Defining Australia

In December 2007 journalist Mark McKenna visited the Australian of the Year Walk and interpreted it as a highly symbolic form of national memorial. The empty bollards stretching into the distance particularly intrigued McKenna:

These blank plaques – memorials to the future – stand as if waiting for the years to pass before they can be filled in and become whole. Yet strangely they seem more intriguing than the plaques that precede them. It is possible to imagine the line of blank plaques stretching on endlessly, and their emptiness begs the question: What sort of nation will Australia become over the next few decades?

The Australian of the Year Awards represent only one of many ways in which national identity is expressed, but after fifty years they have become a significant part of the ongoing conversation about Australia’s past, present and future. The awards have also attracted the interest of foreigners, including BBC correspondent Nick Bryant, who recently observed that the awards program ‘offers an intriguing perspective on the Australian national character, which is both reinforcing and revelatory.’

The Sydney Morning Herald critic who in 1960 lambasted the ‘all-Victorian’ selection panel for the inaugural award, also offered a more general critique of the proposed honour: ‘It is seldom that one citizen is so obviously raised above his fellow-men as to deserve solemn investment with the title of the most representative or meritorious Australian.’143 The journalist correctly forecasted that it would be almost impossible to choose a universally acceptable winner; but perhaps he overlooked the potential of the award to promote productive debate about Australian identity. Critics of the Australian of the Year are inevitably drawn into a national conversation about active citizenship and about what it is that Australians value about individual achievement and effort. There might not be consensus, but the awards encourage a conversation about national identity and the values of a civil society. In this way, the Australian of the Year Awards have inherent value, which is largely independent of the choices made by the selection committee each year.

Nevertheless, an ongoing challenge faced by the NADC is that it is hard to represent the diversity of Australian achievement when there is only one winner per category in each year. The ongoing debates about the numbers of winners from the sciences, arts and sport are evidence of this. In the future, these debates might revolve around other issues, including gender balance and ethnic diversity. Awards Director Tam Johnston suggests that the value of the awards program is best measured by consulting the complete list of nominees for each year.144 In its 2005 Annual Report the NADC included a summary of the 111 nominees honoured nationally, which revealed a remarkable variety of achievement and a diversity of personal backgrounds.145 Importantly, the NADC has recently devoted attention to promoting the state nominations, which emphasises the wide variety of achievement that is recognised each year.

Not all of the debate and discussion generated by the awards program has been of a serious nature. A more light-hearted portrait can be found in the award-winning television satire We Can Be Heroes (2005), in which actor Chris Lilley plays five obscure nominees for the Australian of the Year award. One reviewer suggested that Lilley’s creation was both a humorous mockumentary and a serious critique of the awards program: ‘if you want a show that skewers the nation’s pretensions and aspirations, while providing laugh-out-loud comedy, this is the real deal.’146 All five characters have in one way or another inspired people in their local community, but none of them appears even a remotely suitable choice for Australian of the Year. Although primarily a vehicle for Lilley’s comic talent, We Can Be Heroes is also a biting critique of what we look for in role models. In contrast, the magazine Eureka Street offers a strong endorsement of the awards program’s potential:

Critics might suggest that the awards are manipulated by politicians, or point to the fact that a number of former recipients such as Alan Bond subsequently fell from grace. But the fact remains that the naming of role models is an important community-building exercise. It assists young people to set goals for themselves, and encourages older people to take pride in what they have achieved.

The editors of Eureka Street suggest that the awards have been successful in achieving one of the core goals of the National Australia Day Council, which is to ‘promote good citizenship, values and achievement by recognising excellence and service to the communities and the nation.