A Life’s Work

In 1981 The Age reported that ‘growing old has enabled historian Professor Manning Clark to find greater comfort in the present.’ Clark was 65 when he was named Australian of the Year; he noted that his advancing years had given him ‘a greater understanding of the human spirit in this country.’94 71-year-old economist Sir John Crawford succeeded Clark in 1982; he was praised by the Governor General as ‘one of the foremost architects of Australia’s post-war growth.’95 The award acknowledged his work as an influential government adviser as early as the mid-1950s, when he had advocated greater trade with Japan. The 1970 Australian of the Year was 74-year-old Cardinal Sir Norman Thomas Gilroy, a veteran of the Gallipoli campaign and the first Australian-born cardinal in the Catholic Church. In all of these cases, the award acknowledged a life’s work, rather than a specific achievement in the previous year.

The oldest ever Australian of the Year was eighty-year-old conductor and classical music promoter Sir Bernard Heinze. When he was honoured in January 1975 he insisted that he was ‘still unwilling to concede retirement.’96 Sir Bernard’s honour clearly conveyed a belief that older Australians have much to offer. Similar views were certainly behind the formation of community organisations like Queensland’s Later Years Ltd, which played an advocacy role for older Australians and introduced a ‘Senior Australian of the Year’ award in 1987.97 The award recognised those who made a significant contribution to the community during their senior years. Later Years Ltd merged with a similar organisation in New South Wales in 1990 and became National Seniors Australia, which continued to present the award each year in October, honouring such Australians as actress Ruth Cracknell, Australian Rules football legend Ron Barassi, and the former Sydney Lord Mayor and war veteran Sir David Griffin.

The Senior Australian of the Year award initially had no connection with the NADC. When the United Nations declared 1999 the ‘International Year of Older Persons,’ the Minister for Aged Care Bronwyn Bishop approached National Seniors Australia with a plan to increase the prominence of the award. The Department of Health and Ageing took over responsibility for the program and Prime Minister John Howard presented the award to veteran country music star Slim Dusty in October 1999. Bishop arranged for the NADC to administer the program on behalf of the Department of Health and Ageing, but the award continued to be presented in October, with no discernible link to Australia Day. Three years later the NADC streamlined its awards programs. The council was running three separate awards, as even the Young Australian of the Year was announced earlier in January and had a separate nominations process. The Senior Australian of the Year announcement moved from October to January (skipping 2002 altogether) and joined the other two awards. By integrating the various programs, the NADC increased the prominence of the companion awards by announcing them at the same function as the Australian of the Year. Since then, many remarkable Senior Australians have been honoured on a national stage on Australia Day Eve.

Although the Senior Australian of the Year award often recognises a lifetime’s achievement, there is certainly no implication the winner has ceased to contribute. At 72 years of age and with his 100th album on the way, Slim Dusty was an ideal choice as the first winner of the rejuvenated award in 1999. Two years later the bionic ear pioneer Professor Graeme Clark urged older Australians to keep working past retirement age:

I don’t think a medico, or a scientist, should really retire. We should help the next (generation) and generation after that. I believe they need our help, they have problems, they need role models and we can retain our position in society by doing that.98

The Senior Australians of the Year are wonderful proof that active citizenship does not cease at retirement age. Bruce Campbell (2003) had been involved in community work for most of his life, but was over seventy when he had the inspiration to name 2002 ‘Australia’s Year of the Outback.’ The initiative received a groundswell of support in its attempt to bridge the divide between urban and rural communities. Several years later, Campbell continues to chair the not-for-profit national organisation ‘Outback Calling.’ Many Senior Australians of the Year have been advocates of better understanding between the generations. For example, childhood studies expert Professor Freda Briggs (2000) called on the Australian community ‘to overcome the growing divide between young and old and recognise the vast amount of volunteer work older Australians performed.’99 Former speedway champion and paraplegic Phil Herreen (2007) agrees that Senior Australians have a great deal to offer Australian society: ‘I think that senior Australians play a major role in shaping our community. The old days of turning 65 and playing bowls are gone.’