An Eclectic Collection

Phillip Adams once described the Australians of the Year as ‘an eclectic collection of people who reflect the diversity of achievement in this country.’83 It is certainly true that not all of those honoured are so easily categorised as ‘another sports star’ or ‘another medical scientist.’ Several winners have been nominated for outstanding public service, including the former Governor General Sir Richard Casey, the Official Secretary to Governors-General Sir Murray Tyrall, the leading government economics adviser Sir John Crawford, and the Commonwealth Games administrator Sir Edward Williams. Lieutenant General Peter Cosgrove rose to fame as the leader of the international peacekeeping mission in East Timor in 1999. In 2001 he joined Major General Alan Stretton as one of two military figures to be named Australian of the Year. There have also been two Australians of the Year with a religious background. Melbourne’s Anglican Archbishop was a permanent member of the award selection committee until the late 1970s, but in an ecumenical gesture the first church leader to be honoured was the Catholic Cardinal Sir Norman Gilroy in 1970. Two decades later the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane Peter Hollingworth was honoured for his long commitment to social justice as director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

Only two businessmen have been named in 50 years, and they have largely been honoured for their achievements in other fields. The 1986 Australian of the Year was Dick Smith, who a few years earlier had sold his eponymous electronics retail store and branched out into publishing, exploration, aviation and philanthropy. The Canberra Australia Day Council chose Alan Bond in 1978 after the flamboyant entrepreneur bankrolled successive challenges for the coveted international yachting trophy the America’s Cup. Bond later fell from grace and served time in prison for fraud; his name is the principal blemish on the list of past winners. All of these examples show that it is an oversimplification to view the Australian of the Year awards as an ongoing battle between sport, science and the arts for prominence in Australian culture.