Australians who make us proud

In 2010 the Australian of the Year Awards celebrates its 50th Anniversary. For five decades it has been part of the celebrations surrounding Australia Day in January, during which time the award has grown steadily in significance. The Australian of the Year for 1960 was immunologist Sir Macfarlane Burnet; he received his award shortly after returning from Sweden, where he had been honoured with the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Burnet accepted the inaugural award at an Australia Day luncheon in Melbourne, and the honour attracted relatively little media attention outside Victoria. In contrast, the 2009 Australian of the Year, Professor Mick Dodson, received his award from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Australia Day Eve outside Parliament House in Canberra. Thousands of onlookers observed the televised ceremony, before enjoying an ‘Australia Day Live’ concert. The following day newspapers around the country proclaimed the new titleholder on their front pages.

The Australian of the Year announcement has become a very prominent part of the annual Australia Day celebrations. It has served an important role in drawing attention to Australia’s national day, which has historically struggled for the recognition typical of similar celebrations around the world. The award program has also grown in importance as a way of promoting active citizenship and recognising role models. Three companion awards have been introduced, recognising both Young and Senior Australians, and proclaiming the efforts of those who work at a grass roots level through the ‘Local Hero’ award.

Not surprisingly, the selection of the Australian of the Year has often provoked controversy – an early critic suggested that ‘almost any selection will appear invidious.’1 It is a notoriously difficult task to choose one person deemed worthy of such a unique honour. Moreover, a quick perusal of the list of past winners inevitably provokes questions and debates about what it is that Australia strives to be as a nation and what fields of endeavour and types of achievement are particularly valued. Outstanding feats in sport have played a role in the selection of fifteen Australians of the Year – men and women who have risen to the top of the world in a wide range of sports. The prominence of sporting winners is hardly surprising given Australia’s fabled love of sporting competition, but have the awards adequately recognised other fields of endeavour? Thirteen winners from the sciences (including ten in the medical sciences) seems a reasonable figure, but is the artistic realm under-represented with only eleven winners (and most of these musicians)? Why is it that a remarkable eight indigenous Australians have won the award since 1960? Is it significant that only one in five winners have been women? The fact that these debates continue on the opinion pages of newspapers suggests that the awards have become a respected institution. They have provided a forum not only for the recognition of achievement, but also for an ongoing national debate about what it means to be Australian.

With a fifty-year history and a high public profile, the Australian of the Year Awards are unique around the world. It is unusual for such a program to have broad public support and the endorsement of its national government. In the U.S.A. the Time ‘Man of the Year’ (more recently ‘Person of the Year’) predates the Australian award by 33 years, but the Time award has not been reserved for any particular nationality. Furthermore, it does not necessarily focus on positive role models and has chosen such figures as Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. Elsewhere, the Canadian Club of Toronto (similar to Australia’s National Press Club) honours a Canadian of the Year, but the award does not have a strong link with the national government. Since 2004 the ‘Great Britons’ awards program has honoured such figures as author J.K. Rowling and Olympian Sebastian Coe, but relies almost entirely on financial support from the bank Morgan Stanley and the newspaper the Daily Telegraph. The Australian of the Year award receives substantial sponsorship from private companies, including a thirty year relationship with the Commonwealth Bank, but its close association with the Federal Government ensures its profile and reputation is significantly enhanced.

The National Australia Day Council (NADC) has administered the Australian of the Year awards program since 1979, when it inherited the responsibility from Victoria’s Australia Day Council. The NADC’s mission statement demonstrates how the awards program fits its wider purpose:

The National Australia Day Council works with and for the people and government of Australia to:

Unite all Australians through celebration with a focus on Australia Day;

Promote the meaning of Australia Day through activity, education, reflection, discussion and debate; and

Promote good citizenship, values and achievement by recognising excellence and service to the communities and the nation.

The third of these aims is predominantly addressed through the Australian of the Year Awards, which offer a high profile moment for the celebration of outstanding achievement. The awards greatly assist the NADC in its central task, which is aptly summarised by a former Chief Executive Warren Pearson: ‘On 26 January each year, the National Australia Day Council encourages Australians to celebrate what’s great about Australia and being Australian.’3 The Australian of the Year Awards have certainly attracted controversy and criticism, but in doing so they have advanced a national conversation – they have encouraged citizens of this country to consider, who are the ‘Australians who make us proud’?