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The case for remaking our honours system – with the help of our Indigenous traditions

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Whether we like it or not, the traditional British titles have currency. They are like a form of cultural ambassadorship. Someone who is known as “Sir” or “Dame” can be recognised globally as an individual who has made a significant contribution to their country.

And if Australians don’t know what AC or AO mean, then it’s pretty likely the rest of the world won’t either.

One of the weaknesses of the Australian honours system is it was designed primarily as a rejection of Britain’s class structures, rather than as the assertion of a culturally confident continent. The end result has been a halfway house that is neither distinctive, nor memorable.

Compare our situation to a country like Malaysia. Malaysia is a former British colony and now has its own honours system. But rather than rehash the legacy of British institutions, it created its own system in its own tradition. Titles such as “Datuk” or “Datin” – which signify traditional cultural respect – have been integrated into modern society and are internationally recognised for their national origins.

Our honours system doesn’t carry the same weight. But it could, and it’s our failure of imagination that is holding us back. With hundreds of Aboriginal languages, there are boundless possibilities that could be adopted as part of our continuing journey to elevate respect for Australia’s Indigenous heritage.

With hundreds of Aboriginal languages, there are boundless possibilities that could be adopted.

With hundreds of Aboriginal languages, there are boundless possibilities that could be adopted.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Of course, any such proposal would need to respect Indigenous communities and be advanced through consultation. But it’s an opportunity presently missed.

As but one of many potential examples, words such as “Ngurrakartu”, which means “custodian” among the Pintupi people around Western Australia, could be used to signify the standing and voluntary contribution of individuals who’ve taken personal responsibility for our country and its people.

Arguably Indigenous attitudes to non-hierarchical and shared responsibility better reflects what we are seeking to recognise through our honours system – those who through their contribution to the nation have helped build it and its people.

The Prime Minister has recognised the importance of refreshing the national anthem.

The Prime Minister has recognised the importance of refreshing the national anthem.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Domestically it would refresh the honours system and integrate our past with our present, so we can move forward together as one country. Internationally it would elevate citizens with titles that respect our past and improve global awareness of Australia as a culturally confident nation.

It would also help redress the legacies of European settlement that led to the unfortunate loss of Indigenous languages.

While there are substantial efforts to codify Indigenous languages and keep them from fading, nothing keeps languages alive more than usage in daily life. We already do that through the naming of suburbs and places such as Canberra, which means “meeting place” in the local Ngunnawaal language.

On January 1, the Prime Minister recognised the importance of refreshing the national anthem, removing the claim that Australia was a “young” nation, a misrepresentation that was an offence to Indigenous Australians. It was a simple but important step, in the spirit that we are one people moving forward together.

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But this proposal to update our honours system involves taking the next step and acting with confidence. Having the longest continuing surviving culture as part of our national story is something to be proud of. We should celebrate it. And one of the simplest ways is to integrate it into the way we show respect for our most esteemed Australians at home and abroad.

Tim Wilson is the federal Liberal member for Goldstein.

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