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Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General

Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General

CHAIR: I extend my apologies to all the officers from various agencies who have been mucked around a little bit tonight, but we hope to get back on track very shortly. We will resume with the Office of the Official Secretary of the Governor-General.

Senator McALLISTER: You provided an answer to question on notice 130 that ran through a number of items of expenditure in relation to, I think, the capital budget. There is a line item there for chairs—I think they are referred to as 'event chairs'—at a cost of $17,700. Can you tell me a little bit about those?

Mr Fraser : They are chairs that have been procured for events that we hold at Government House. We have thousands of people come to Government House for public functions, investitures, indoor and outdoor events. I do not know if my colleague Mr Singer has any further information about the chairs we procured.

Mr Singer : That particular line item refers to event chairs for internal use at Government House, for approximately 200 chairs which are used for events such as swearing-in ceremonies, investiture ceremonies and the like.

Senator McALLISTER: So they are for internal use, and there are 200 of them. There is a trailer for the chairs to assist with the safe movement and the storage of the chairs. Where are they stored?

Mr Singer : That actually refers to a separate lot of plastic chairs, which are for outside use, and they are stored in the Government House sheds.

Senator McALLISTER: Back to the internal event chairs: were they a replacement for the existing chairs or are they a supplement?

Mr Singer : They are a replacement for a previously used chair which would have been in the vicinity of approximately 15 to 20 years old. They had reached the end of their useful life.

Senator McALLISTER: And there were around 200 of those, were there?

Mr Singer : That is correct.

Senator McALLISTER: On the same question, there is a line item for media and lighting equipment—just underneath the chairs.

Mr Fraser : That is equipment that is used for various purposes. The lighting equipment is particularly used during state visits. One area of the official drawing room at Government House we call the blue end of the drawing room, where we receive foreign dignitaries—heads of state and others. It is a very poorly lit area, so we have particular media lights that cast light on to the roof so that foreign media can film in that area. Also, we use that equipment for a whole range of video messages that the Governor-General is involved in. The Governor-General, as you will be aware, is patron of many organisations, who often seek video messages for significant anniversaries and other events. We now do all of that production in house, very cost-effectively. Our media adviser does that on a fairly simple camera with an iPad and with some lighting and does the sound himself. That probably saves us around $2,000 every time we do a video message.

Senator McALLISTER: Just to be specific, though: can you break down what the media lighting and equipment actually is?

Mr Fraser : I would be very happy to take that on notice for you and give you the specific details. My understanding is that it was new lighting equipment, particularly for the blue end of the drawing room, and some associated equipment for the production of video messages. Whilst we are here, I will seek further information from my colleagues who might be listening at home and can tell me the detail.

Senator McALLISTER: Thanks. Can I talk to you about the Order of Australia? We touched on the awards process and the resourcing for that earlier today. As I understand it, there are four levels of the order to which a nominee for an award could be appointed—that is, the companion, the officer, the member and the medal.

Mr Fraser : That is correct.

Senator McALLISTER: Is there a limit on the number of awards that can be made in each category each year?

Mr Fraser : Yes, there are quotas. I might ask my colleague Sharon Prendergast, who is the director of the honours and awards system, to join me at the table. There is no quota at the medal level, the OAM level, and there are quotas in place at the AM, AO and AC levels. Ms Prendergast could refresh our memory as to the current quotas as they stand. Perhaps I could lead off. The quota for AC is currently 35 per annum, per calendar year. The quota for AO is 140 and the quota for the AM level is 340 per calendar year.

Senator McALLISTER: How is that quota determined?

Mr Fraser : It is of long-standing application. The honours system has existed since 1975, and quotas were set in the original constitution. They were recently amended. They were slightly increased. My recollection is that the principle purpose of that is that it had been in the order of 13 years since the quotas were addressed. By simple mathematics, the increase in the population of Australia was applied and a modest increase to those quotas was applied. I can step you through that: the ACs have moved from 30 to 35, the AOs from 125 to 140 and the AMs from 300 to 340. That was just to reflect the growth in the population over the intervening period.

Senator McALLISTER: What is the instrument in which that is determined?

Mr Fraser : There is a constitution to the Order of Australia. There are changes made, and they are done by Her Majesty the Queen. That is on a recommendation by the Prime Minister or the relevant minister, through the Governor-General. The Governor-General writes to Her Majesty the Queen, who would approve a change to the regulations, the constitution in essence, of the Order of Australia.

Senator McALLISTER: I think you said that it was updated last year.

Mr Fraser : Recently. I think was last year.

Ms Prendergast : Yes, it was last year.

Senator McALLISTER: That is correct, is it, Ms Prendergast?

Ms Prendergast : Yes, it is.

Mr Fraser : That is correct. So those recommendations were approved by Her Majesty on 10 September last year.

Senator McALLISTER: What is the process for determining the level at which an individual is allocated an honour?

Mr Fraser : That is a judgement of the Council for the Order of Australia. The council comprises a number of community representatives. There are eight community representatives, and there are also eight state representatives and three ex officio people who sit on the council. These are people from all walks of life, with various skills and backgrounds to bring to the table. In essence, a nomination is submitted; it is researched by the honours and awards secretariat of my office. Every nomination is put to the council for its consideration, and it is a matter for the council to determine the level of award. There is some guidance given in the constitution as to the level of achievement that is expected at each level of award. My colleague will point to that momentarily, but I know at the AC level it requires achievement at the highest levels. Appointments as companions in the general division shall be made for 'eminent achievement and merit of the highest degree of service to Australia or to humanity at large'. At the AO level, it is for 'distinguished service of a high degree to Australia or to humanity at large'. At the member level it is for 'service in a particular locality or field of activity or to a particular group'. And at the medal level, it is to be made for 'service worthy of particular recognition'.

Senator McALLISTER: Forgive me for not knowing this, but when a nomination is submitted, is it submitted against one of those particular categories or generally against the order and then—

Mr Fraser : That is right. It is a general nomination; it is the council that determines the appropriate level of award.

Senator McALLISTER: And I think you mentioned that the secretariat then undertakes some research after the nomination is submitted. I assume that means verifying the particulars that have been provided. Does it also include augmenting the particulars with additional information?

Mr Fraser : It does. A nomination generally comprises a nominator statement as well as the provision of the names of at least three or four referees. As a matter of course, we would contact those referees and also augment that with our own independent research on the individual and seeking additional referees from alternative sources. Our officers, of course, are very experienced at that. So there could be half-a-dozen or even up to a dozen, depending on the circumstances, the complexity and the length of service. We would seek a whole range of referees, and that information is then all compiled and summarised and presented to the council.

Senator McALLISTER: When that presentation is made, is it accompanied by a recommendation for consideration at a particular level or a yes/no recommendation? What is the material that is provided to the council?

Mr Fraser : No, it is not. It is simply presented to the council. All nominations are presented, and it is for the council to determine the level of award. Any nomination could receive anything from an AC all the way to an OAM at the discretion of the council—that would be a recommendation. Of course, it is the Governor-General, ultimately, who makes awards; the council simply recommends.

Senator McALLISTER: Just to be very clear, the secretariat just presents the research that they have undertaken; there is no recommendation in relation to who is to receive an award or the level at which they might receive one?

Mr Fraser : No, there are no recommendations made. For administrative reasons, the council has its own processes for how it considers awards within the day. They generally tend to group awards that appear, on their face, to be high awards, as you might describe them—awards that appear to be for very eminent service—and consider those throughout the period of that afternoon, and awards that might be for localised community service. It is very common that awards might be awarded in any category. It is simply an administrative mechanism for the council to consider like awards at the same time.

Senator McALLISTER: Who does that clustering?

Mr Fraser : The material is presented to the council by the secretariat. All of the papers are prepared by my secretariat.

Senator McALLISTER: But at some point in the process, from what you describe, those nominees who seem to be perhaps eligible for an AC get put into one part of the day's agenda, and those that may be eligible for an AM get put into another bundle for consideration at a different point of the day. My question is: who undertakes that bundling process?

Mr Fraser : It does not occur quite like that. We generally put papers into a high and a low category. The high awards are AM, AO and AC. The lower award is the OAM, with no quota. The manager of the honours and awards secretariat, for administrative purposes, separates the folders and the papers into those categories for consideration by the council.

Senator McALLISTER: The categories in the constitution as you described them are fairly broad from a qualitative perspective—you have distinguished service to the globe or the nation, to paraphrase what I think you told me about the AC. Does the council have a more detailed criteria that they apply to test whether someone meets that broad headline criteria?

Mr Fraser : Ultimately, it is a matter of the judgement of the council. It is not a merit-based process. It does not pretend to be a merit-based process. It is necessarily subjective. It is based on the collective experience of those around the table—what they bring to the table. They form a collective judgement at the end of the day. Ultimately, there is no right or entitlement to an award within the honours system; it is a gift of the sovereign as delegated to the Governor-General. Whilst it is an imperfect system, it is probably the best I know of around the world in terms of its transparency, its openness and its independence from government.

Senator McALLISTER: What are the features of the arrangements that you think deliver transparency, openness and independence?

Mr Fraser : For example, in many other countries, the politicians decide who gets the awards. There is a Prime Minister's list in the UK. In New Zealand, the government determines who gets the awards. This is an independent counsel under the chairmanship of Sir Angus Houston, a very distinguished Australian. It has community representation. The work that is done by our independent office—mine is a statutory office, and it is free of political interference. We share statistics about our awards on our website. We communicate openly with the public about those statistics and the outcomes. Of course, necessarily, individual nominations are confidential. We need to protect that confidence because referees may not otherwise be inclined to share their views if they think they are going to be made public.

Senator McALLISTER: When I asked you earlier whether the council uses some more detailed framework to assess against that broad criteria I think you pointed out that it is necessarily subjective but you did not answer my actual question about whether or not there is a more detailed framework that allows them to sort and sift.

Mr Fraser : There is no prescribed framework beyond what is written in the Constitution. However, the council has from time to time had such things as a policy and planning day, where they have spent time considering the sorts of issues that you refer and they have given a lot of thought to these things. There is also a wealth of knowledge and experience around the table. Sir Angus Houston has probably been on the council for the best part of 10 years. My team are also on hand. They have their computers, they have the database and they are able to provide advice and assistance about benchmarking, what other justices of the Family Court and High Court have received in the past and whether it is a fair assessment or there is an issue that needs addressing, for instance. So a lot of information is shared during the council consideration.

Senator McALLISTER: All of which is quite interesting additional detail. Is there at the moment amongst the members of the council a framework that they are using to evaluate where they would like to place people?

Mr Fraser : No, it is a matter for consideration around the table. The state representatives might have personal knowledge of individuals. The subject experts might have a particular view to put. Community representatives, ex officio members—it is a process that operates more organically.

Senator McALLISTER: There are 415 or so awards and the opportunity to award an unlimited number of medals. How many nominations are generally submitted in an average year?

Mr Fraser : It would depend year to year. Generally I think there are in the order of around 1,500 or 1,600 nominations in a given year.

Senator McALLISTER: You mentioned that from time to time the council has had planning meetings. Has the issue of male and female representation in the awards come up in those processes?

Mr Fraser : It has on many occasions. The underrepresentation of women in the nominations that are received is a constant source of frustration for the council, as it is for the Governor-General and my office. The awards process is community driven. The council can only deal with awards that come before it, so it is a matter of getting the community to nominate more women and of more women nominating.

Senator McALLISTER: Am I correct in understanding that the Governor-General appoints the council?

Mr Fraser : On recommendation from the government. He does not have independent discretion about those issues; he acts entirely on the advice of the government in relation to those appointments. My colleague has just reminded me that the state representatives are recommended by the state Premier to their Governor, and the Governor recommends to the Governor-General, who makes those appointments of state representatives.

Senator McALLISTER: How regularly is that council membership renewed?

Mr Fraser : Each member serves a two-year term. That term can be extended at the discretion of the recommending authority, the government of the day.

Senator McALLISTER: Are all appointments expiring at the same point in time or are there rolling appointments?

Mr Fraser : No, it is staggered. There is no particular timetable to those; they just come up when they come up. It is a matter of when those people were appointed and that is a matter of when the government has made the recommendations.

Senator McALLISTER: And it is fixed at eight people for the community representatives?

Mr Fraser : That is correct.

Senator McALLISTER: I assume that if I go to your website I will find the names of those people?

Mr Fraser : Absolutely. The names are published on our website and in the annual report.

Senator McALLISTER: I do not have any further questions.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Mr Fraser : May I just answer the earlier question the senator asked in relation to media and lighting and the particular equipment that was purchased?

CHAIR: Please.

Mr Singer : Senator McAllister, responding to your question in relation to question on notice 130 and the line item around replacing media lighting and equipment at $8,456, that includes a set of LED light panels and a set of Lupolux lights and stands. They are used for our broadcast-quality live broadcasts out of Government House and the video productions that Mr Fraser was referring to earlier.

CHAIR: I thank the Office of the Official Secretary of the Governor-General, particularly for your flexibility tonight..