George Pell, Dyson Heydon, Bettina Arndt (Images: AAP/Supplied)

After six months of deliberations, the Council of the Order of Australia has decided not to strip men’s rights activist Bettina Arndt of her AM. 

The council has also decided to leave intact the AM given to broadcaster Mike Carlton.

One for the left. One for the right.

It’s the culture war equivalent of a prisoner swap, though the equivalence could not be more false.

In Arndt’s case, all political parties — with the exception of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation — called for the council to investigate cancelling her award after she made comments that appeared to excuse a man who killed his partner and their children by dousing petrol on them and setting them alight.

Ardnt offered public support for Queensland Police comments that the killer might have been “driven too far”.

In Carlton’s case, News Corp tabloid The Daily Telegraph and Sydney radio station 2GB campaigned to have Carlton’s award removed because, they said, he had a history of sending “abusive” tweets and emails.

“This so-called furore was, in fact, just a nasty piece of bullying from the rabid right culture warriors at NewsCorpse,” Carlton told Crikey today.

“In fact I got a lot of support: dozens of letters, including from two former prime ministers — one Liberal, one Labor. Lots of politicians, and some senior defence brass.” 

Carlton had not been aware of the council’s decision until we contacted him. 

Crikey received an email from Arndt’s #MenToo website saying: “Bettina has no comment to make about [the] honours council’s decision not to take any action regarding her award.

“She refers you to her website which reveals the truth behind the malicious campaign to use her honour as an excuse to cancel her. She hopes you will include the real story in your reporting and mention the website for readers who are interested in the truth about what happened,” the email said.

The episode shows the degree to which the Order of Australia awards have become politically debased.

It is unusual for an award to be reviewed, but in Carlton’s case it appears to have happened as the result of an overtly political campaign launched by a narrow base and fueled by letters from Liberal MPs to the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister Ben Morton, who oversees the awards.

The anti-Carlton campaign also came as a seeming tit-for-tat after the widespread public outcry over Arndt’s earlier award.

As Crikey has reported, the governor-general has broad powers to revoke an Order of Australia award if a person’s actions have “brought disrepute on the order”, even if the actions come to light after the award is given.

The governor-general can make this decision acting on his own volition, though by convention it would be done on the recommendation of the eight-person council which advises him.  

In response to Crikey’s inquiries today, the council said that for the order to be brought into disrepute, “a conviction, penalty or adverse finding must have occurred”.

“It requires the judicial process to be exhausted before making a recommendation to cancel or terminate,” a spokesperson said.

Council chair Shane Stone AC QC put it this way: “Short of a criminal conviction, we are not going to be arbiters of what people can or can’t say.”

By that measure, former High Court justice Dyson Heydon AC QC is also off the hook.

An independent investigation ordered by High Court Chief Justice Susan Kiefel AC found six former judges’ associates were sexually harassed by Heydon.

Kiefel said the findings were “of extreme concern to me, my fellow justices, our chief executive and the staff of the court”. They were “ashamed”, she said. 

This administrative process might be good enough for the High Court to put its name to, yet it would not meet the high standards of proof required by the Order of Australia.

Likewise, Cardinal George Pell AC is looking safe for the moment. 

The seven commissioners, including two judges, of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse found the cardinal to be “implausible” when he denied knowing of priests committing child sex abuse.

But this has not prompted any action from the Order of Australia — and may also not satisfy its high standards.

Does the Council of the Order of Australia need higher standards? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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