Australia Day honours 2021: Malcolm Turnbull says 'irony' in getting award along with Margaret Court

Malcolm Turnbull has said there is “no shortage of irony” that he has received Australia’s highest honour for his contributions towards marriage equality on the same day that Margaret Court, the tennis legend who was a vocal opponent of the 2017 campaign, received the same honour.

The former prime minister is one of four people made a companion of the Order of Australia (AC) as part of the 2021 Australia Day honours, on a list that includes notable contributions from Australians to education, mathematics, sport, religion, health and politics, among many other fields.

The former broadcaster Kerry O’Brien announced on Monday he would turn down his appointment as an Officer in the Order in protest against the honour given to Court.

Fewer women are being honoured than in previous years, with female representation dropping to 36.8% of new recipients, after more than 40% of those appointed to the Order of Australia in 2020 were women.

Other recipients include horse trainer Gai Waterhouse and former South Australian premier Jay Weatherill, who were all appointed Officers of the Order of Australia. Retired footballer and commentator-turned refugee advocate Craig Foster has been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia.

Turnbull said it was not dignified to comment on the appropriateness of other award winners specifically, but told the Guardian there was “no shortage of irony” that he was being honoured for his contributions to marriage equality given the furious backlash generated by Court’s award.

Court, who has worked as a Pentecostal minister since her retirement from tennis and was a vehement opponent of same-sex marriage in Australia before the 2017 postal survey, defended her views as “just saying what the Bible says” after news of her award, which acknowledges her service to tennis, was leaked on Friday.

Turnbull said: “Marriage equality is obviously done now ... We should always be seeking to eliminate discrimination on any ground, including sexual orientation.

“Any honours system is always going to be controversial because there will always be people who are contentious and there will always be plenty of people who deserve to be recognised who aren’t,” he said, noting the current nomination system was an improvement on recipients being nominated by the government.

“The reality is that some people are much better at getting themselves nominated, and some people are better organised, and they’re more likely to get awards.”

Turnbull said he would continue advocating for greater action on climate change and would speak out against the rise of “protofacism” in Australia, which he believes is spurred by tolerating misinformation in the media.

Cheryl Praeger, emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Western Australia, is also appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia, for her service to tertiary education, research, international organisations, and as a champion of women in STEM careers.

Praeger told the Guardian that despite the decline in female representation in this year’s honours list, she hoped the visibility of the awards would encourage girls to consider careers in STEM.

She said lower female participation in STEM industries was wasting society’s potential to solve its problems.

“It would be rather nice if society really made use of all the expertise and talent available, regardless of gender.”

The Toowoomba-born professor, whose work has influenced how we keep information secure on the internet, recalled being the only woman in her university classes in advanced maths from the second year of her degree onwards. But, she said, two female lecturers motivated her to continue.

“I knew I was a bit unusual but I also knew I wasn’t alone. They showed me there was a place for me.”

Praeger later worked with Hanna Neumann, the first female professor of mathematics at an Australian university. Praeger herself became the second.

She is now involved in women-in-science initiatives throughout Asia.

Former Socceroo Tim Cahill has been appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to football and charitable organisations.

Speaking to the Guardian from his home in the United Kingdom, Cahill said he was humbled by the award because it validated his achievements off the field.

“I was blown away when I heard about the reward, I’m just proud to get it,” he said. “I’ve not lived in Australia for half of my life. So it’s very special to be reminded of the impact your career on the international stage has back home.”

Cahill, who scored Australia’s first goal at a Fifa World Cup, said his work with Unicef and Heartbeat of Football, as well as his career writing children’s books, had been among the most rewarding things he had done since retiring in 2019.

John Levi, a Melbourne rabbi, was the fourth person appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia, for his service to the advancement of interfaith understanding, tolerance and collaboration, and to education.

“I thought I’d misread the letter when I got it in the mail,” the 86-year-old said. “It’s really very moving ... I can’t believe it’s happened.”

Levi, who was a leader in the reform branch of Judaism in Australia, said he was proud of the interfaith progress he had made, which included establishing dialogues with Christian denominations, as well as being part of the international group Religions for Peace.

“Things have changed an enormous amount in my lifetime,” he said. “Growing up, nobody knew anything about Judaism except in the bad way.”

Levi has also researched the Jews who arrived as convicts in the first years of European settlement.


Elias Visontay

The GuardianTramp

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