Local Heroes

Many of those named Australian of the Year have subsequently expressed a view that ordinary Australians are equally worthy of praise and recognition. For example, when cricket captain Mark Taylor penned his autobiography in 1999, he was clearly ambivalent about his Australian of the Year award:

Yes, I was extremely honoured and very proud – yet in no way did my naming on 26 January make me the best Australian around, by a long shot. I was just one of an army of Australians who had achieved some excellence in so many varied fields in the previous twelve months. … I knew there were a lot of people out there who day-in and day-out worked a hell of a lot harder than I did and achieved great things – yet received no publicity. I thought then of the people who work with the disadvantaged, with drug addicts and alcoholics, giving 100 per cent of themselves to make other lives that little bit better. These fine people get virtually nothing in return – little money, no recognition. These are some of the true Australian heroes, and they were much in my mind in those two days.

Taylor identified a key dilemma that organisers of the Australian of the Year award had faced from the outset. When Sir Norman Martin announced the new award in 1960 he suggested the honour might go to ‘a child who had shown great heroism or a mother who had successfully raised a large family under great difficulties.’102 From the beginning, it was recognised that individuals who are worth honouring are not always well known. Nevertheless, Sir Norman’s sentiment did not influence the selection panel, which consistently chose higher profile winners who had achieved something remarkable on a national or international stage.

As the status of the Australian of the Year award grew, it became more common for critics to call for lesser-known winners whose achievements were not otherwise recognised. This was particularly true in the 1980s when there was a perceived shift towards celebrity recipients of the award.103 For many Australians, a hitherto unrecognised local figure was more worthy of their praise. This was certainly the view of the students of St Bernardine’s School in Browns Plains, Queensland, who nominated policeman Robert Achurch for the 1987 award. ‘Constable Bob’ had been spending time at the school through the ‘Adopt-a-Cop’ scheme. In a letter of commendation, the students wrote:

We, the younger community of St Bernardine’s, have a strong opinion on the past nominees for Australian of the Year. We find they have all been of a high status or famous throughout the nation. Therefore we have chosen our “Adopted Cop” Constable Robert Achurch who has shown us through example how to be a good Australian and a good policeman.

The NADC was certainly not dismissive of the common view in Australian communities that contributions at a local level deserved recognition. In 1981 it had introduced the Citizen of the Year and Young Citizen of the Year awards, which became a feature of Australia Day celebrations around the nation. These awards were specifically designed to recognise outstanding efforts in local communities, and by 1986 the NADC had signed up 800 local government authorities to the program.

In 2003, the NADC addressed the issue further by introducing a fourth award category known as the ‘Local Hero Award.’ The new award was part of a shift in thinking at the NADC towards the key goal of promoting good citizenship. Fittingly, the Local Hero award is sponsored by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship; it provides an important national forum for acknowledging those who work for the benefit of their fellow citizens. According to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans: ‘That’s what being an Australian citizen is all about – giving something back to the community we share.’ 

The 2004 Local Hero, Donna Carson, was honoured for her work as a volunteer advocate for victims of crime and survivors of domestic violence. Carson herself was a victim of domestic violence, having been set alight by her former partner during an argument. After her long recovery and rehabilitation, she began offering volunteer support for victims as they negotiated the often-threatening court process. Carson had the personal experience necessary to know what victims needed, but her background in education also meant she was able to communicate these needs to the relevant authorities.107 Others to have been named Australia’s Local Hero include: Fire Control Officer Brian Parry, who earned the eternal gratitude of the people of Shoalhaven, NSW, during a 2001 bushfire emergency; Tasmanian environmental campaigner Ben Kearney, who successfully made Coles Bay ‘Australia’s First Plastic Bag Free Town’; and choral conductor Jonathon Welch, whose work with homeless people led to the inspirational ‘Choir of Hard Knocks.’