The Commercial Imperative

Following the early departure of Herb Elliot, tennis champion John Newcombe became the second of five sporting identities to chair the NADC. In 1984 the Hawke Government upgraded its status to the National Australia Day Council and in 1990 it became an incorporated public company with a board of directors appointed by the Federal Government. For most of the 1980s and 1990s there was an expectation that Government seed funding would be replaced by corporate sponsorship and the NADC would become self-sufficient. The list of Australian of the Year winners provides circumstantial evidence of this shift towards the commercial imperative. The first three winners of the new NADC award were all extremely deserving but relatively unknown to mainstream Australia. Manning Clark was the best known (and most controversial) of the three, but few Australians would have known economist Sir John Crawford or Brisbane Commonwealth Games administrator Sir Edward Williams. These were not men well placed to sell Australia Day to mainstream Australia or to the corporate sponsors who would help the NADC become self-sufficient.

In the mid-to-late 1980s there was a recognisable shift in the NADC’s approach to the award: marathon runner Robert de Castella, comedian Paul Hogan, singer John Farnham and cricketer Allan Border were far more likely to draw attention to Australia Day when they won their awards. Farnham, in particular, was a very high profile winner in Australia’s bicentenary year, as he had recently topped the music charts with his hit song ‘You’re the Voice.’ The choice of Farnham certainly attracted attention, but it also attracted criticism from those who perceived a shift towards celebrity winners. The Sydney Morning Herald editors argued: ‘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.’37 Several readers agreed. One suggested that ‘entertainment “stars”, and sports “stars”, no matter how likeable and persistent, are largely reflections of a society, rarely if ever people who shape that society deeply.’38 Former NADC secretary Frank Cassidy recalls his own perspective, which was that John Farnham was a highly effective ambassador for Australia Day, and that the NADC board members were quite conscious of the benefits of choosing better-known candidates. The year after Farnham was named Australian of the Year, the number of nominations for the award increased ten fold.39

A few years earlier Les Carlyon had written in the Sydney Morning Herald of his concern about the growing commercialism of Australia Day celebrations:

Like a can of Fosters given a whirl in a concrete mixer, our new T-shirted nationalism bubbled over in the week of the Australia Day celebrations. … [T]he new nationalism is complex. It’s mostly spontaneous and innocent. Yet there are strident commercial and political sub-themes, so not everyone is innocent. We are positively lusting after heroes … but only certain sorts. … Robert de Castella, a natural enough hero in a nation of joggers, is made Australian of the Year which, you’ll agree, is pretty high-sounding stuff. The same night you can watch him flogging Toyotas on TV which, you’ll agree, is pretty commercial stuff. Turn the dial and you can watch him flogging a deodorant.40

Commercial viability is not necessarily incompatible with an appropriate national awards program. Indeed, if the Australian of the Year program strives to speak to all Australians (which it arguably should) then financial viability should follow. Nevertheless, Phillip Adams, who chaired the NADC in the 1990s, recalls that the awards program was ‘always in peril of being gobbled up by corporate sponsors.’41 This was particularly evident in the mid-1990s when the NADC’s Young Australian of the Year award faced strong competition from the overtly commercial Channel Ten Young Achiever Awards. The two programs merged in 1995, and the NADC program subsequently took a more commercial approach.42 Following a decade in Sydney the NADC returned to Canberra in 2000, after its attempt to replace government funding with private sponsorship foundered. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet took up responsibility for the NADC in 2001. Since then stability has flowed from the council’s closer relationship with Government and the ongoing support of key sponsors such as the Commonwealth Bank.