Alumni News Articles

The best among us will lead others to greater things

25 August 2009

- Sydney Morning Herald article - 25.8.09 - Adam Gilchrist, Chair National Australia Day Council -

Love them or loath them, everyone has an opinion about whoever is named Australian of the Year on January 26 each year. And this is as it should be; the award belongs to us all.

It’s our chance to both recognise the work of an extraordinary individual and to give ourselves a gift – an informal leader who will inspire, stretch and challenge us in the year ahead without fear or favour, or political connection.

The Australian of the Year Awards have evolved into a dynamic, modern Australian institution of which we can be very proud. We celebrate a half-century tradition in January, a tradition that defies our reputation for cutting down tall poppies, and showcases the multitude of ways there are to make a difference in our community, our nation and across the world.

It’s about role models from all walks of life. The conversation about who and what makes us proud is almost as significant as who receives the award in the end.

For all the criticism the awards attract from time to time, there’s no doubting the Australian of the Year alumni is an impressive group, spanning Nobel prize winners and world champions to medical miracle workers.

At a function at The Lodge for our national finalists earlier this year, I was chatting with the ACT’s nomination for Young Australian of the Year, Jack Heath, an exciting young author with several published children’s novels. He spoke of his amazement that he was even there, mixing it with some of the country’s outstanding achievers at a function hosted by the Prime Minister. And he was there simply because someone else in the community felt the job he loved doing was contributing to society and our nation. Heath thought he was just doing what he loves.

He made me realise what may seem obvious, that nobody sets out to be Australian of the Year. Steve Waugh wasn't thinking of awards when he began his cricket career, nor was Fiona Wood thinking of anything other than saving lives after the Bali bombing tragedy. He made me realise these inspirational people just do what they do; it’s the rest of us that like to acknowledge them.

Look at the list of past recipients and you see a lot about ourselves and our priorities as a nation. Early on, the key qualification was the impact a person had made on the world stage, like the first recipient, Nobel laureate for medicine, Sir MacFarlane Burnet, or the second, Dame Joan Sutherland, whose opera debut was at Covent Garden. As we strove to prove that this young nation could play with the big boys, those who had showered us with honour overseas were our heroes.

As time went on, and as we became more comfortable with ourselves, we began to value those whose work was within our own shores, like Manning Clark, author of the six-volume A History of Australia. We didn’t care so much what others thought of us, but rather what we thought of ourselves.

These days, with the world becoming ever smaller, many Australians of the Year have made their mark both at home and abroad.

Looking back, we can see history unfolding. No more so, perhaps, than when we look to 1979 – Australian of the Year: Alan Bond.  Long before his fall from grace, Bond made us proud with his seemingly unstoppable business empire and willingness to take on the Yanks at their own game by winning the America’s Cup.  He seemed the quintessential Aussie, everything we admired. History was to prove us wrong.

He remains an Australian of the Year because we choose not to rewrite history and sanitise the list of recipients. I like to think we’re smart and confident enough as a nation to look back honestly on both the good and the bad.

Now we are searching for a new Australian of the Year to follow in the footsteps of our current ‘ambassador to ourselves’, Professor Mick Dodson. I can’t tell you who it will be, because I don’t know yet. Nominations are now open, and can be made by anyone at our website.

Whoever is chosen will help define who we are as a nation. They will challenge us to be better. And when we look back in another 50 years, they’ll tell our grandchildren a lot about who we wanted to be in 2010.

Adam Gilchrist is Chairman of the National Australia Day Council. Nominations can be made at until 5pm Monday 31 August 2009.

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