There’s nothing common about state funerals
Jason Akermanis – former footballer and king of indelicate comments – caused an unseemly furore in the AFL world this week. He questioned the appropriateness of a state funeral for the universally adored Jim Stynes, who died after a long battle with cancer on Tuesday.
It won’t surprise you to hear that Akermanis copped it from all quarters, with former Melbourne captain Brad Green summing it up best on Twitter: “Aker, you are a tosser!!! Show respect.”
It might surprise you to hear, though, that I get where Akermanis is coming from.
Yes, he’s a bumbling oaf and his comments were about as ill-timed as a loud fart at a formal dinner, but it’s hard to disagree with some of his broader sentiments about state funerals.
To recap, here’s what Akermanis (whose mum also died of cancer in her 40s) said on radio: “‘He got a state funeral – do all football players get a state funeral? There’s something about it all that just made me feel uncomfortable. Jim’s good, but is he that good?”
In a statement of apology he later sought to clarify his comments: “I have the utmost respect for Jim and what he did for others. What I was trying to get across in the interview is: how does the government decide who gets a state funeral and praised for their hard work?
“Even though Jim did some amazing things, many other people do too. I was purely stating that there are more people who deserve as much credit as Jim for doing great things for the community.”
He’s right about that, isn’t he? There are many people out there, doing amazing things for our community, who deserve as much credit as Jim.
I’m not against state funerals, but I have a confession: I had almost exactly the same misgivings as Akermanis when Prime Minister Julia Gillard broke with tradition this week to offer the wife of former Labor PM Gough Whitlam a state funeral. (For the record, the Whitlam family declined.)
OK, so I didn’t go on radio to publicly verbal Margaret Whitlam while her grieving relatives were preparing for her funeral. I didn’t call her “nasty” and say she was “no saint”.
I decided that I was probably just ignorant about the many great things she’d done, because I was too young to remember much of her more public national work.
But I still thought Ms Gillard was setting an uncomfortable precedent. By rights, a state funeral should now really be offered to the spouses of all Prime Ministers who’ve done charity work or public good – which is probably most of them.
Let’s face it, state funerals seem more common than ever before.
And that gives rise to exactly the same, quite reasonable questions that Akermanis failed so miserably to frame on Sunshine Coast radio: How does the government decide who gets a state funeral? And where does it all end?
State funerals were traditionally the preserve of public servants such as prime ministers, premiers, governors, chief justices and police commissioners. Think former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies. Think former South Australian Chief Justice Len King. Think South Australia’s longest-serving governor, Sir Donald Dunstan.
These days, both state and federal leaders have the discretion to offer state funerals to families of prominent citizens who ‘have left a lasting legacy’. In consultation with the family, the state makes all arrangements associated with the funeral and costs are shared between the family and the state.
In 2007, Jim Stynes was rightly awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his youth work and contribution to football. This week, Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu rightly saw fit to extend the honour after his death, saying Stynes had a “really special place in the hearts of Victorians”.
But by this yardstick, I’d suggest an awful lot of OAMs will merit the same tribute on their passing.
Again, that’s fine. But maybe it’s time for an honest debate on criteria, frequency and (let’s face it) cost to the public purse.
Though perhaps the debate should be chaired by someone other than Jason Akermanis.
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