Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Julia Gillard's announced another award. The details aren't clear . . . it appears she might have gotten a little carried away by the flooding in Queensland and felt the need to suddenly announce something - but that dosn't matter.

As I suggest here, what we really need is to distinguish between those who are getting their award for doing their job and those who've done something else to contribute to the community.


Last Wednesday, on the morning that the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Kenneth James Gillespie, had became one of only three people to be admitted as a Companion of the Order of Australia, he wandered into my local supermarket to buy a bottle of wine for lunch. After congratulating him on his award I enquired how he'd be celebrating. A bottle of the finest French champagne, perhaps: something with a colour to match the golden wattle adorning his new neck-ribbon of the order and with, no doubt, a fine mousse to match the sparkling citrines on the disc.

The General paused and looked at me. He was wearing shorts and an open-neck shirt, casually attired for a friendly barbecue. Suddenly, he shook his head and laughed. "No" he replied, "this is the stuff I like". And with that he plucked an earthy bottle of red down from the shelf, seemingly amused at the idea that being the recipient of such a high award might have somehow affected his palate. He smiled. He was obviously happy to have received the award, but he didn't expect to pushed to the front of the queue waiting to check out.

There was something warmly egalitarian and very Australian about Gillespie's reaction to receiving the nation's highest honour. Receiving any honour is the sort of thing that must mean a great deal -- it's a way of recognising that a person has made a positive contribution to society. It emphasises that what they have done is somehow unusual and out of the ordinary. It's important that these contributions are recognised, even if there is something of an expectation that the service chiefs will receive if this honour, just as it should be for the country’s longest-serving Treasurer.

It appears ironic that it’s often those awarded the lowest class of the order -- a medal, or OAM – that are often the people who are most likely to have given of their own (normally unpaid) time to put something extra into the community. Wealthy businessmen (the philanthropists who give tax-deductable donations to charities) crowd together as officers of the order, while those who help through their own exertions are offered lesser trinkets as their recognition. This isn’t always the case and there’s nothing wrong with recognising anyone, rich or poor, for their contribution, the question should always be; can we do it better?

Napoleon thought he knew exactly what the honours and awards system was all about. "It is by such baubles," he insisted, "that men are led". He bestowed the Légion d’honneur liberally after he became Emperor in 1804 and his soldiers repaid him by seeking glory in the cannon’s mouth. Everyone desperately wanted the right to wear the easily-recognisable red silk ribbon of the order. However the restoration of the monarchy changed things and soon noble birth had reasserted itself as the prime qualification for award of the honour. By the time Napoleon’s nephew had ascended the throne as Emperor of the French in 1852, things had become progressively devalued. He even bestowed his dentist (an American) with the Grand Croix of the Légion – the highest degree possible. The Emperor must have had one hell of a toothache.

The Order of Australia is quite different, of course, from gallantry awards, such as the Victoria Cross recently awarded to Corporal Benjamin Roberts-Smith. A total of 25 diggers received recognition for valour on the battlefield on Australia Day, including a Star of Gallantry and many awards for "distinguished leadership in action". The Army prefers not to release operational details or even in many cases the names of those who've been given medals on the surprising grounds that this might, somehow or another, increase the risk that these soldiers could be targeted by the Taliban. This sort of secrecy makes it difficult for others in the community to properly assess just how remarkable many of these examples of bravery and leadership actually are. Nevertheless, the sketchy details that do emerge would seem to demonstrate that those who have been in action are in no way less willing to do remarkable things than those in past wars.

Now Julia Gillard wants to add a new category to recognise people to "acknowledge Australians who have done that extra bit during natural disasters and emergencies". This will be backdated to cover the Victorian bushfires two years ago -- but not to cover the Canberra bushfires in 2003. The logic of including one without the other is somewhat mystifying, but the real question would appear to be how liberally such medals are to be distributed. Does the bloke who volunteers his time and barbecue to cook sausages for others qualify; or is there an expectation that some degree of bravery in personal danger would need to be exhibited to qualify for an award? John Howard once presented medals to everyone who done as little as three months National Service and it didn't appear to do his election prospects any harm. Despite our supposed reputation as an egalitarian nation of people who don't care about trappings, perhaps the reality is that Napoleon's verdict about what motivates us to go beyond the call of duty is just as accurate for Australians in the 21st century as it was for Frenchmen in the 19th.

There's nothing wrong with Gillard's proposal to create a new medal, although the question "why bother" should be asked. There are already bravery decorations that are awarded to civilians for acts of courage, so presumably the PM is trying to reward something different here. Gillard has also promised a "local hero recognition scheme". Although details of this remain scant it should not be confused with Chris Lilley's new comedy programme, which will also debut this year.

The new medal is, however, a good idea. It just might inspire people and it certainly will offer some recognition to those who suffer during natural disasters. From that point of view it would be churlish in the extreme to question the need for another award. Nevertheless, if our awards system is to continue to mean anything there is an urgent need to revisit what the awards are for. The Order of Australia should continue to be given to those -- like the Chief of Army and the former Treasurer -- who have earned it by virtue of their work. Bravery should continue to be recognised through special awards which document and acknowledge these acts. But if we want to genuinely appreciate those people who contribute something particularly vital to the community, we should be offering them more than a simple OAM. I think this is what Gillard means, although has perhaps not thought through clearly.

If we're going to have any awards system, then we should be recognising those who contribute their time and effort without payment whether there's a natural disaster or not. Establishing an egalitarian award like this would seem to be a very Australian sort of thing to do. We should have done it before.

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