What an Order of Australia means and how to get one

“Who knows, perhaps I did the same way back then. There are always people who are curious – and that includes people who might like or dislike you. The question is the same but the tone can alter considerably.”

AO stands for Officer of the Order. If one judges, as most do, the level of the Order of Australia award by the quota per annum, this is second to top in the general (as opposed to the military) category of the order with a maximum of 140 awarded each year. Above it comes the the Companion of the Order (AC), with an annual quota of just 35 each year. Below is the Member of the Order (AM) – 365 per annum – and then the Medal of the Order (OAM), for which there is no quota. The most exclusive gongs are no longer available; only three Knights and two Dames of the Order of Australia (AK and AD) were awarded between their re-introduction, after a 31 year absence, in 2014 and before they were discontinued the following year.

On the surface, the award system is straightforward. Any Australian can nominate another for an award. The nominations, which must include a list of referees, are forwarded to the Council of the Order of Australia. The council then contacts referees and generally checks all is above board. If a nomination is successful, the subject is contacted by mail on rather splendid stationary that features the crown and wattle insignia of the Governor-General, and asked if they will accept the honour. The particular level of award is decided by the Council and once again there are clear guidelines.

This is why many who are nominated for volunteer work in their community are awarded an OAM (for service worthy of particular recognition), many athletes who represent their country and professionals end up sporting an AM (for service to particular locality, group or field), and many business people and politicians, whose service is judged to be at a national or international level, are awarded an AO (distinguished service of a high degree to Australia or humanity at large) or AC (eminent achievement and merit of the highest degree in service to Australia or humanity at large). These are highly prized by business. “A person who has been awarded an OA – regardless of level – is a person of integrity who has in his or her chosen direction in life been a good a citizen and recognised as having made a contribution. So they are desirable people to have around,” says McCarthy.

Supposedly anonymous

Over the years McCarthy has been involved in the nominations of upwards of 30 other people. This is not uncommon. Gaining an award tends to prompt people to nominate others and those who are doing the nominating often seek out people who hold awards to act as a referee. It seems the cachet of an Order of Australia works both inside and outside of the awards system.

But while the nomination process runs along set lines, inside the honours community there are stories told and eyebrows lifted. There are PR companies that approach community oriented organisations with proposals to run the nomination process for key executives. There was the business figure who, once he knew the award was on the way, threw a party to thank his supposedly anonymous nominator and referees. Some who are aware they have been nominated have been known to approach referees, asking them to be suitably effusive.

Not all nominations succeed. Details of failed efforts are understandably scarce but television personality Kerri-Anne Kennerley saw a few go awry in the two years she served as a community representative on the Council of the Order of Australia.

Twice a year before the 19-member council met, Kennerley recalls, two suitcases full of documents – the nominations and accompanying references – would arrive at her home. “Our chairman encouraged us to read every one. And I did.” Each nomination told a story of a life. Some made her cry, such was the commitment displayed. Couples who cared for more than 100 foster children. People who gave up large chunks of their time over decades.

Wendy McCarthy: “A person who has been awarded an OA – regardless of level – is a person of integrity.” Peter Braig

“After I joined the council I realised this country lives on the back off voluntary work. The care factor in this country is enormous,” she says.

There was one nomination though that was memorable for a different reason. It was a television figure with a high public profile. The references were glowing, and written by some very big names, Kennerley recalls. But there was scant evidence of serious charity work, or any other “above and beyond” contribution the awards set out to honour. So when her fellow council members looked her way for comment, Kennerley made her opinion known.

“Other than being famous,” Kennerley recalls asking, “exactly what has this person done?”

“This is not the Logies,” she went on. “Celebrity is not enough.” That nomination didn’t get through.

Kerri-Anne Kennerley: “Celebrity is not enough.” Janie Barrett

Like many, Kennerley is a bit leery of the many politicians and public servants who get an award around the time they retire.

“My belief is no public servant, no politician and no services personnel should be involved in these awards. If they do something outside of their job, fine. But we should not give them an award for doing their job. And famous people shouldn’t get it just because they let a charity stick their name on an invite. Going to a cocktail party for a glass of champagne should not get you a gong.”

Kennerley wants children to be educated about the Order of Australia awards and what they represent so they can seek to emulate those who are honoured. “If you want to make it important, put it on the school curriculum.”

‘You are legitimate’

Medical researcher, former Garvan Institute executive director and recently retired CSL chairman Professor John Shine would also like more Australians to get involved in the awards. After receiving his first honour, an AO, in 1996, and then an AC in 2017, Shine has seen how the Order of Australia can open doors – both in this country and elsewhere.

Professor John Shine AC: “Business people don’t really understand the science or who’s a good scientist but they recognise an AO or AC is a credential.” Louise Kennerley

“My career has been a mixture of academic science and business. At that business/science interface, having an Order of Australia award has really helped. They are two different fields of human endeavour. Business people don’t really understand the science or who’s a good scientist but they recognise an AO or AC is a credential, your fellow scientists have said you are legitimate, you are doing well. So that has been very useful for me.”

The award was also useful when it came to persuading people to back medical research, Shine says.

“At Garvan one of my responsibilities was to help raise donations to support researchers and when you are talking to individuals, a high civilian award like that gives donors some comfort you are legitimate, not just some used car salesman at a cocktail party,” he says.

Similarly, when doing business internationally he found countries such as China put a lot of emphasis on government recognition.

“So it has definitely helped me professionally but even more important, I think, is the impact it has had on a personal level. Both my brother and my sister also have awards so it’s really special. My AO ceremony was so great because my mother was still alive and you know what mothers are like when their sons get an award like that. It was a very moving, very emotional time. It makes you proud of your family and your family proud of you.

“It would be great if more Australians would nominate friends and colleagues. There’s plenty of criticism about, it would be good to get some more recognition.”

He says he wears his AC lapel badge all the time “because I am so proud of it” (it’s not uncommon for recipients to order a pin for each suit). An honours upgrade is exactly that – one hands back what is formally known as the insignia of the old award – the medal and pin, etc – after receiving a higher class of membership. Curiously enough though, while Shine now wears an AC pin, when it comes to aesthetics he liked his AO badge more. “The AM and the AO have a little blue thing in the middle which I really quite liked.”

Former AMA president Dr Mukesh Chandra Haikerwal has also had an upgrade – trading in his AO last year for an AC – and has a good tip for those joining the honours community for the first time: if you don’t want to lose the award pin while going through airport security, put some Blu Tack on the back. He’s also got used to picking the rare occasions that might be suitable for the award proper – the big gold medal on a ribbon – but generally settles for the pin. “I’m on the board of Beyond Blue with Julia Gillard. We are both Cs [ACs] and we will wear our pins but not the gong, which would only be for formal, evening engagements.

Practised eyes can spot the Order of Australia from across a crowded room. Peter Braig

“You don’t want to do the wrong thing.It’s about being respectful about the people around you.”

The Indian-born and British-educated and trained Dr Haikerwal recalls the investiture ceremony for his AC last year in Canberra as awe-inspiring. He says while the Brits are generally acknowledged as the superior force in pomp and panache, Australians have nothing to be ashamed about.

“It’s quite surreal when it happens. Most of us don’t expect anything like that in our lifetimes. The C I never saw coming and it’s still taking some adjustment. The enormity of such an award – it really is remarkable.”

Back in Sydney, when Wendy McCarthy recalls her investiture ceremony nearly 30 years ago, it’s clear it has cast a long and rather splendid shadow ever since. “I remember feeling really honoured and extremely humbled. It made me think I’d try harder to be a good citizen. I wanted to make sure I really deserved it.”

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