December 22

A “mean-spirited caprice” – the birth of the honours system



One of ( EG) Whitlam’s first acts as Prime Minister, which  (Jenny) Hocking brushed over approvingly, disclosed a disturbing and persistent failing—his vetoing of the New Year Honours List for 1973 submitted by the McMahon government. Whitlam ignored the generous conduct of Frank Walsh who as incoming South Australian Premier confronted a similar situation after the 1965 election. 

Walsh forwarded the honours list submitted by the outgoing Premier, Sir Thomas Playford, to the Palace remarking that he had no wish to disappoint the expectations of those already notified of their inclusion.

…Neville Wran….


Neville Wran as an incoming Premier after defeating Sir Eric Willis in 1976 was to conduct himself similarly and for the same reason.

 Whitlam’s precipitate action revealed his imperviousness to this consideration—and worse.

 Out of respect for those who refuse honours the authorities take great care to ensure that they are bestowed only on those willing to accept them.

When questioned whether those in the list he had torn up had been notified of their awards Whitlam retorted that he had been advised that they had not been.

Apparently he expected those who raised this issue to believe that the authorities responsible for a list due to be published in less than a month, which included the Christmas break, would have left that all-important preliminary still to be completed.

Either Whitlam’s adviser, if there was one, had misled him or he himself was being misleading.

….third class…

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Whitlam’s approach to a distinctively Australian honours system—one he was determined would depart significantly from the Imperial system—exhibited that very same mean-spirited caprice.

By making it a slavish copy almost to the last detail of the Order of Canada—itself a substandard product by design—Whitlam ensured that the highest class in his Order of Australia (Companion or AC) would have insignia comparable to the third class in multi-class Imperial Orders, the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) being an example.

He thus deliberately set this Australian Order apart from almost every foreign Order, whether conferred under monarchical or republican auspices.

Consequently when heads of state visit Australia officially there can be no exchange of Orders, as with most state visits elsewhere, for a painfully obvious reason—such visiting dignitaries would consider themselves short-changed on receiving the AC in exchange for the top class of any Order they might present to the Governor-General.


…New Zealand…


New Zealand abandoned the Imperial system in 1996 and inaugurated its own Order; but it was not modelled on the Order of Australia. New Zealand’s five-class Order of Merit is comparable in its insignia to almost all foreign five-class Orders.


I once remarked to Sir John Kerr that one consequence of Whitlam’s ungenerous zeal in this matter was that the Chief Justice of the High Court, who under the discontinued Imperial dispensation could have counted on being arrayed as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George, now has to be content with the demeaning status of an AC.

Sir John observed that that outcome would have been deeply satisfying to Whitlam. I recall this from our many lengthy conversations as his only sour reference to Whitlam of a purely personal nature.

Yet Hocking has acclaimed this honours system, which still carries the stigma of Whitlam’s perversity, as one of his notable achievements.


[ From J.B. Paul: The Downfall of Whitlam (Part I). A book review of Gough Whitlam: His Time by Jenny Hocking,The Miegunyah Press, 2012. Quadrant, March 2013, Volume LVII, No 3 ]


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