In the weeks after her award, she sparked outrage by suggesting a man who killed his ex-partner Hannah Baxter and their children by burning them alive in their car might have been “driven too far”. The wording was first used by a police detective, who was promptly taken off the case. Arndt was subject to a Senate motion calling for her to be stripped of her award.
There is a mounting sense that the honours system needs reform, whether it’s to make the process more transparent, diversify the recipients or clamp down on any perceived patronage and political influence. There is consternation over the current chair of the Council of the Order of Australia, Shane Stone, who is a former Liberal chief minister of the Northern Territory and a former federal Liberal Party president.
Stone, who reportedly describes himself as a “mad bastard from Darwin”, is also Scott Morrison’s hand-picked head of the National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency.
Critics of the honours system argue there can be too much box-ticking. If you are a politician or a senior business person who warmed the seat for long enough, chances are you’ll get a gong. While community members like Brenda Palmer are recognised, they tend to get buried by the big names.
“Australia needs to work out what these honours are about,” says top corporate strategist Andrew Butcher. “Are we honouring people just for doing their jobs?”
Butcher was once Rupert Murdoch’s primary spokesman and the senior vice-president of corporate affairs for NewsCorp in New York. Now an adviser and lobbyist, he is occasionally asked to help someone win themselves entry into the Order of Australia – though never by a client, and he has never agreed to the job.
“I’ve only ever been asked by men,” Butcher says. “They have ideas for big-name nominators and want the nomination written to hit the salient points that they hope will impress the panel. Yuck.”
In the upper echelons of Australian corporate affairs, there is a sense that lobbying for honours is pervasive, but no one admits to doing the work. Brian Tyson, managing partner of Newgate, said he had been asked to support nominations “once or twice” in a personal capacity, but never as a formal commission. “It might not be as sinister as people might think,” he said.
The Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General’s annual reports reveal a pattern of behaviour when it comes to who nominates. Some fields, like medicine, have a consistently high number of nominees, and most of them are successful. Some fields are more hit and miss.
For example, in 2017-18, the only category in which fewer than 50 per cent of the nominees were accepted into the Order was men from the field of business and commerce. Of 54 men who were nominated, only 24 picked up a gong.
Overall, more men are nominated each year than women in almost every field. In the most recent available year, 2018-19, the number of nominations jumped from about 2000 to 3000. The number of male nominees rose from about 1300 to 1800, while the number of female nominees increased from 650 to 1100. About 70 to 75 per cent of nominees end up receiving an award each year.
It is also worth noting that despite the media’s focus on politicians and other famous faces, the “community” category is far and away the largest. Last year there were 945 awards in that section, nearly half the total, although the vast majority were OAMs, the lowest tier.
Former diplomat Stephen Brady was official secretary to the governor-general between 2008 and 2014, mostly during the tenure of Dame Quentin Bryce. He warns that while the system is robust, it must continue to earn Australians’ trust and support.
“Benchmarked against comparable countries, Australia has one of the best honours systems in the world. However, its success depends on retaining wide community support,” Brady says.
“For example, Australians could justifiably expect to see high-level recognition given to the extraordinary contributions made by individuals during the bushfires and COVID-19 crises.”
Brady was secretary when Brisbane woman Karen Kline launched a High Court challenge to the office’s refusal to divulge documents related to Kline’s failed nomination of disability advocate Lawrence Laikind. The governor-general’s office had used special powers under the Freedom of Information Act to deny her requests. The High Court dismissed Kline’s appeal in 2013.
More recently, journalists requested information from the governor-general’s office related to Bettina Arndt’s award, only to be rebuffed under the same laws.
Brady says the Council needs to operate confidentially in order to do its job properly. During the long process of vetting someone’s nomination, which can take up to two years, the secretariat will approach a nominee’s contacts for an appraisal. Some are damning in their assessments, while others are damning in their silence. Either way, they are assured their views will be kept private.
“The bedrock of our honours system is confidentiality,” says Brady. “When referees and others are contacted during the research stage of a nomination, it is done on the explicit basis that their honest feedback will be protected.”
Kline, now retired, disagrees. She maintains we need more transparency in the decision-making process, not necessarily the reasons for a particular choice. “It shouldn’t be lifetime politicians and bureaucrats getting these awards,” Kline says. “It is a secret society and it absolutely needs to be reformed.”
Former High Court judge Michael Kirby, who was made a Companion of the Order of Australia, the highest rung, in 1991, is a staunch and perhaps surprising defender of the honours system, given his liberal reformist tendencies.
He does not believe there is any resistance to diversifying the recipients, and says if people want to change the composition of the winners, they need to change the composition of the nominees.
“The present system is nomination-driven,” Kirby says. “If people are upset about the present system, to a large extent they have the remedy in their own hands. My experience has been that most worthy people I nominate eventually get recognised after a lot of checking with referees.”
Tall poppy syndrome is a problem, he says, and he has seen it first-hand. “You would be surprised how mean-spirited some Australians are when asked to support a nomination for an award in the Order of Australia,” Kirby says. “That is when the tall poppy syndrome and castor oil meanness appear on display.
“It should never be forgotten that public recognition in the honours list is mainly for the families, colleagues and friends of the people decorated. To go to Government House on a sunny day and receive recognition from fellow citizens, together with a golden bauble big or small, is a special thrill.
“In Australia, it may be an earnest and long-winded process, but it is not corrupt, and making it better is really up to all of us.”
Michael Koziol is deputy editor of The Sun-Herald, based in Sydney.