Choosing the Recipients

Unsurprisingly, the process of choosing the Australian of the Year has evolved considerably over half a century, including both the make-up of the selection committee and the system of nominations. In the 1960s Sir Norman Martin usually insisted that the decision of the small Victorian selection committee was unanimous. If this is true, then it is in stark contrast to the selection process in the 1990s, when Phillip Adams recalls that heated debates were common. In 1980 the NADC had formed an independent panel to decide the award, but eventually the selection fell to the NADC board itself. Typically the matter was considered at a special two-day board meeting, which Adams likened to the election of a new Pope: ‘We would go into conclave, there would be lots of hot air, then a puff of smoke.’108

The most significant change in the selection procedure has been expansion of the nomination process. In the 1960s and 1970s, the committee usually chose the winner from a relatively small list of nominees; for example, in 1971 Evonne Goolagong edged out only 18 other nominees. At a meeting in 1982, the directors of the NADC and its state based affiliates identified low nominee numbers as a cause for concern.110 The problem persisted and board members were regularly encouraged to spread the word and encourage nominations.111 A public relations report commissioned in 1989 recommended greater community involvement in the nominations process: ‘Allow the “ordinary” citizens of Australia a chance to vote for, or in some way have a say in, who should be Australian of the Year.’112 During the 1990s glossy brochures calling for nominations were distributed well in advance of the awards deadline.

More recently, the NADC has realised that the nominations process is important not only to the integrity of its various awards, but is also a crucial means of engaging with the Australian community. In 2004 NADC Chair Lisa Curry-Kenny proudly reported that nominations had doubled from the previous year: ‘This is a key indication that increasing numbers of Australians of all walks of life are actively engaging with the awards program.’113 Public interest in the awards serves a much broader purpose, as NADC Chief Executive Warren Pearson explains: ‘The awards program is not primarily about choosing four national recipients; it is about engaging with Australians about citizenship.’114 The introduction of the Local Hero award was directed towards this goal, as were various other changes made in 2004. Most importantly, the NADC introduced a new selection process based around state nominations. This approach meant a more prominent role for the state-based Australia Day councils and committees, which now oversee the selection of the nominees and host official functions to announce the contenders in November each year. The NADC board now only chooses between the eight state and territory recipients in each category and organises the national announcement in January.

There has also been a significant shift in the criteria for the Australian of the Year award in fifty years. Initially the focus was on awarding the person who had ‘brought the greatest honour to Australia.’115 This emphasis on international acclaim was gradually relaxed and Australian-based achievement was recognised more often from the 1970s onwards. The official criteria have usually been suitably broad in their scope, so changes in approach are largely attributable to the membership of the NADC board and the political climate of the time. In the mid-1980s there was a notable shift towards high profile winners, while in the 1990s some of those honoured reflected the prominent social issues of republicanism and reconciliation. Currently, the selection committees refer to three main criteria when considering nominees:

• Demonstrated excellence in their field

• Significant contribution to the Australian community and nation

• An inspirational role model for the Australian community

The third of these criteria supports the NADC’s key goal of encouraging good citizenship.