Skip to main content

Shelley Reys AO - "Let’s ensure The Order of Australia represents us all"

This opinion piece was originally published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald on 23 January 2023.

Let’s ensure The Order of Australia represents us all

The upcoming Australia Day honours list will include hundreds of recipients in the Order of Australia. Most aren’t famous, but their stories are inspiring. They are the people in our community who go above and beyond and have an impact at a local, national and international level.

Yet, as I celebrate those Australia has recognised, I also don’t believe there aren’t more outstanding Australian women, First Nations people and people from culturally diverse backgrounds who inspire and make a significant contribution to our community.

As chair, I am not seeing enough of them in the pool of nominations.

Each of the 40,000 Australians from all walks of life that have been recognised since 1975 has something in common – they were nominated by their fellow Australians.

I am not advocating for lowering the bar. The Order of Australia will always recognise and celebrate achievement but it must represent the diversity of the Australian community and represent the colourful spectrum of who we are.

We all have a role to play.

First to gender: there has already been some work in this space within the honours system, with good progress in recent years; women received 46 per cent of honours in 2022. While this increase is welcome, it’s still not enough. We need to ensure gains are not lost and that the pipeline of nominations of women continues to flow to reach and sustain gender parity.

Interestingly, our data shows that the gender of the nominator plays a significant role in the under-representation of women. More men nominate (56 per cent of all nominations) and 70 per cent of the nominations made by men are for (other) men. Women nominate less often (44 per cent) but nominate men and women equally – so encouraging both men AND women to nominate women will make a difference.

And much more needs to be done to encourage nominations for outstanding First Nations people and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. According to the most recent census, almost 27.6 per cent of Australians were born overseas, yet nominations for the Order do not reflect this.

Similarly, far fewer First Nations Australians are nominated than is represented as a percentage of our population.

The perception that honours are designed to recognise only the elite contributes to these outcomes. This simply isn’t the case.

In the list to be released this week, for every well-known name there will be many, many more that are known only to those they serve. In fact, last year 43 per cent of awards were for outstanding service or achievement in local communities.

These people are often volunteers who give their time, passion and energy to make the world around them a better place.

The same qualities exist in those who, while not well-known, are recognised for their professional achievement – scientists, local leaders, people in industry, teachers and so on. If you read their stories you’ll see they’re not simply doing their jobs well but also expanding their contribution in many different ways, often by volunteering, mentoring, or through charitable work.

I would love to see more of these stories told on our front pages and in our news bulletins. These Australians are inspiring and learning about them is important.

The Council I lead is a diverse group, with different backgrounds and areas of expertise. Every year we volunteer our time to the considerable task of reviewing together the thousands of nominations that are received, along with each independent research report, to ensure that great Australians are recognised and celebrated.

But the decision on who the Council considers for an Order of Australia honour belongs to all of us.

To be very clear, the only barrier to outstanding people being recognised in the Order of Australia is the absence of a nomination.

By nominating, we can all have a say in what sort of service and achievement should be celebrated.

If we as a nation want to see “more people like us” reflected back to us through our honours system, we all need to be proactive by nominating those Australians who deserve our recognition.

As you scan the upcoming list of recipients, I urge you to think about who you would like to be considered in the Order of Australia. And then to act and nominate.