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Doing your job well is great, but do you really need a medal with that?

More than a third of Australians volunteer at something – we’re a kind bunch – but always there is a danger with awards: that very deserving people will miss out and very undeserving people won’t. And my bet is that often it will be the very “ordinary Australians” left empty-handed, the same ones that our politicians love to wax lyrical about.

I think this way because when you look at the list of award recipients, there seems to be a larger number of older, white males receiving awards than any other category of people. They’re more likely to be part of that culture that backslaps and understands the importance of marketing and giving people a “leg up” on the ladder of recognition; who enjoy placing letters at the end of their names.

The very process by which people are nominated automatically rules out those who aren’t computer savvy, highly literate or cognisant of the way in which you nominate people. Quite possibly such people are also far too busy with actual on-the-ground volunteer work to ever get around to it. It’s not until the awards are announced that the thought of “Oh! I should nominate X” ever crosses one’s mind, only to be forgotten in a flurry of busyness.

People in smaller and rural communities would also have a smaller relative percentage of nominations, too, because it simply isn’t in the psyche. We are too busy filling slots on committees and quietly giving up our time to think about awards, other than a fleeting thought when they’re announced.

For a case in point, consider the incredible firies who battled our catastrophic bushfires for weeks on end last year, or the frontline health workers who have worked ceaselessly through this pandemic at high-risk exposure sites. I wonder how many of them will be honoured for a contribution “above and beyond”? I’m sure most of them wouldn’t want one, because many simply regard it as their job, but when a politician gets an OAM for just being a politician – well, that’s when things start to feel wrong.

If you’re being paid to do something, logically one would hope you’d do it well because you are remotely conscientious. However, logic would not expect you to receive an award for doing so, unless, of course, you are doing something above and beyond – making a groundbreaking or unprecedented contribution.

I also detest seeing awards go to people who have donated large sums of their personal fortunes to worthy causes. OK, a friend posited, but what if that wealthy person donates all of their money to building a cancer hospital or buying a Picasso for the NGV? How genuinely lovely and generous that they should use their fortunate station in life to benefit others. Well, by all means, name the hospital after them or hang a sizeable plaque, but money should never buy you an award. The same goes for famous sportspeople and entertainers who are awarded for “services to their industry”. It would be unheard of in any other meritorious system wanting to be seen as legitimate.

This is not a tall poppy thing. I just think that the poppies who should be awarded on Australia Day are the people who are working quietly and tirelessly on causes close to their heart, for nothing other than the satisfaction that their contribution gives them. And I would encourage the Order of Australia Council to scratch more than the surface of a nomination when choosing recipients.

Nicola Philp is a freelance writer.

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