40th Anniversary of the Australian Honours System

The Australian Honours System has been acknowledging the contribution of amazing Australians for 40 years now. I was proud to join a great many of them for the anniversary celebrations at Government House this week.


Government House, Canberra

Your Excellencies Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove and Lady Cosgrove, ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to be here today representing the Leader of the Opposition the Honourable Bill Shorten on this special anniversary.

One of the great privileges of being a parliamentarian is that you get to meet so many remarkable people. Over the past week, I’ve spoken with a woman who runs a technology start-up, a teacher who works with newly arrived migrant children, the head of an international aid organisation, and a mental health campaigner. In a job like this, it’s impossible not to be an optimist about Australia’s future.

Economists like to speak about different kinds of capital. There’s physical capital – like the beautiful building we’re in today, and human capital, as provided by our great institutions of learning, such as the Australian National University, just across the pond.

Some years ago, we developed the notion of ‘social capital’ – the idea that the ties of trust and reciprocity have an inherent value. Social capital recognises that our sense of community matters as much as bricks and mortar, diplomas and degrees.

And yet, there is powerful evidence that social capital is on the wane in Australia. Participation in community groups and sporting activities has declined. Church attendance and union membership have fallen. On average, Australians have fewer friends and know fewer neighbours than a generation ago. We have become more disconnected.

Government cannot solve this problem alone. But part of the solution to creating a civic renaissance is providing proper recognition to our community entrepreneurs.

Founded two score years ago, Australia’s honours system is one way that we can build our own sense of social capital.

The Australian honours system reflected Gough Whitlam’s view that a confident people needed our own honours system, not one borrowed from abroad. A serious people need not import – nor export – our honours.

As Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister in 2013, I had the pleasure of working with the exceptional team in the Australian Honours and Awards Secretariat. I know how hard they work to identify those most deserving of awards.

At the time, I wrote about the ongoing challenge of ensuring that our honours truly represent the Australian community. At present, only one-third of recipients are women, and the share is lower still among higher orders. It is likely that Indigenous Australians, people with disabilities, and Australians from a non-English speaking background are also underrepresented.

This is not an issue for the Secretariat to solve. This year, female nominees had a better chance of receiving an award than male nominees.

The challenge is for all of us to do a better job in identifying talented women. As a community, we sometimes overlook work in traditionally feminised fields (such as volunteering and the arts) in favour of traditionally male fields (such as leading large organisations).

True leadership often comes without a title. It is the task of us all to identify the inspiring Australian stories that deserve recognition – and in so doing, to build an even stronger sense of social capital in Australia.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.