order of Australia likes to project of itself as a grassroots organisation offering a pat on the back to volunteers and local heroes.

A game of mates

McGowan is as far removed as it’s possible to be from the class of professionals that expects to be rewarded by political mates.

No prince of the church like George Pell — or prince of the court like Dyson Heydon — McGowan was nominated for her work advocating for families of sufferers of leukodystrophy, a rare neurological condition which affects kids.

She was also the mayor of her local council in Gippsland during the Black Saturday bushfire disaster and helped community recovery. 

“I was pretty surprised to get it,” she says. “But it has been really good. It’s given me a platform to talk about gender equality, particularly for women in local government.

“You just have to look at the data and you see something’s not working here. And you either change the system or you accept that it’s going to be top heavy with older, white, male professionals and you do nothing.

“If you keep accepting the system as it is you are condoning what’s happening.”

Governor-General David Hurley has said the order is “working hard” to achieve gender equality and pointed to the role of the community. 

“The system is driven by nominations,” he said at the most recent round of awards. “To me that’s the most critical thing — it’s bottom-up and it is driven by recommendations from peers. The system belongs to all Australians.”

But McGowan says change has to be driven from the top, even if it means applying targets to reach equality. 

“My call to the governor-general: you have to change the system because expecting it to change is wishful thinking.

“We’ve had enough of wishful thinking for 45 years. We actually have to change that system because if you keep doing what you’ve always done you keep getting what you’ve always got.” 

Hurley was not available for an interview, but supplied this statement:

I am determined, across my term in office, to ensure that the Order of Australia is, and is perceived to be by the Australian public, the highest form of recognition of the efforts and achievements of Australians.

It is important that this be so. As I said when announcing the Queen’s birthday honours: ‘In this list we see all the positives that are in our community — we see the great ideas, we see the hard work, we see the love and compassion for fellow human beings. It’s a microcosm of Australia.’

I am also conscious that history alone does not guarantee ongoing success. Continuous promotion and engagement with the Australian community is required, for example, to ensure fairness and representation across gender, cultural backgrounds and categories of endeavour.

At the end of the day the Order of Australia belongs to and represents all Australians. They must have confidence in it. It must continue to evolve — as our society does — and reflect and recognise the best of Australia.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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