40 facts about the Australian Honours system
12 February 2015

Saturday, 14 February 2015, marks the 40th anniversary of the Australian Honours system.

Established on 14 February 1975 by then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, the Australian Honours system was introduced as the nation’s own unique and distinctive system of honours and awards, to recognise those who make a significant contribution or provide worthy service to the community. To date, more than 1.3 million awards have been issued/approved.

Read 40 facts about the Australian Honours system below.

GENERAL

1. The Australian Honours system was established on 14 February 1975 by then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. It was introduced as Australia’s own unique and distinctive system of honours and awards, to recognise those who make a significant contribution or provide worthy service to the community. Its structure drew heavily on established international honours systems, in particular Britain and Canada.

2. The first medals in the Australian Honours system were:

  • the National Medal;
  • In the Order of Australia: the Companion, Officer and Member levels;
  • In the Australian Bravery Decorations: the Cross of Valour, the Star of Courage, the Bravery Award and the Commendation for Brave Conduct.

3. These days, the Australian Honours system comprises 55 awards across:

  • The Order of Australia (30,500)
  • Australian Bravery Decorations (4,000)
  • Meritorious service awards (5,700)
  • Defence, bravery, meritorious and service awards (1,004,000)
  • National Emergency Medal (12,000)
  • National Police Service Medal (17,500)
  • National Medal (206,000)
  • Other  awards (49,000)

Note that figures are approximate numbers awarded since 1975. The total number of awards issued/approved is more than 1.3 million.

4. Australian honours can be awarded to both Australian and non-Australian citizens. Since 1975, 449 non-Australian citizens have been recognised by honorary awards in the Order of Australia, including 40 honorary recipients over the past five years.

5. Order of Australia, Meritorious and some Defence honours and awards are announced twice a year, on Australia Day (26 January) and on The Queen’s Birthday public holiday (June), although The Queen is not involved in the latter announcement. Bravery awards are also announced twice a year, in April and August.

6. Until 1992, the Imperial Honours system was still in operation, concurrently with the Australian Honour system. From 1992, Australian and honorary recipients were recognised exclusively through the Australian Honours system.

7. Since the Australian Honours system was instigated in 1975, it has been overseen by nine (9) Governors-General, six (6) Official Secretaries, seven (7) Chairs of the Order of Australia Council, five (5) Chairs of the Australian Bravery Decorations Council, two (2) Chairs of the National Emergency Medal Committee and five (5) Directors of the Australian Honours and Awards Secretariat.

8. The Governor-General approves all awards in the Australian Honours system, except the Victoria Cross for Australia, which is approved by The Queen. New processes for approving Knights and Dames in the Order of Australia are being implemented.

9. The National Emergency Medal is the newest award and was created by letters patent in October 2011. It was established to recognise the unique contribution and significant commitment of those persons who have provided service in response to a nationally-significant emergency, for example, the Victorian Bushfires 2009, the Queensland Floods 2010 and 2011, and Cyclone Yasi 2011. As at 30 January 2015, approximately 12,200 medals/clasps have been awarded.

10. The National Medal is the most awarded civilian medal. It recognises long and diligent service by members of recognised government and voluntary organisations that risk their lives or safety to protect or assist the community in enforcement of the law or in times of emergency or natural disaster. Since 1975, 206,108 medals or clasps have been awarded. The medal ribbon has 15 stripes of yellow and blue to represent each year of service by the recipient.

11. Australians may receive and wear awards from other nations, however, they are considered foreign awards and the recipient must obtain permission from the Governor-General. An award in the British honours system is now considered a foreign award.

12. The two highest awards in the Australian honours system are for bravery.

  • The Victoria Cross is the pre-eminent award for acts of bravery in wartime and Australia's highest military honour. It is awarded to persons who, in the presence of the enemy, display the most conspicuous gallantry; a daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice; or extreme devotion to duty.
  • The Cross of Valour is the highest Australian Bravery Decoration. It is awarded to civilians or military persons for acts, not in conflict, of conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme peril.

13. Since it was created by letters patent on 15 January 1991, the Victoria Cross for Australia has been awarded four (4) times including once posthumously.

14. The Cross of Valour has been awarded five (5) times since 1975. There has been one recipient of the George Cross (the British equivalent of the Cross of Valour) since 1975, Mr Michael Pratt GC. It was awarded in 1978 through the Imperial Honours system before Australians were recognised exclusively through the Australian Honours system in 1992.

15. There are three organisations primarily responsible for administering the Australian Honours system:

  • The Australian Honours and Awards Secretariat, Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General
  • The Honours, Symbols and Territories Branch, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
  • The Directorate of Honours and Awards, Department of Defence.

16. The Australian Honours and Awards Secretariat operates from Government House, Canberra and comprises approximately 35 staff. In an average 12-month period, the Secretariat spends 40,000 hours researching more than 3,000 nominations for consideration by the advisory bodies as well as processing another 17,000 awards.

THE ORDER OF AUSTRALIA

17. The Order of Australia is unique, in that it was designed for the community to make nominations.  All nominations come from members of the community and anyone can nominate.

18. The Order of Australia comprises two divisions – the Civil or General Division and the Military Division. To distinguish between the two divisions, the medal ribbon for the Military Division has a narrow gold band on each edge.

19. There are five levels in the General Division:

  • Knight/Dame of the Order (AK/AD)
  • Companion of the Order (AC)
  • Officer of the Order (AO)
  • Member of the Order (AM)
  • Medal of the Order (OAM).

20. The Governor-General is the Chancellor of the Order of Australia and is the Principal Knight/Dame in the Order.

21. In the General Division, the Governor-General approves appointments and awards on the recommendation of the Council of the Order of Australia, whilst in the Military Division the Governor-General approves appointments and awards on the recommendation of the Minister for Defence.

22. The Council of the Order of Australia comprises 19 members including representatives of each state and territory, public office holders (ex-officio) and community representatives. The Council meets twice a year to consider nominations and make recommendations for appointments and awards to the Governor-General. Approved appointments and awards are announced twice a year, on Australia Day and on The Queen’s Birthday public holiday in June.

23. Each calendar year, up to 4 Knights and Dames of the Order of Australia, 30 Companions of the Order of Australia (AC), 125 Officers of the Order of Australia (AO) and 300 Members of the Order of Australia (AM) may be appointed. There is no quota on the number of Medals of the Order of Australia (OAM) awarded annually.

24. The oldest person to receive an award within the Order of Australia was Mr John Lockett OAM, who on 11 June 2001, aged 110, was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for service to Bendigo community, particularly as a representative of Australian war veterans.

25. The youngest people to receive an award within the Order of Australia are Ms Grace Morley OAM and Miss Maddison Elliott OAM, both of whom were aged 15 at the time their awards were announced. Miss Morley was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australian on 17 October 2003, for service through the provision of immediate assistance to victims of the bombings which occurred in Bali on 12 October 2002. Miss Elliott was also awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia, on 26 January 2014, for service to sport as a gold medallist at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

26. The colours of the ribbon of the Order of Australia are blue and gold, which have heraldic significance as the colour of the wreath in the Commonwealth Coat of Arms, which was granted by Royal warrant in 1912.

27. In keeping with Australia's national floral emblem, the golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha Benth), the emblem of the Order of Australia is a single golden wattle flower.

AUSTRALIAN BRAVERY DECORATIONS, DEFENCE AND MERITORIOUS HONOURS AND AWARDS, AND OTHER

28. The National Emergency Medal uses a stylised image of wattle to represent the accomplishments and sacrifices made by Australians in the service of others in times of crisis.

29. There are separate meritorious awards for outstanding service by members of the police, fire, ambulance and emergency services.

30. Australian Bravery Decorations recognise acts of bravery by members of the community. There are four levels of decoration:

  • Cross of Valour
  • Star of Courage
  • Bravery Medal
  • Commendation for Brave Conduct.

There is also a Group Bravery Citation for a group of people involved in a single incident.

31. Operational Service and Campaign Medals are awarded to members of the Australian Defence Force as a result of service in a particular campaign. Medals include the Australian Service Medal, Vietnam Medal, International Force East Timor Medal, Afghanistan Medal and the Iraq Medal. Defence awards also include a range of awards to recognise gallantry, distinguished and conspicuous service. 

32. The Centenary Medal was established on 14 February 2001. It commemorates 100 years of federation and recognises the many Australians who contributed to the success of Australia’s first 100 years as a federal nation. As at 30 January 2015, there have been 15,843 medals awarded.

33. The Centenary Medal features a seven-pointed Commonwealth Star, representing the six states, with the seventh point representing the territories. At the centre of the star is an Indigenous styling of Aboriginal traditions at the heart of the continent.  Around the rim are 100 dots depicting 100 years of federation.

34. The Champions Shot Medal and was established on 13 September 1988 and encourages skill in arms shooting in the Australian Defence Force. As at 30 January 2015, 60 medals have been awarded. Flight Sergeant Brett Hartman has won 5 awards – the initial medal in 1988, and then 4 clasps.

35. The Australian Antarctic Medal recipients are traditionally announced on mid-winter’s day (21 June).  As at 30 January 2015, 90 Antarctic Medals have been awarded.

36. The Australian Sports Medal was established on 23 December 1999 and commemorates the efforts of Australians who have made our country a nation of sporting excellence. As at 30 January 2015, 18,000 medals have been awarded.

37. The Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal is awarded to members of recognised charitable or humanitarian groups who provide humanitarian assistance in designated areas of the world. As at 30 January, 2,882 medals have been awarded.

38. Each ribbon on the medals and the medals themselves have unique reasons for their particular colour and design. More information about each honour and award can be found at www.itsanhonour.gov.au/honours/awards/a-z.cfm

39. The medals for the founding awards in the Australian Honours system were designed by Stuart Devlin, a specialist gold and silversmith who was born in Geelong, Victoria in 1931 and whose craft eventually took him to London. Devlin designed the medals for the Order of Australia, the Australian Bravery Decorations and the National Medal in 1975. He also designed Australia’s first decimal coins. In 1982, he was granted the Royal Warrant of Appointment as Goldsmith and Jeweller to Her Majesty The Queen.

40. The Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal and the Centenary Medal were designed by Balarinji Design Studio in Sydney, New South Wales. Balarinji is a leading Indigenous art and design studio whose designs include the Qantas 747-400 aircraft Wunala (kangaroo) Dreaming. Balarinji was founded by Dr John Kundereri Moriarty AM who is a full member of the Yanyuwa people of his birthplace.

More information about the Australian Honours system is available at www.gg.gov.au/australian-honours-and-awards-secretariat-0 and www.itsanhonour.gov.au