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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2015 Week 02 Hansard (Thursday, 19 February 2015) . . Page.. 573 ..

Prime Minister Whitlam recognised that this system was hardly one reflecting a modern, confident, inclusive, egalitarian and proudly diverse nation, and so the Order of Australia honours system was born, assessed by Australians and awarded to those who have served Australia and humanity with distinction.

There was a small stutter back to imperialism in 1976 under the Fraser government, notably causing some order recipients, such as Patrick White, to resign from the order in protest. But by the election of the Hawke government way back in 1983, time was ripe for a change. It was something Bob Hawke and Labor took as a policy to that election, and one it implemented quickly on coming to office.

For his “Out of the cabinet” series of articles, journalist Ian Warden conducted some fascinating research on the cabinet papers that ended the award of knights and dames in Australia. The records show cabinet deciding, in December 1983, to abolish the existing practice of creating Australian knights and dames and to strengthen and enhance the “utterly Australian” honours system. “The aim,” the responsible minister, Kim Beazley, stated in his submission, “is to ensure that Australian honours and symbols appropriately reflect Australia’s identity and status as an independent nation.” Since that time the Order of Australia has clearly lived up to this expectation.

This is clear from the very assessment and selection process for the awards. Nominations for the four levels of awards in the General Division of the Order of Australia come directly from the community. Anyone can nominate an Australian citizen for an award in the Order of Australia. The nomination may come from an individual or it may come from a group. Nominations are considered by the Council for the Order of Australia, which then makes recommendations to the Governor-General.

You cannot better capture the Australian mindset. Unlike in the United Kingdom, since their creation Order of Australia nominations have come not mysteriously from on high or on the whim of a powerful politician but from the very community to which the nominee is making a contribution. They are not filtered through a partisan political process or office. The award has not been a reward for political mates. It has never been the exclusive preserve of old white men.

It is these qualities of high achievement, inclusiveness and egalitarianism that have made these awards so respected, because they properly and appropriately reflect our diverse community. And they have effectively recognised people, often in the prime of their contributions, not just as a bauble handed out towards the end of a distinguished life but as something that effectively assists those still active in their endeavours to make Australia a better place.

Given the resounding success of our very Australian honours system, I was astounded—I know many Canberrans were astounded—at the sudden decision by Prime Minister Abbott to resurrect the anachronism of knights and dames in 2014, an award personally selected by the Prime Minister and recommended to the Queen herself for awarding. Whether he intended to do so or not, the effect was to degrade and devalue the Australian honours awarded over the past 32 years.

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