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Australia Day Honours? Give them the Gong!

January 25, 2012 – 9:54 pm10 Comments

By Larry Stillman
As my wife knows, one of my most vivid and recurring dreams involves members of the Royal Family and Princess Anne’s ruby lips.

And purely by chance – or is it destiny? – because of a cousin’s marriage to a relative (by marriage) of a member of the Windsor clan, I can lay claim that but for certain legal impediments such as the Act of Settlement (1701), if all members of the royal family and their descendants and relatives by marriage to the nth degree were wiped out, I too could be King. I know it works because when I last visited Spencer House in London, I said, “I am related to the Queen by marriage you know,” in a not so particularly quiet way to my friend. The serious reaction of the ladies at the postcard till was immediate.

Now stop laughing. This is serious. I am concerned about ‘the aristocratic embrace’, that odious habit of loving a couple of letters after your name to set you apart from the hoi polloi and impress the impressionable.

Rather than honouring those rare and society-changing individuals who deserve special public recognition that might only occur once in a generation (John Monash, Weary Dunlop, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Eddie Mabo), the honours lists continue to be a vehicle for snobbery, status games, political payback, and a means of working over other people about how important you are with that little badge on your bespoke golf jacket.

I say this in part because I know how easy it is to play the nomination honours game if you are rich, well-connected, or know how to write a nomination letter. As part of a political payback game, I’ve been involved in a successful nomination. Others have observed how the honours list overwhelmingly reflects a particularly heterogeneous group: either the old WASP elite or others who have become part of the dominant elite, though of course there are exceptions. The Jewish elite have played this status game to the core.

Out of the eight people named as key commitee  or staff members of AIJAC on their website, five have some form of Australian honour. Likewise, of the 28 or so members of the ECAJ Executive, including life members, 18, that is nearly 65% have an Australian honour. The Zionist Federation of Australia lists no honours but that is fitting, because they are on about Israel, not about Australia, I suppose.

By way of comparison, according to the ACTU website, none of the members of their executive have a gong (or they keep it quiet), despite the important role they play in Australian life.  Of the 12  members of the Federation of the Ethnic Communities Council of Australia only 2 are named as having an honour.  If we look at another specific community, of the 20 or so members of the Greek Orthodox Community of Victoria board, none is named as having a gong. And even that bastion of the elite, Geelong Grammar, does not mention that any of the members of its school council have an honour.

Now what is going on here?

Even accounting for false modesty on elite organisations like Grammar who don’t add the sacred letters after people’s names, there appears to be massive gradeflation and a bit of a nomination industry at the top end of the Jewish community. I am sure it is happening elsewhere but it is harder to reveal through the internet. Perhaps spotting lapel pins at in the Long Room at the MCG would be a good comparative test.

I think it is time to rethink the abuse of the honours system.  Other than having me as King (yechi ha-melech! we would cry), we need something much more restricted, which is not open to game-playing.

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10 Comments »

  • Jack Chrapot says:

    Larry, I suggest you check out the latest list of the recipients of the Australia Day Honours. A few of them have, among other things, worked for Zionist organisations. Another, who passed away last year, has listed among her work the fact that she was a spokesperson for Holocaust survival. Yet another is the founder and President, the Holocaust Institute of Western Australia, since 1990. There are surgeons, philanthropists, communal workers – most get the gig because of what they do and not their wealth.

    I agree that they are “elite” but not in the terms you indicate. They’re not snobs from the upper crust but rather, they’re elite because they are deserving and have worked hard for their community.

    Might I suggest that you’ve spent too much time watching those fake stereotypical Jews  depicted in The Promise rather than the real Jews whose numbers for communal awards are disproportionate because so many of us follow the dictum of tikkun olam?

    And if we’re going to put an end to these awards because such disproportionality constitutes “abuse” then let’s get rid of the Nobel Prize because too many Jews have been recipients of that award too.

  • Harold Zwier says:

    So, Larry, I had a bit of a chuckle over your article. But I think Jack makes some good points. There are different gong categories and generally the people who get the lowest category have been involved in real work with their communities. As you go up the gong rung the recipients are fewer and the people are generally a bit more exceptional.

    Perhaps you could set up an elite club who have received a gong but refuse to display their “letters”. It could then be a mutual admiration society for members only. I don’t suppose, in all modesty, that you could tell anyone you were a member of this club. And would it really be appropriate to advertise the existence of such a club?

  • Larry Stillman says:

    The problem with ‘lower level’ nominations is that nominations need to come from communities themselves—this leaves out those less established/alienated groups and of course, the many unheralded champions–the people just out there.

    Those who play the game, play it to the hilt. It seems to me impossible to design a just solution, other than one which reinforces privilege and the modern version of the old-school tie.

    As for Nobel prizes and AMs- at least Nobel prizes are truly for exceptional, world-class merit. I think there is all the world of difference between that and the status game in Australian honours system.

  • Only one possible response to this – we must nominate Larry for an award for services to the blogosphere and for his contribution to the body of progressive Leftist diatribes. He has gone way beyond the call of duty!

  • Larry Stillman says:

    Why David? Why continue with something that is so shonky?

  • Sydney Daniel says:

    A good accountant can take advantage of tax breaks, like the community understands how to nominate. A bad accountant will have you paying the highest tax rate, like how the ACTU might not nominate their people.

    The difference with you Larry, is that while most people would encourage the ACTU to nominate more people, you take the other angle and belittle people that deserve the award.

    On another note – you are completely right with this point. “The problem with ‘lower level’ nominations is that nominations need to come from communities themselves—this leaves out those less established/alienated groups and of course, the many unheralded champions–the people just out there.” You are 100% right… but I’m not sure there is a better system available.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    I think the union movement still has an egalitarian spirit when it comes to ‘the aristocratic embrace’.

    I have come across a few articles from years gone by, criticizng the awards for its essential bias against an egalitarian system or fair play in how or why people are nominated for that highly subjective category of worthy deeds. Those who have power, knowlege and skills will always benefit.

    I think nothing has really changed.

  • Letters in the age says:

    Gocmv is a great org and it’s great that you acknowledge them Larry along with maybe hacci?
    Very true and some just don’t want to play the game …….

    Nice article

  • Larry Stillman says:

    Letters in The Age —

    Well, at least one or two people get my point and/or others just don’t want to say anything to get people’s noses out of joint. Maybe they are scared that they won’t get a gong if they say anything.

    Perhaps the issue means little to younger people who consider it a bit of a grey-haired generational game and irrelevant to their pursuits.

    In fact, I’d like to know if there has been any rigorous research on to whom the orders are given, analyzed by ethicity, business or other connections and so on. Merit isn’t at the top of the list of relevant factors I fear. I know that the orders are not subject to FOI.
    There is of course the gender issue and the political parties issue. http://www.crikey.com.au/2005/01/27/bias-and-the-aus-day-honours/

    I believe that there have been pressures in the UK to open up the system to FOI and it should be the case here.

    And as I said above, I’d prefer ‘honouring those rare and society-changing individuals who deserve special public recognition that might only occur once in a generation’, rather than inherently biased system that exists at the moment.

  • letters in the age says:

    “Ruffling feathers” has it’s drawbacks.

    There are some new ideas/projects being discussed within a different generational framework for the next ten

    stay tuned……

    cheers

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