What is the Order of Australia, who decides the awards and can they be challenged?

Margaret Court’s Australia Day honour is the latest in a series of contentious decisions. Here’s how the process works

The process of awarding Orders of Australia has come under scrutiny in recent years, after a series of contentious appointments sparked furious backlash.

Between 2019 and 2020, formal reviews have been requested for awards made to controversial sex therapist Bettina Arndt, robot sex expert and former far-right political candidate Prof Adrian Cheok and former journalist Mike Carlton.

The decision to give former tennis player Margaret Court the highest honour in the awards system has also been heavily criticised due to Court’s stance on LGBTQ+ rights, including comments that transgender children were the work of “the devil”.

How does the process work?

Who decides?

The awards are considered by an independent body called the Council for the Order of Australia.

Nominations can be made by any member of the public by submitting them online to the council. Staff at the council conduct additional research and contact referees. The council then decides whether to recommend the nominations to the governor general, to not recommend, or defer.

Officially, the governor general, David Hurley, then considers and approves the award appointments, but he does so on the advice of the council.

The council itself has 19 members, who are appointed by the governor general on the recommendation of the prime minister. The current chair is Shane Stone.

Orders of Australia are awarded twice a year – on 26 January and the Queen’s birthday. Awards take between 18 months and two years to be processed, according to the council.

There are four levels of award within the Order of Australia. Court, for example, had already been made an Officer of the Order of Australia (the second highest honour) in 2007, and will be made a Companion of the Order, the highest rank, in 2021.

Can awards be challenged?

Awards can be reviewed by the council, and concerned parties can also write to the governor general, who can then refer the award to be reviewed by the council.

In February 2020, awards given to Arndt and Carlton were referred for review.

Arndt’s award for “gender equity through advocacy for men” was heavily criticised due to a 2018 interview she conducted with a convicted paedophile in which she described the behaviour of female students as “sexually provocative”.

She was further criticised after she congratulated Queensland police for saying they would keep an “open mind” about whether the death of Hannah Clarke and her children was a case of a “husband being driven too far”.

Arndt accused her critics of “engaging in virtue signalling at the expense of supporting free speech and proper discussion of key social issues”.

The Victorian attorney general, Jill Hennessy, wrote to Hurley asking him to rescind the honour over the interview with the paedophile.

The Victorian Liberal MP, Tim Smith, also wrote to Hurley asking him to rescind the honour over her comments on Clarke. The federal Liberal senator, Sarah Henderson, wrote to Stone, the chair of the council, saying the award “should be cancelled”.

My letter to the Chairman of the Council of the Order of Australia Shane Stone. Ms Bettina Arndt’s award as a Member of the Order of Australia in the General Division should be cancelled. pic.twitter.com/8vlUdJFtdy

— Senator Sarah Henderson (@SenSHenderson) February 24, 2020

Carlton’s award was referred after journalist Sharri Markson criticised swearing and violent imagery in his tweets. He responded that he’d been subject to a News Corp Australia attack that was “a vicious and disgraceful vendetta”.

In June 2019, Cheok – a man who advocates sex with robots who had been accused of poor conduct with his peers, and had run as a candidate for Fraser Anning’s Conservative National party – also had his honour reviewed.

The chapter president of the Digital Games Research Association Australia, Brendan Keogh, wrote to formally challenge the honour alleging that Cheok had a “track record of abusive behaviour towards other academics” on social media.

In the 2019 federal election, Cheok attracted 868 votes in the lower house seat of Boothby in South Australia running for Anning’s party.

Cheok also said in 2019 he was setting up a graduate school that would teach classes on “Trumpism” and “Bannonism”.

At the time of the honours controversy, Cheok told the Guardian he was a worthy recipient and the criticism was “about creating a perception and getting an emotional public reaction rather than dealing in precise facts”.

The office of the governor general told Guardian Australia in February 2020: “In all matters relating to the Order of Australia, the governor general acts on advice from and recommendations made by the Council for the Order of Australia.

“When the governor general receives correspondence – including requests to terminate or cancel an award – it is referred to the council … for advice and action.”

Can awards be revoked?

Yes, but the bar is high. Last year, Stone said none of the awards that were reviewed would be revoked.

Awards can be revoked when a person “has behaved or acted in a manner that has brought disrepute on the Order”. But Stone said this grounds would require a criminal conviction.

“In the council’s view and as a general principle, for the Order to be brought into disrepute, a conviction, penalty or adverse finding must have occurred,” he said. “In essence, the council … uses law as the threshold for termination and cancellation.”

He added that political or social views would not be grounds for “disrepute”.

“In a system that recognises hundreds of people each year, it is inevitable that each list will include some people who others believe should not be recognised,” he said in a statement.

“Unanimous community approval is not a criteria for council to make a recommendation … Individuals are neither qualified nor disqualified on the basis of their political leanings, social views or religious convictions.”

Other grounds for termination include when information for the recommendation “is found to be based on false or misleading material”.

In 2019, Scott Morrison said he would strip Cardinal George Pell of his Order of Australia if he failed in his appeals against multiple sexual assault convictions. Pell was later acquitted by the high court, and he retains his award.

The council says that it includes the legal appeals process in its consideration for criminal charges.

How many nominations are there?

The percentage of people who win awards after being nominated is generally quite high.

In 2019, there were a total of 1,374 nominations for the Queen’s birthday honours and 993 were granted – 72%.

More statistics are here:

Queen's Birthday and Australia Day honours: nominations v awards made


Naaman Zhou

The GuardianTramp

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