Since its inception in 1960 the Australian of the Year Award has provided a focal point for Australia Day celebrations and a forum for the recognition of outstanding achievement. The official announcement has grown to become a major public event, with thousands of onlookers witnessing the televised ceremony in Canberra. The award offers an insight into Australian identity, reflects how the nation is evolving, the role of sport in Australian culture, the impact of multiculturalism, and the special status of Australia’s Indigenous people. It has also provoked spirited debate about the fields of endeavour that are most worthy of public recognition. In this way the awards have advanced a national conversation – they have encouraged citizens to consider, who are the ‘Australians who make us proud’?
During the 1950s, a network of state-based organisations worked hard to increase the profile of Australia Day. The most active and best resourced of these was the Victorian Australia Day Council, which had grown out of the Australian Natives Association. In January 1960 the council’s chairman, the unabashed patriot Sir Norman Martin, announced the introduction of a new annual award for the ‘Australian of the Year.’ He explained that Australia Day was a fitting occasion on which to give proper recognition to a leading citizen, whose contribution to the nation’s culture, economy, sciences or arts was particularly outstanding.
For the first two decades the Australian of the Year was chosen by a panel of five, which included 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. The panel’s first choice of Nobel Prize winning immunologist Sir Macfarlane Burnet gained general approval. The editors of The Age proclaimed the new honour was symptomatic of Australia’s growing confidence as a nation: ‘We are beginning to count for something in the world and we should be intensely proud of this fact.’
International achievement remained a key criterion during the award’s first decade. Several sporting heroes were honoured, from America’s Cup skipper Jock Sturrock and swimmer Dawn Fraser, to world champion motor racer Sir Jack Brabham and boxer Lionel Rose. The 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. Achievers in the artistic realm were also well represented, including opera singer Joan Sutherland, renowned dancer and choreographer Robert Helpmann and the chart-topping singing group The Seekers. The focus on international achievement reflected the philosophy of the award organisers, who described the Australian of the Year as ‘the person who has brought the greatest honour to Australia in the year under review.’
During its first two decades the Australian of the Year award grew steadily in national prominence, but it increasingly suffered from its close association with the Victorian Australia Day Council. This fact became abundantly clear in 1975 when the newly formed Canberra Australia Day Council named a rival Australian of the Year. The Canberra council was run by a vibrant group of Canberrans, who pursued a more progressive agenda than their Victorian counterparts. In particular, the Canberra council was sympathetic to the emerging republican movement, while the Victorian council was staunchly committed to constitutional ties with Britain. The Victorian council also battled a common perception that it was an exclusive organisation that represented the Melbourne Establishment. Australia’s turbulent political climate nourished this division and the Australian of the Year award was embroiled in a wider debate about Australian nationalism.
Between 1975 and 1979 the Canberra Australia Day Council named four Australians of the Year. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam lent his support to the new award when he presented the inaugural honour to Major General Alan Stretton, the commander of the emergency response to Cyclone Tracey. The Canberra council also made good use of the federal parliamentary press boxes to promote its award to the national media. The Victorian council was singularly unimpressed that a rival Australia Day organisation had copied its idea – in 1978 it described its own winner, Dame Rae Roe, as ‘the real Australian of the Year.’ The impasse was only resolved when the Fraser Government created the National Australia Day Council (NADC) in 1979. The Victorian council willingly transferred responsibility for its award to the new national body, while the Canberra council agreed to discontinue its rival program. In 1982 the Victorian council was further sidelined when John Cain's Labor Government created a new Victorian Australia Day Committee within the Premier’s Department, which joined the NADC's official national network.
The NADC made immediate changes to the selection process, appointing an independent panel of ten leading Australians from diverse fields. Despite this rigorous approach, the panel’s first choice of historian Manning Clark did not please conservative politicians, as Clark had been critical of the Fraser Government’s social policy. If nothing else, the controversy was a clear sign that the award had become a prominent and valued feature of the Australia Day celebrations. In time the selection of the annual winner fell to the board of the NADC itself, whose members are appointed by the Prime Minister of the day. Former NADC chairman Phillip Adams recalls that heated debates were common. Typically the Australian of the Year was chosen at a special two-day board meeting, which Adams likened to the election of a Pope: ‘We would go into conclave, there would be lots of hot air, then a puff of smoke.’
During the 1980s there was an expectation that corporate sponsorship would replace Government funding and that the NADC would become self-sufficient. The list of former Australians of the Year provides circumstantial evidence of this shift towards a commercial imperative. Economist Sir John Crawford and judge Sir Edward Williams thoroughly deserved their awards, but were perhaps not well placed to promote the importance of Australia Day to mainstream Australia, or to secure corporate sponsorship for the NADC. Subsequent winners included marathon runner Robert de Castella, comedian Paul Hogan, singer John Farnham and cricketer Allan Border, who were far more likely to attract public attention. In 1988 the Sydney Morning Herald editors expressed concern at this development: ‘One worrying trend with the award is its attachment to ratings. This year’s candidates appear to have been people who held high public profiles.’ Yet the steadily rising numbers of nominations indicated that the award was capturing the public imagination.
During the 1990s the Australian of the Year award intersected noticeably with the politics of national identity. In its attempt to encourage unified national celebrations, the NADC was a strong promoter of both multiculturalism and reconciliation. The council was also linked to the growing republican movement and the campaign to change the national flag. Australians of the Year in this period included Yothu Yindi lead singer Dr Yunupingu, environmentalist and republican Ian Kiernan and Chinese-Australian paediatrician John Yu. Yunupingu’s award continued a strong tradition of honouring Indigenous Australians. The first Aboriginal winner was boxer Lionel Rose, who quipped: ‘One hundred and eighty-two years ago one of my mob would have been a dead cert’ for this.’ Since then a further seven Indigenous people have been named Australian of the Year, for achievements in sport, music, politics, law, public service and academia. Many have played a role in Indigenous advocacy and some have raised concerns about the celebration of Australia Day on 26 January, most notably the 1985 recipient Lowitja O’Donoghue.
Debates about the Australian of the Year award commonly revolve around the relative balance between sport, science and the arts. Fourteen winners have excelled in sports as diverse as cricket, swimming, athletics, sailing, tennis, boxing and motor racing. A recurring criticism that sport features too regularly peaked in 2004, when Steve Waugh was the fourth sporting winner in seven years and the third Test Cricket Captain to be honoured. Despite the perception of an over-emphasis on sport, the list of past winners reveals a strong endorsement for scientific achievement; thirteen Australian scientists have received the honour, including a remarkable ten from the medical sciences. A long-term view also reveals that Australia’s talented artists have not been neglected; ten winners have excelled in creative pursuits, including six musicians, a dancer, a painter, a comedian and a Nobel Prize winning novelist.
Many Australians of the Year do not fit neatly into categories such as sport, science and the arts. Phillip Adams once described the past winners as ‘an eclectic collection of people who reflect the diversity of achievement in this country.’ Australians of the Year have also excelled in public administration, the military, social and community work, business enterprise, academia, religious leadership and philanthropy. Surprisingly, there has been relatively little public debate about the gender balance of past winners. In 1961 several news outlets incorrectly referred to Sir Macfarlane Burnet as ‘Man of the Year’; the mistake was not allowed to continue, as Joan Sutherland took out the second award, but it is certainly true that women are under-represented with only 11 winners out of a total of 56.
While the selection of a single Australian of the Year is bound to stimulate debate, the awards program as a whole recognises a much wider range of achievement. In 1979 the NADC named its first ‘Young Australian of the Year,’ community service volunteer Julie Sochacki. Twenty years later the veteran country music star Slim Dusty received the inaugural ‘Senior Australian of the Year’ award. In 2003 the NADC introduced an award for ‘Australia’s Local Hero,’ which honours outstanding contributions to local communities. With four award categories and a system of state and national nominations, the NADC now recognises a total of 128 inspiring Australian role models every year.
In 2006 Prime Minister John Howard officially opened the Australian of the Year Walk, a tribute to the award winners on the south shore of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. It features five parallel metal strips set flush with the ground and a series of bollards topped with plaques to honour each year’s winners. The musically literate will discern that each bollard represents a note on a musical stave, and that the tune of ‘Advance Australia Fair’ is written along the shore of the lake. The Australian of the Year award represents only one of many ways in which national identity is expressed, but for five decades it has provided an intriguing perspective on the nation’s evolving character. Each year, as pundits debate the merits of the latest choice, they contribute to an ongoing conversation about Australia’s past, present and future. There might not be consensus, but the awards encourage a public dialogue about national identity and the values of a civil society.