The rich history of the Australian honours system

20 Jan 2022

We wouldn’t care so much about these debates if we felt like it wasn’t important to get it right...

The first detailed history of the Australian honours system reveals key debates that have characterised the institution for decades and highlights long-standing contests about who is recognised and why. 

Gender balance, diversity, the use of titles, and recognition for paid versus voluntary work have attracted attention in recent years, but Dr Karen Fox, Senior Research Fellow at The Australian National University (ANU), says these debates have a long history.

Dr Fox's new book, Honouring a Nation, published by ANU Press and release today, provides a detailed history of the honours system in Australia, explaining how the system has worked, tracing the arguments of its supporters and critics, and looking both at those who received awards and those who declined them.

Drawing on Dr Fox's research, the open access book explores the honours system from the extension of British honours to colonial Australasia in the 19th century, to the establishment of the Order of Australia in 1975, and recent controversies such as the reintroduction of titles by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

"One of my main findings was that many of these conversations are not new," Dr Fox said of the public debate sparked by the 2014 announcement of the return of knighthoods and damehoods to the Order of Australia - a decision reversed a year later by Malcolm Turnbull when he replaced Mr Abbott as Prime Minister. 
"We were having similar kinds of arguments in the 1880s and 1890s about whether titles belong in an egalitarian country as we were in 2014."
Dr Fox examines the Australian honours system through three major themes: Australia's altering relationship with Britain; the changing face of Australian society and citizenship and the extent to which those transformations have been reflected in the nation's honours system; and evolving ideas about what it means to be meritorious, and about what, or who, is deserving of recognition.
"In a way, one of the key themes is also continuity, and the way similar conversations recur with different emphases or different inflections," Dr Fox said.
"The question of gender balance in the awards has been really in focus in the last 10 years, but it's also got a long history.
"As early as the 1890s there were suggestions that women deserved honours too. Women became eligible for the Order of the British Empire when it was created in 1917, but that wasn't where the conversation ended, because there's still ongoing discussion about the proportion of awards going to women and whether or not they're at a high enough grade."
An underlying theme of Honouring a Nation is the idea that how we understand merit isn't fixed, Dr Fox said.
"It's historically contingent and changes over time and I was interested to highlight some of the different ways that honours bring that out in terms of who gets what, and what people think is most deserving at different times.
"The broader conversation about what kinds of things are worthy of the highest honours has been there for a long time, including such questions as whether voluntary work should receive higher honours than work performed as part of someone's job."
But the at times heated discussions sparked by the honours system speak to the value it holds as a national institution in Australia, Dr Fox said. 
"I think it's a natural human desire to want to recognise and acknowledge good things that people have done, and I think we care so much because we want to get that right.
"We wouldn't care so much about these debates if we felt like it wasn't important to get it right in terms of who we say is the most deserving in our community of being acknowledged.
"That in itself is quite a long-standing view of honours too. In spite of all the criticisms, there's always been a view that honours should be merited rewards for really good service."

Honouring a Nation: A History of Australia's Honours System by Dr Karen Fox is published by ANU Press and available for free download here.

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