Page 572 - Week 02 - Thursday, 19 February 2015

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(3) opposes the perceived devaluation of Canberrans’ Companion, Officer, Member and Medal Order of Australia awards by the resurrection of Knights and Dames as the most senior level of award;

(4) reaffirms its recognition of those Canberrans who have been rightly honoured, on their merits, under the pre-existing Australian honours system; and

(5) calls upon the Speaker to write to the Prime Minister to convey the Assembly’s position on this matter, and recommend he abolish the award of Knight and Dame of the Order of Australia.

This morning I have in front of me a list of some Australians who have made an exceptional contribution to their community, to their nation and to people around the world: Peter Doherty, John Coates, Michael Kirby, Faith Bandler, Colin Thiele, Fiona Stanley and Yunupingu. Closer to home, I add to this list some of the people who have called Canberra home during their lives, and some who continue to do so: Professor Ian Chubb, the Reverend Professor James Haire and Professor Manning Clark.

These are just a few of many names I could read out this morning, whose extraordinary achievements stretch from helping to secure and host the Sydney Olympic Games to community activism on behalf of Indigenous Australians, contributing to business and charitable causes, enriching our literary and cultural life, leading important scientific discoveries, advancing public and maternal health, and making Australia’s legal system more equitable for all.

Despite these very different fields of endeavour, these people all share one thing in common. They were each awarded Australia’s highest honour: Companion of the Order of Australia. Who can argue that they do not deserve this highest recognition for their efforts on behalf of others?

Well, it was Australia’s highest honour until recently. With no prior warning, their awards were arbitrarily demoted in March last year. Suddenly they held only one of Australia’s lesser honours. The same goes for the very worthy recipients of the officer, medal and member classifications of the Order of Australia awards.

Before I turn to the spectacular misjudgement, verging on insult, that led to the diminution of these awards, it is worth briefly outlining how the Order of Australia awards came to be and how they have become so well recognised and so strongly supported within our community.

It was the Whitlam government in early 1975 which finally—finally—ended Australia’s reliance on the imperial honours system. Up until that point, we had abdicated our ability to honour our own, instead effectively sending our list of worthy Australians overseas for judgement. Over decades, that judgement was inherently conservative, clearly discriminatory and arguably overtly political. For example, 18 members of the first Menzies cabinet were knighted or appointed privy counsellors. I am not sure that the first Menzies cabinet was of such singular quality that its members warranted recognition at the expense of the wider Australian community.

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