A New Award

‘What I envisage is an award similar to the Oscar given to the best actor of the year in Hollywood. It would carry with it great prestige and honour rather than monetary reward.’ (Sir Norman Martin, 15 January 1960)

Sir Norman Martin chaired the Victorian Australia Day Council from 1952 until 1970. He was a Country Party politician who had served as the Minister for Agriculture in Victoria during World War Two and as Agent General in London. A biographer of Sir Norman has described him as ‘an unabashed patriot, [who] publicly lamented the lack of enthusiasm for Australia Day celebrations and regularly berated the media for ignoring them.’10 As the public face of Australia Day in Victoria, Sir Norman was always on the lookout for an opportunity to promote the national day. Accordingly, in January 1960 he launched the annual celebrations with the exciting news that the council intended to introduce a new annual award, which would be known as the ‘Australia Day Foundation Award.’ The honour would be presented to the person judged by a special panel to be the ‘Australian of the Year.’ Almost immediately, the more descriptive second title emerged as the preferred name of the award, but the link with Australia Day remained strong, as Melbourne’s Herald explained:

Sir Norman said it was fitting that Australia’s national day should be the time chosen for ‘full and proper’ recognition of an Australian who had made an outstanding contribution to Australia’s culture, economy, art, or science.

The Australia Day Council clearly hoped that the new award would help promote patriotic celebrations in January each year. From its very beginning, therefore, the Australian of the Year award was not simply an award for excellence, but a conscious attempt to promote a form of patriotic nationalism that has not always found broad support in Australian culture.

When launching the award, Sir Norman explained that a distinguished selection panel would be assembled to place the award on ‘the highest possible plane.’12 For the first two decades the winner of the award was chosen by a panel of five including the Victorian Premier, the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, the Vice Chancellor of Melbourne University, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne and the President of the National Council for Women. Although the panel was certainly distinguished, it would in time become too closely associated with Melbourne to be appropriate for a national award. An amused journalist immediately identified this deficiency and dryly observed on the ‘Candid Comments’ page of the Sydney Morning Herald:

 A highly select selection committee, all-Victorian, and including such dignitaries as Premier Bolte, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, and the president of the Vic. National Council of Women, has been set up; a medallion is being designed; and the chosen one is to be transported to Melbourne to receive the award on Australia Day.

It won’t look so good if the choice should just happen to light on a Victorian first go off, even though ‘nominations are to be sought from all over Australia.’ But let’s not be parochial. So impeccable a body of selectors might very well exclude the most eligible candidate, if a Victorian, simply to prove its impartiality.13

Apparently Sir Norman Martin recognised the potential that the award might be dismissed as a purely Melbourne affair. When he announced the inaugural winner in January 1961 he insisted that ‘the panel received hundreds of nominations from all Australian states.’14 In choosing an appropriate inaugural winner, the selection panel was certainly aided by the fact that its preferred candidate (who was indeed a Victorian) had the recent endorsement of the Nobel Foundation in Sweden. The choice of Sir Macfarlane Burnet met with general approval; even the above-quoted Sydney journalist endorsed the decision: ‘Having poked a little fun at the all-Victorian Australia Day Council’s plan to name annually an Australian “Man of the Year,” C.C. is bound to say that it has made an excellent first choice.’ In Melbourne, the editors of The Age applauded the choice and proclaimed that the new honour was symptomatic of Australia’s growing importance in the wider world:

The new significance of Australia day is a symbol of the rapid growth of national strength and national self-consciousness. We are beginning to count for something in the world and we should be intensely proud of this fact.

In its second year, the award once again went to an international identity, but opera singer Joan Sutherland was unable to accept the honour in person as her career was burgeoning. Her brother James attended the award ceremony in Melbourne only a few hours after Sutherland had received a five-minute ovation following her operatic debut in Rome International achievement remained a key criterion in the early years of the award. In 1963 pioneering neurologist Sir John Eccles followed Burnet’s example, becoming the second of five Australians to take out the Nobel Prize/Australian of the Year double. International sporting heroes also figured strongly, beginning with America’s Cup skipper Jock Sturrock in 1962. Dawn Fraser was honoured in 1964, after winning the 100 metres freestyle gold medal at a third successive Olympic Games; she was followed later in the decade by world champions Sir Jack Brabham (motor racing) and Lionel Rose (boxing). The strong focus on sporting endeavour was evident from the beginning, but in the first decade achievers in the artistic realm were also well represented. The renowned dancer and choreographer Robert Helpmann won the honour for 1965, but was unable to attend the ceremony due to his role as an Ugly Sister in ‘Cinderella’ at London’s Covent Garden. Later in the decade the chart-topping musicians The Seekers were the first (and only) group to win the award.

During its first decade, whether it was honouring those who excelled in science, sport or the arts, the Australian of the Year focussed first and foremost on international achievement. This approach was reflected in the philosophy of the award organisers: ‘We regard the Australian of the Year as the person who has brought the greatest honour to Australia in the calendar year.’ Over its fifty year history the award has honoured many Australians whose achievements were of domestic rather than international significance, but in the first decade international accolades seemed to be a prerequisite. The 1974 Australian of the Year, musician Sir Bernard Heinze, was the first exception to this rule: although his early career had taken him to Europe, Sir Bernard’s outstanding achievement was a lifetime spent promoting classical music to Australian audiences.