What can we expect in the Australia Day honours?

25 January 2014

Order of Australia honours lists reveal a history of remarkable change, and highlight some enduring issues writes DR KAREN FOX.

Australia Day each year brings the announcements of the latest appointments to the Order of Australia. So what can we expect in 2014?

Past honours lists reveal changes and enduring issues in the awards, including gender equity, the recognition of Indigenous Australians, and variations in the types of achievements recognised.

Since the Order was created in February 1975, new awards have been announced on Australia Day in January, and on the Queen's Birthday in June. But the tradition of a January honours list has existed since much earlier. Before 1975, Australians were eligible for British honours, which were announced each January and June, at New Year and on the King's or Queen's Birthday.

As early as January 1934, newspapers around Australia reported that the British Women's Freedom League had protested against the exclusion of women from the highest levels of the Order of the British Empire.

The Order, which included five classes of appointment ranging from Member to Knight or Dame Grand Cross, was the main way of honouring Australians for most of the twentieth century. That January, nine Australian women were appointed to the Order, though none to the highest levels of the Order, which conferred the title of Dame.

Among those honoured that year were Daisy Bates, appointed Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for her 'service to Aboriginal welfare'; Jessie Sawyer, the president of the Country Women's Association in New South Wales, who was appointed Officer of the British Empire (OBE); and Marjorie Grosvenor, confidential typist to the prime minister, who became a Member of the British Empire (MBE).

In June 1957, Pastor Doug Nicholls was made MBE, in what may have been the first appointment of an Indigenous Australian to the Order. Nicholls was later elevated to OBE, and in 1972 was the first Aboriginal man to be knighted. In 1976, he became the first Aboriginal person appointed Governor of an Australian State.

With the introduction of the Order of Australia in 1975, the first awards were announced in June that year. Unlike many British orders, the new Australian honour did not include titles; none of its classes of award conferred knighthood (or damehood).

One of the first to receive the new honour was Patrick White, who was appointed to the highest grade - Companionship. Joan Sutherland, Manning Clark, and Herbert Cole 'Nugget' Coombs were also made Companions.

In 1976, however, White and Coombs, along with two others, resigned from the Order after Malcolm Fraser's new Liberal government introduced an upper level of knights and dames in the Order.

Fraser's government also reintroduced the practice of recommending Australians for imperial honours, which had stopped, at least at the federal level, under Whitlam. In the years that followed, a dual system operated, with some state and federal governments making use of British honours, and others preferring the new Australian awards.

After no recommendations were made in 1990, Queen Elizabeth II suggested that Australia abandon imperial honours in favour of the Order of Australia. The last lists of imperial honours were announced in January and June 1989.

So what will we see this January? How far has gender equity progressed in the award of honours? Which Indigenous achievers might be recognised? And what sorts of achievements and service will be celebrated? The answers will be found in the Australia Day list.

Dr Karen Fox is a Research Fellow in the National Centre of Biography, School of History. She is currently researching the history of honours in Australia.