Eva Cox
Bettina Arndt and the Australia Day honours

On Australia Day, I was standing at a bus stop in Sydney’s inner west with an old friend I’d just met up with, on my way back from Yabun, the day of mourning event, when he asked what I thought of Bettina Arndt receiving a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the honours list. I was stunned that she had been so “honoured”, despite the often vicious battles she has led undermining efforts to reduce rape and domestic violence.

My response was, really, raising questions about the award itself: What did this say about the honours processes, one of the rare recognitions of unpaid merit efforts? Mine, given in 1995, was for years of effort and some positive outcomes for childcare and social policies, particularly those aimed at women’s needs. Her being given an AM has made me seriously consider handing back my own award.

Yes, Arndt has the right to raise questions, but hers has hardly been a responsible, informed and valid campaign for men’s rights – so, why the honour? The statement claimed it was for the “significant services to the community as a social commentator and to gender equity through advocacy for men”. An article in The Sydney Morning Herald reporting on Arndt’s honour followed this quote with some extracts from the Australia Day Council’s citation, including her 2018 Fake Rape Crisis Campus Tour, as well as other similar controversial contributions.

I knew that as a public feminist my comment would be easily labelled and dismissed as feminist antagonism to alternative viewpoints, and Arndt would be able to claim it as further evidence of her persecution as a men’s advocate. However, my protest is much more than that. Arndt delights in her notoriety for antifeminism views, as she has used it to build herself a career and a following. We’re of the same generation, Arndt and I, and I still remember her younger feminist beginnings as she promoted sexual rights for women. Then, she changed sides, gaining more media access in the process.

The serious question that both drove the reconsideration of my own AO and this article isn’t about my views on Arndt, but why she was given the honour. Her contribution is not helpful – because solving these issues is not helped by simplistic blame debates. Creating serious gender power equity requires serious attention to the ways we socialise those defined as male and female. Yes, I realise that many feminists, usually the not too radical ones, have received awards. But even theirs, like mine, are based on our wider contributions and legitimacy, as are other potentially controversial recipients.

Complaints about the honours list are not unusual. Perhaps, somewhat ironically, they are often around gender equity: recipients are still more likely to be men, in toto. In the past, there was concern that women were less likely to be Companion and Officer, which have limited gongs to offer. This finally seems to be changing, due to the efforts of many, including the Honour a Woman campaign, and more public acknowledgement that there was a problem to begin with. This year, of the five Companions, three were allocated to women. Women also made up more than 41 per cent of the more than 830 recipients, indicating real progress on gender balance.

More detailed analysis of the recipients of the top awards asks whether there is now an over-representation of people whose “distinguished contributions” are an extra reward for their paid positions.

The Member of the general division of the Order of Australia, which included Arndt, covered a much more diverse population, often including unpaid contributions to society. The last general category is the Medal, where there are “services” to the community, which are largely unpaid. There are also honours specifically for contributions to the military, public services, ambulance services, corrective services and police. These are all given to people whose services have been in a paid capacity, and reward outstanding conduct. There are 30 recipients of the Fire Service Medal, but interestingly there is no indication in the list of what proportions are paid members or volunteers.

The Fire Service Medal brings into focus the inequities of the Australia Day Honours more generally. Companions (ACs) are defined as providers of “eminent services”; officers (AOs), such as me, are defined as giving “distinguished” services; members (AMs), including Arndt, are thanked for their “significant services”.

Member recipients (AMs) are acknowledged for “significant” but not “distinguished services”. This year such an award was given to Australian Council for International Development president Meredith Burgmann, a prominent former president of the New South Wales upper house and feminist activist, who has a much more substantial record of achievements. The Fire Service Medal lists only names, while the specific occupations of the other services indicate levels of contributions.

This data raises interesting issues about unstated assumptions and values. I have contributed to nominations in the past and provided references to the selection committee when requested, but I have no idea of the criteria they use to determine who gets what level of honour. I’m intrigued now and wonder how the level of employment influences the status of the honour granted.

This may seem to have little to do with any specific problems with Arndt’s award, but it is related insofar as it raises serious issues about the process. How did this one controversial award make it all the way through a system that otherwise seems cautious and hierarchical? What else can be going wrong in the way awards are chosen?

One of the questions I return to again and again in my work is how we value unpaid gifts of time and skills that meet social, communal and national needs. As a feminist, I have long been more than aware that most unpaid work is unseen, undervalued or ignored because it is more often provided by women. Earlier debate about the lack of women nominated for honours, and the usually lower-level awards they gained, put the honours’ unfair gender divide on the agenda. The Arndt affair’s blokey stab at gender equity offers an opportunity to question the criteria used to decide the value assigned to honours for which women are nominated.

I suspect that the naked “services to community” attributions are largely unpaid, so their status is lower than the value imbued to professional roles. Most of the recipients of higher awards gain status from their occupational and paid roles. And the danger of this is that the awards, rather than honouring the benefits gained from recipients’ contributions to social progress and wellbeing, merely mirror the inequities of the wider society – not what the person is contributing.

The recent and continuing bushfire crisis makes starkly clear how vital it is to encourage and recognise the value of volunteers and unpaid workers, both those who worked directly on fires and those who provided the support that made it possible. There are questions about the financial costs and the personal costs but what is equally, if not more, important is recognition of the value of the time and skills offered.

Part of what this crisis has revealed is that the necessity for communal action and support can’t be left to paid workers and professionals. Although they have essential roles, the scale, complexity and geography require informed and willing volunteers. This is a prime example of how unpaid work and volunteering underpin the day-to-day existence of our communities and need clear formal recognition.

A review of the current honours process should set up clear definitions of the differing value of contributions so often undervalued because they are unpaid. The awards themselves could be considerably improved by a serious analysis on what is counted and rewarded. The allocation of awards that seriously value contributions that exceed paid roles (and those that are necessarily unpaid) would offer something we currently lack – a barometer of appreciation for what is on offer out of responsible citizenship.

The role of our national honours awards should be to set national standards on what is valued and why – and rate all contributions equally, paid or unpaid. The fuss about Arndt’s award is just one example of the flaws that need radical reform.

For now, the honours still hold some weight and with that endow their recipients with power to more effectively advocate for change – so, I will hold on to mine. But I have real fears that without reform, without consideration of what we value as contribution to Australian society, their standing is in peril.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 1, 2020 as "Value judgements".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription