Our Books Editor, Lyndon Megarrity, interviews Karen Fox, author of Honouring a Nation: A History of Australia’s Honours System (Canberra: ANU Press, 2022).
What inspired you to write a history of the Australian honours system?
The history of honours is a subject that has intrigued me for a long time. I first became interested in the topic as a Master of Arts student at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, after my supervisor, Katie Pickles, suggested that women’s place in the New Zealand honours system would be a good thesis topic. It was, and during that research I realised that there was relatively little academic scholarship on the history of honours systems, not only in New Zealand, but also further afield. I completed my PhD thesis and first monograph on another topic, but the subject of honours continued to interest me, and so after I finished that project, I began researching the history of honours in Australia. While I was working on the book, in 2014, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the revival of the titles of knight and dame in the Order of Australia, and that strengthened my desire to write this history, because the debates that took place around that decision seemed to me to echo much earlier conversations about honours in Australasia, but those conversations didn’t seem to be widely known. So I became especially keen to write the book, and to share that longer history of honours.
One of the major themes of the book is the issue of states’ rights and the operation and administration of the honours system. Can you explain why this was so significant, and whether this issue has been resolved?
Yes, this was a theme that emerged over the course of my research that I hadn’t really anticipated would be as significant as it was. I think it became a crucial issue partly because of the nature of the Australian Federation, under which the States retained considerable powers, including the ability to nominate people for honours. Even then, though, the issue of states’ rights might not have become as important as it did in the history of honours in Australia, had not the Australian Labor Party moved towards a policy of opposing the use of British honours – particularly titular honours. That stance led to a political divide over honours, whereby Labor state and federal governments tended not to make use of the imperial honours system, while non-Labor governments did. This divide also complicated the creation of the Order of Australia as the country’s own national honour during the 1970s. To a large extent, I think the issue has now been resolved, as a result of several developments: the passing of the Australia Acts in 1986, ending Australia’s remaining constitutional links to Britain; the cessation of the use of British honours in Australia in the 1990s; and the consolidation of the Order of Australia as the centrepiece of Australia’s honours system. The Order of Australia awards rely on a council – on which the states and territories are represented – to make recommendations.
Your research has allowed you to compare and contrast the honours system in Australia with those developed in other settler societies, such as Canada and New Zealand. Compared to such countries, is the Australian honours system culturally and politically unique in some ways?
This is such an interesting question, and these comparisons have been one of my enduring fascinations during this research. To some extent, the answer follows on from the previous one, because the nature of Australia’s federal system, and the development of a divide between the Labor and non-Labor parties over the use of honours, are among the more distinctive features of Australia’s history of honours. There are some echoes of a similar divide in Canada, where the Conservative government of Richard Bedford Bennett briefly brought back the use of imperial honours in the 1930s, after they had been discontinued in 1919, but this revival was short-lived, and the episode does not have the longstanding and significant character that the Labor/non-Labor divide over imperial awards does in the history of honours in this country. Of course, in other ways, the history of honours in these three countries is very similar. All three made use of the British honours system before creating their own national awards, and all three developed national orders that are in many ways modelled on British ones. Moreover, all three have a tradition of seeing themselves as egalitarian, and of interpreting and debating honours in terms of that cultural ideal. At the same time, there are several ways in which this broadly similar trajectory of honours has differed in these three locations. For instance, Canada discontinued the use of imperial honours as early as 1919, and was the first to create its own national honour, with the Order of Canada in 1967. The Order of Canada has never included knights and dames, while the Order of Australia did so from 1976 to 1986 and again between 2014 and 2015, and New Zealand – after briefly discontinuing them between 2000 and 2009 – continues to have knighthoods and damehoods within the New Zealand Order of Merit today.
Your book traces the evolution of the honours system in Australia from its original ties to the British Empire to the creation of the independent national system of awards we know today. Why was the shift to the current honours system at times controversial?
This is a complex story, with a number of contributing factors. Part of the answer lies in the issue of states’ rights, which was discussed earlier, because some of the opposition to the Order of Australia when it was created by Gough Whitlam’s federal Labor government in 1975 can be seen as a result of state government irritation with Whitlam’s centralising tendencies. At another level, honours have also on occasion been something of a flashpoint in the ongoing tug-of-war between valuing and maintaining Australia’s British heritage and links to Britain, and breaking away as a fully independent nation with a distinctive identity. We can see that tension in the mixed reactions to the Order of Australia when it was established, and also in the way that it existed in parallel with British honours until the emergence of bipartisan support for ending the use of British awards allowed them to be discontinued in 1992. Then too, there is the fact that it can take some time for new honours to become established, and to acquire the weight of tradition that helps give them meaning – new awards are often treated with a certain amount of satire and scepticism at first.
Rejection of awards takes courage and a denial of the natural desire of many for recognition of their achievements. What intriguing reasons for rejection were given, and how did they reflect the Australia of their generation?
Rejections are relatively uncommon, as far as I have been able to ascertain, and that seems always to have been the case. Nevertheless, there have always been some rejections, and for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes, the reason was distinctly personal – perhaps a modest feeling that one has not done anything sufficiently worthy as to deserve an honour – while others were more ideological. A good example is Alfred Deakin, who declined knighthood because he opposed the involvement of British politicians in Australian concerns and did not wish to accept an honour that might place him in a position of obligation to anyone at the British Colonial Office. There have also been some who have returned an award they had previously accepted, as an act of protest. H. C. “Nugget” Coombs, for example, was one of several to return his AC (Companion of the Order of Australia) after knighthoods were added to the Order of Australia by Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition government in 1976, while poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal returned her MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 1987, in opposition to the upcoming Bicentenary celebrations.
Despite periodic attempts to bring them back, titles such as “Sir” and “Dame” have now been abolished in the Australian honours system. Why have such titles lingered on in some other countries?
This is a fascinating, but difficult, question! It’s easier, perhaps, to explain their discontinuation in places such as Australia and Canada that have moved away from them, in part thanks to national cultural ideals of egalitarianism. It’s harder to explain their continuation elsewhere, but perhaps we can find some clues in the various expressions of support for titles that have been put forward over the years. For instance, arguments have been made that titles like knighthood and damehood carry a weight of tradition that – along with their very visibility before a person’s name – make them particularly meaningful awards for very high achievement, as well as being internationally recognised.
Your book highlights the fact that the award system continues to recognise men at a much higher rate than women. What is the reason for this, and is there anything that can be done to increase the numbers of women awardees?
The gender imbalance in the award of honours has been a longstanding issue, to which attention has frequently been drawn across the decades. The reasons are complex, and – in the case of the Order of Australia in particular – include the fact that the system works through public nominations, and that women have tended to be nominated in smaller numbers than have men. At another level, I think part of the explanation is also to be found in the ways honours have been conceived, with local community service tending to attract lower-level awards than international or national achievements and service, and, of course, for historic reasons, women have often in the past made their contributions to the community at the local level. But the situation has been changing for the better in recent years, with women outnumbering men in appointments at the level of the AC for the first time in the June 2018 honours list, and reaching 47% of appointments in the general division of the Order of Australia in the January 2022 list. Part of the explanation for this change, I think, has been a greater public awareness of the issue, developed through the efforts of both individuals and groups, such as the Honour a Woman campaign, which has been seeking gender parity in the system. I think that this greater public awareness will help to change the situation, as too will the fact that women today have many more opportunities than they once did to achieve and to serve.
The Australian of the Year Awards probably has a higher profile these days than the honours system. As citizens, should we be more mindful of the value of the Order of Australia?
The short answer, I guess, is yes! Almost every country in the world has an honours system, and Australia’s emphasises public participation through the system of public nominations. So, if we want it to reflect the things we value as a community, we need to be nominating the wonderful and inspiring people we know and admire.
What’s next for you as a researcher and an author?
I’ve already begun researching and thinking about my next two books, so I will be keeping busy, I think! I plan first to continue my investigation of how we understand concepts of significance, merit, and reputation in respect to lives through a book exploring the making and unmaking of historical reputations in Australia. I also have a larger interest in the history of fame and celebrity, which has been an area of growing interest for historians in recent years, and I’d like to investigate the particular contours of the history of celebrity in Australia, which will hopefully also produce a book in due course.