First Australians


A prominent feature of the Australian of the Year Awards program is that a significant number of Indigenous Australians have been honoured. There have been eight winners of the main award (fifteen per cent) and four Aboriginal Young Australians of the Year (thirteen per cent). It is a curious outcome given the troubled relationship between Aboriginal people and Australia Day; indeed, it might be interpreted as an attempt to assuage Aboriginal concerns about the national day. When New South Wales celebrated its centenary in January 1888, Sir Henry Parkes was asked what celebrations were being planned for the Indigenous inhabitants; he responded, ‘And remind them we have robbed them?’ Fifty years later Aboriginal protesters shunned the sesquicentenary celebrations and declared 26 January a ‘Day of Mourning.’ Since then the date of Australia Day has often been criticised by Indigenous people, who have described it variously as ‘Invasion Day’ or ‘Survival Day.’

When Sir Macfarlane Burnet received the inaugural Australian of the Year award at Melbourne’s Australia Day Luncheon in 1961, the guests were entertained by the famous Aboriginal tenor Harold Blair, who gently reminded those present that Australia had a history prior to 1788. Blair foreshadowed a major issue that has subsequently been extremely prominent in the history of the Australian of the Year awards. The first Aboriginal winner of the award was the world champion bantamweight boxer Lionel Rose in 1968 (pictured below). A somewhat overwhelmed Rose noted that he was more comfortable fighting than speaking, but when he did open his mouth he quipped: ‘One hundred and eighty-two years ago one of my mob would have been a dead cert’ for this.’ Three years later Wimbledon champion Evonne Goolagong took out the award. At a press conference she suggested that the award transcended her Aboriginality: ‘It’s something I’ve always wanted – to be known as an Australian. … When I was younger I was always referred to as an Aboriginal tennis player.’

Coincidentally, Goolagong received her award on the very day the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was first erected outside Parliament House in Canberra. The catalyst for the Tent Embassy protest was the McMahon Government’s refusal to consider the issue of Aboriginal land rights. The new Whitlam Government took a different approach and established the Woodward Commission, which recommended government legislation to return land to Aborigines.

Lionel Rose punches an opponent

The Fraser Government later enacted some of the recommendations. It is fitting, therefore, that the next Aboriginal Australian of the Year was Galarrwuy Yunupingu, a leader of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land and a strident advocate of Aboriginal land rights. As Chairman of the Northern Land Council, Yunupingu played a prominent role in the difficult negotiations surrounding the Ranger Uranium Mine in the Northern Territory. Victorian Australia Day Council Chairman Senator David Hamer described Yunupingu as ‘the dominant figure in the most difficult and complex task facing an Australian in 1978.’ Yunupingu noted that the award would give him a position of greater authority from which to negotiate in the future: ‘Governments and mining companies don’t normally deal with just any ratbags and radicals.’

In that year the rival Canberra Australia Day Council gave its own Australian of the Year award to another Aboriginal man. Senator Neville Bonner was the first Aborigine to serve in the Australian Parliament and was honoured by the Canberra council at the National Press Club. Bonner was a member of the Liberal Party and was a rare combination of an Aboriginal activist and a conservative politician. Yunupingu was critical of the choice made by the rival Canberra council: ‘By selecting their own do-gooder they’re breaking down the spirit of Australia as a nation.’ Interestingly, the Victorian Australia Day Council, which is often viewed as symbolic of the conservative Melbourne establishment, had chosen the more radical Aboriginal leader for its award. Nevertheless, when speaking to the press Yunupingu took a conciliatory approach to the vexed issue of Australia Day:

We are at last being recognised as the indigenous people of this country who must share in its future. This is not a day of national mourning for us. It is a day of rejoicing. We must leave history behind us and look forward.

The next Aboriginal Australian of the Year did not share Yunupingu’s accommodating approach towards Australia Day. When Lowitja (Lois) O’Donoghue was honoured in January 1985, Prime Minister Bob Hawke noted she deserved the award ‘for her work in bridging the cultural gap between Aborigines and the rest of the community.’ When it came to the national day, however, O’Donoghue believed the gap was too great. After receiving the award, she devoted her time to a self-funded national tour, on which she advocated a new date for the national celebrations. She later served on the NationalAustralia Day Council, continuing her quest for a change in the date.

Australia Day marks the date on which the British Crown claimed sovereignty over the Australian continent. Until 1992 it was assumed that this act of dispossession was justified because Australia was terra nullius, or an empty land. In the landmark ‘Mabo decision’ of 1992 the High Court of Australia found otherwise. Once again the politics of land justice in Australia helped shape the Australian of the Year awards. In January 1993 the Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo was honoured posthumously as an ‘Australian Achiever’ (similar to today’s national recipients). The winner of the main award was Mandawuy Yunupingu, a younger brother of Galarrwuy and the lead singer of the chart topping rock band Yothu Yindi. Yunupingu was the first Arnhem Land Aborigine to gain a university degree and was praised for his work as the principal of the Yirrkala School. He was best known, however, as the singer of the Yothu Yindi international hit single ‘Treaty.’ Not surprisingly, perhaps, calls for a treaty with Aboriginal Australia were a little too much for conservative commentators already smarting at the High Court’s Mabo decision. Ignoring Yunupingu’s achievements in education and music, Sydney radio presenter Alan Jones told his listeners: ‘To promote people because of their colour or their history, rather than their merit, is the most intolerable form of racism, which givers of such an award say they oppose.’ NADC Executive Director Derek Speake argued that Yunupingu’s award was entirely justified and reflected the large number of quality nominations he received. NADC Chairman Phillip Adams quipped that Jones was simply annoyed he had been passed over for the award, but also said that Jones’s program ‘was an example of the type of bigotry that found a home on commercial radio stations but was gradually disappearing from Australian society.’ Adams recalls that after the controversy subsided he joked that a new criterion for the award should be considered: ‘The winner must be someone who will annoy Alan Jones.’

In the 1990s the movement for reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians was a significant and emotive political issue. Furthermore, it was one that the National Australia Day Council could not afford to ignore if it hoped to assuage Aboriginal concerns about the date of Australia Day. During the Chairmanship of Phillip Adams (1991-96), the NADC introduced a short-lived award known as the ‘Community of the Year.’ The inaugural award went to the Jaowyn Association, an Aboriginal community group from Katherine in the Northern Territory, which had a reputation for its ‘ability to generate and maintain goodwill’ while negotiating complex mining agreements and managing national parks. The Jaowyn Association was clearly viewed as a model for reconciliation:

The remarkable achievements of the Jaowyn provide a testament of hope and a way forward for all those committed to the process of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

The change of Government in 1996 altered the course of reconciliation, particularly after Prime Minister John Howard rejected calls for a national apology to the ‘Stolen Generation’ of Aboriginal children. A more strident political opponent of reconciliation was the Queensland independent MP Pauline Hanson, who commented unfavourably on the Australian of the Year choice for 1998. Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman is the only person to have won both the Young Australian of the Year (1990) and the Australian of the Year award (1998); but Pauline Hanson claimed that Freeman was chosen for political reasons. Hanson was doubly concerned because the Young Australian of the Year for 1998 was Tan Le, a former Vietnamese refugee and community worker from Footscray in Victoria. Two key planks of Hanson’s policy platform were her opposition to Asian immigration and Aboriginal welfare. She consequently believed the awards were a direct response to her: ‘I do believe it’s because of me… It’s rubbing my nose in it.’ Hanson was strongly criticised by both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader. John Howard described her comments as ‘a very regrettable, inappropriate, ugly intervention on Australia Day without any basis in fact,’ while Kim Beazley suggested Hanson was in ‘egocentric meltdown.’ Rather than enjoying her unique achievement, Freeman was drawn into a controversy not of her own making. Asked for her views on Hanson’s comments, Freeman said she was trying to ignore them: ‘I’m proud of myself, I’m happy. Don’t take it away from me, please.’ The whole saga was neatly summarised by Sydney Morning Herald reader Peter Dewey, who wrote: ‘Suspicion confirmed: Cathy Freeman is Australian of the Year and Pauline Hanson isn’t.’

More than most other winners of the Australian of the Year award, the Aboriginal winners have been drawn into intense political debates. Nevertheless, it is not only the Aboriginal winners who have commented on the difficult issues of Australia Day and Reconciliation. In 1981 historian Manning Clark argued Australia Day could never be a day of celebration for Aborigines: ‘For them it must be a day of disaster.’ When Sir Gustav Nossal became Australian of the Year in January 2000 his career in medical research was crucial, but his role as Deputy Chair of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was equally important. He, too, raised the issue of Australia Day, suggesting it would be good ‘if, by consensus, a more neutral day could be found, but that would have to wait until there was a greater degree of reconciliation.’