Our honours system does not reflect who we are

Anne SummersOur honours system does not reflect who we arePosted by Anne Summers on 01 January 2017

honours
Anne Summers
By  Anne Summes

Many Australians like to think of the British as stuffy, toffy and class-bound by their centuries of royal and aristocratic hierarchy and privilege. This view was reinforced by the parliamentarians’ expenses scandal a few years back, when we chortled over the British MP claiming for the maintenance of his moat.

We Aussies are exactly the opposite. We are open and relaxed, mates with all, and absolutely no class or other rigidities to stultify and restrain us. Or so we like to think.

The way each country rewards its citizens in the twice-yearly official honours lists tell a very different story.

The New Year’s Honours list was a revelation for anyone who is not in touch with modern Britain, which is a far more interesting, and egalitarian, place than Brexit and football yobs would have you believe.

Self-described as “the most diverse ever” in its 100-year history, women received slightly more than 50 per cent of the awards (up from 48 per cent a year ago) while, according to the official press release, “there has never been a greater number of individuals from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background”.

The Brits bragged that 9.3 per cent of the “successful candidates” came from a BAME background, while a further 8.5 per cent “consider themselves to have a disability”.

Not only that, look at who got awards!

Included in the highest honours (knights and dames) are Ray Davies, who wrote the ground-breaking gender-bending song Lola for The Kinks, Mark Rylance, who played Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, and of course Mohammed Farah, the Somalian-born athlete who ran the socks off everyone at the Rio Olympics.

Gongs also went to Andy Murray (youngest-ever knight apart from three-year-old Prince George), Anna Wintour, Victoria Beckham and a score of well-known actors, singers and so on.  But it’s not just the household names. Several nurses were made dames, as was a Northumbrian police commissioner who focuses on domestic violence. The official list also boasted two married couples who were honoured for their Olympic successes, including two members of the women’s hockey team, the first same-sex couple to be honoured.

As well as the usual political and business types, (although the latter rewarded start-ups and community ventures as well as the equivalent of the more traditional ASX200 variety favoured by Australian awards), arts, sports and so on, the list included an anti-slavery campaigner and “the first ever honour for services to glassblowing”, awarded to a 77-year old-Scotsman who has just launched a business to train apprentices to keep the craft alive.

Maybe our Australia Day honours, to be announced later this month, will be equally diverse. If so it would be a dramatic change on the record so far of our home-grown awards, introduced in 1975 by Gough Whitlam to replace the Imperial Honours system. (Tony Abbott’s brief restoration of knights and dames in 2014 was laughed out of existence after just 18 months.)

Our numbers fall pitifully short when it comes to gender diversity.

In 2016, of the total of 1169 awards (on Australia Day and the Queen’s Birthday) women received 31 per cent, a figure that has scarcely moved in decades, and they are concentrated in the lower-ranking awards.

Based on 2016 the figures are improving: women were 26 per cent of recipients of our highest honour, the AC. (Over the life of the awards they’ve gained just 15.3 per cent of the ACs.) The same with the AO when last year women got 28 per cent (compared with 19 per cent since 1975), 28 per cent of the AMs (22 pc) but dropped down with 33 per cent of the AOMs (34.8).

But we are nowhere close to parity and never will be under the current system which relies solely on community nominations, a process that is cumbersome, onerous and ultimately biased.

Britain produces a diverse list because it has committees that actively solicit recommendations – and it measures what it collects. It can be choosy (in a good way), flexible – and fast. It will take us at least two years to honour our Olympians, long after the memories of victory have faded.

We have no way of measuring BAME or disability or how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have honours as this information is not collected. Strange, given that every other government agency tends to ask.

We already know that our honourees are more male and although we can’t prove it, my guess is that they are also whiter and way more Anglo than the Australian population.

My quick first name search of the honours data-base came up with 34,533 Johns, 2201 Annes (disclosure: I am one) and just six Mohammeds (three of whom were awarded Centenary Medals and so not part of the ongoing honours system).

The honours system does not reflect who we have become and if we are to maintain our pretensions towards equality we are going to have change radically the way we select honourees. Who would have thought that we’d be turning to Britain to learn how to do it?

The article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 7 January 2017