News: Honours for Their Honours

26th January 2019 marked not only the anniversary of Captain Cook’s the First Fleet’s settlement invasion of Australia but also the addition of various people to the ‘Order of Australia’, including nineteen new Companions of that Order, a group that now numbers over 500 Australian civilians. As well as singer Olivia Newton-John, tennis player Roy Emerson and children’s author Jennifer Rowe, the latest batch includes two sitting High Court justices:

The Honourable Justice Michelle Marjorie GORDON Parkes ACT 2600 For eminent service to the judiciary, and to the law, to legal education and judicial administration, as a role model, and to the community.

The Honourable Justice Geoffrey Arthur NETTLE Kingston ACT 2604. For eminent service to the judiciary, and to the law, to criminal and civil appeals reform, to legal education, and to professional standards.

Honours for sitting High Court justices are nearly always for ‘services to the law’ – and, since French CJ’s award, ‘for eminent service’ to either ‘the law and the judiciary’ (French CJ & Kiefel, Keane and Gageler JJ) or ‘the judiciary and the law’ (Bell J and, now, Gordon & Nettle JJ.) Justice Gordon is the first High Court justice to be cited as a ‘role model’.

This year marks the first time in three decades that two justices have been honoured in a single year. While this likely reflects the two awardees’ near contemporaneous appointment, the pattern of honours for High Court justices after the abolition of Australian knighthoods is complex:

Justice Award Date Time on HCA
Michael McHugh 1989Q 3 months
Michael Kirby 1991A 5 years before
Murray Gleeson 1992A 6 years before
William Gummow 1997A 1 year 10 months
Kenneth Hayne 2002Q 4 years 8 months
Ian Callinan 2003A 4 years 11 months
Dyson Heydon 2004Q 1 year 4 months
Susan Crennan 2008A 2 years 2 months
Robert French 2010A 1 year 4 months
Susan Kiefel 2011Q 3 years 8 months
Virginia Bell 2012A 2 years 11 months
Patrick Keane 2015Q 2 years 3 months
Stephen Gageler 2017A 4 years 3 months
Michelle Gordon 2019A 3 years 7 months
Geoffrey Nettle 2019A 3 years 11 months

Justice McHugh’s unusually speedy honour followed the mass honouring of six of the Court’s bicentennial bench (all ‘for service to the law’.) The next two appointments to the Court (six years later) included Kirby J, who already had an AC (‘for service to the law, to law reform, to learning and to the community’); Gummow J’s honour the following year (‘for service to the law as a Justice of the High Court of Australia’) brought the justices’ honours back in synch with their seniority. The same appears true for French CJ, who spent just over a year as Chief Justice less honoured than four sitting puisne justices. Putting those appointments aside, the average wait for a sitting High Court judge to be honoured is three years and four months, with no judge waiting longer than five years. This means that Edelman J can expect his gong around the Queen’s Birthday awards next year and no later than Australia Day 2022. The reasons for the variation in the timing of awards to sitting justices are unclear. One possible explanation is the annual quota of 35 ACs, together with a bar on renominating less than three years after a previous failed nomination. Clearly, the timing cannot reflect any assessment of the justices’ work while on the Court.

Recently, Nick Gruen questioned the whole system of tiered honours:

It’s almost Australia Day and hundreds of us are in line for an award. Sadly, as unpublished research by my firm Lateral Economics reveals, many will get it for little more than doing their job. And the higher the job’s status, the higher the award. Governors-General, High Court justices and vice chancellors of major universities would hope for the highest Companion of the Order (AC). Professors, public service departmental heads and senior business people should hope for the next one down — an Officer of the Order (AO). School principals would generally slot in next for Members of the Order (AM). If you’re lucky, or you’ve done your job extraordinarily well, you’ll be promoted one rank, but that’s pretty much it. Meanwhile, those who succeed in some achievement principally in and for their community usually qualify for the lowest award, if that; the Medal of the Order (OAM). And usually only if they’ve become conspicuous. The level of gratitude among recipients seems to follow an equal and opposite arc. Those at the bottom seem the most thrilled for being recognised the least….

(Note that heads of the senior courts in states and territories usually get the top-tier AC alongside all of the High Court.) Gruen’s suggested reform would dramatically change this:

Here’s an idea. Why don’t we award honours to encourage people to do more than their job? In a world which is lavishing increasing rewards on the “haves”, the worldly rewards for doing your job need little bolstering. Knowing awards are reserved for people who do more than their jobs might encourage us to choose more selfless and socially committed lives at the outset of our careers.

On this approach, current High Court judges – who are ethically forbidden from doing much ‘more than their job’ – would generally not qualify for any award unless they achieved distinction in their pre- or post-bench lives.

This entry was posted in News, Opinions by Jeremy Gans. Bookmark the permalink.

About Jeremy Gans

Jeremy Gans is a Professor in Melbourne Law School, where he researches and teaches across all aspects of the criminal justice system. He holds higher degrees in both law and criminology. In 2007, he was appointed as the Human Rights Adviser to the Victorian Parliament's Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee.

9 thoughts on “News: Honours for Their Honours

  1. I think we should go one further than Nick Gruen’s suggestion. Whatever form of public recognition for “service above and beyond the call” we have (and it’s probably a good idea to have something), let’s not tie it up in the flimflam of a medieval chivalric “order”, with its Commanders and Officers and lowly Members. Surely we can just give people a medal and/or certificate without pretending that they are now all united in some heirarchical body of a type that reflects the way they fought wars some centuries ago. Even though we’ve abolished the Knights (a bloke on a horse armed with a lance, leading a platoon of the local villagers armed with longbows) it still conjures up an image of people with spears and swords going off to recapture the Holy Land. Or have I just seen too many movies?

  2. It is a compelling argument, John Pyke. Most people do, in fact, get it for just doing their jobs (police, military, first responders etc). Some people who have high position actively seek, from their subordinates no less, a nomination, and then personally organise a seconder and various supporting documentation. The real issue is, “does it really matter to anyone but their small circle?” Do we, the undecorated, walk past their houses with reverence, hoping to catch a glimpse of the great ones? Do we give up a seat on the bus or train, for their decorated bums rather than our unworthy ones? Do we have an ounce of reverential awe about them? The system should be abolished. We should keep the Australian Honours system in relation to bravery etc, for those who really do act above and beyond.

  3. I’m pretty sure that since pop stars and entertainers started getting these gongs – and we can go back quite a ways for that -the hole idea of the Crown recognition of sycophants in the upper eschelons was improved so that the little person now gets recognised, but, yes, why do public servants and bank CEOs get more than their salaried rewards…

  4. Forgot to say that what is doubly ridiculous about our “Order” of Australia is that all the abbreviations are backwards – AC, AO, AM (which look like they stand for alternating current, adults only and amplitude modulation). Some some of “honours board” for bravery and service beyond the call of duty, yes, a mock-chivalric order with abbreviations that probably most people don’t understand (survey neede here) – NO!

  5. I assume that you have struck through Captain Cook’s name, Jeremy, for the very good reason that he was no-where near Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. He was killed in Hawaii in 1779.

    Captain Arthur Phillip RN arrived with the First Fleet in Botany Bay on 18-19 January.

    He raised a flag and read his commission on 26 January at Sydney Cove – Botany Bay did not live up to expectations. Lt Ralph Clark on hearing the terms of the commission observed he had never hear of such a breadth of power being invested in one man.

  6. The subject of this post and the comments revisit an old theme.In the days of imperial honours,most high court judges were knighted and in particular became KCMG’s(Knight Commander of St Michael & St George).The chief justice was distinguished by receiving a GCMG(Knight Grand Cross).Up until 1982,all judges received knighthoods,the exceptions being O’Connor,Higgins and Evatt.Menzies introduced the practice of conferring a knighthood on appointment and also appointing the new justices as a privy councillor.From 1958 the appointments were KBE’s(Knight Commander of the British Empire).The last judge to be knighted was Sir Daryl Dawson who was a Fraser appointee.All judges since (Edelman excepted) have been appointed AC’s.
    If one is looking for an honour solely on the basis of merit,then the award of the Order of Merit to Sir Owen Dixon should be noted.That was a personal honour conferred by the Queen.

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