The National Australia Day Council

After the formation of the National Australia Day Committee (NADC) in October 1979, the Canberra council happily discontinued its rival award. The Victorian council announced its last Australian of the Year in January 1980, honouring the naturalist and television personality Harry Butler. In April 1980 the new NADC held an Australia Day Forum, where Chairman Herb Elliot led a discussion on the future of the award. The delegates agreed that ‘it is highly desirable that there be only one “Australian of the Year” using the guidelines established by the Federal Australia Day Council.’28 Importantly, the forum also agreed that responsibility for the award should be transferred from the Victorian Australia Day Council to the NADC.

Surviving records do not reveal how willingly the Victorian council surrendered its awards program. It appears that (at least initially) the various state-based councils were reassured that the NADC was a worthwhile new body. At the 1980 forum the Federal Council was disbanded and links between the new NADC and the state councils were established. For the Victorian Council, however, its role was significantly curtailed two years later, when the newly elected John Cain Labor Government created a new Victorian Australia Day Committee within the Premier’s Department, which soon replaced the Victorian Australia Day Council in the official national network.29 The Victorian council was thus excluded from an official Australia Day role: it continued its life as an independent membership-based organisation, but played no further part in the nomination and selection process for the Australian of the Year.

Meanwhile, the new NADC had made immediate changes to the awards program, introducing the first companion award for the ‘Young Australian of the Year.’ The NADC also took a new approach to the selection procedure, proclaiming that: ‘For the first time the 1980 Australian of the Year Awards were selected by a national panel of distinguished Australians representing many facets of our national life.’ The NADC invited ten prominent citizens to adjudicate the award, from fields as diverse as law, science, media, religion, industry, trade unions, and the arts. The NADC stressed that ‘every opportunity was taken to maintain its independence and autonomy.’30 Despite such a rigorous approach, the first NADC winner was quite controversial. Details of the award leaked to the media prior to the announcement and rumours abounded that the NADC’s choice did not please conservative politicians. The Sydney Morning Herald recorded:

The National Australia Day Committee is annoyed over reports that Professor Manning Clark and Olympian Rick Mitchell will be named tomorrow night as Australian of the Year and Junior Australian of the Year. No one will say a word about the awards. But conservative Liberals are reported to be apoplectic – Manning Clark has been a trenchant opponent of Fraserism and Mitchell defied the [Olympic Games] boycott to collect a silver medal at Moscow.

The Mitchell prediction proved to be wrong, as quadriplegic athlete Peter Hill took out the Young Australian award, but historian Manning Clark certainly spoke his mind on issues affecting Australia after he won the main award. He noted he was both surprised and pleased to have been selected and added, ‘I believe it is above politics.’32 Clark was an avid republican and an outspoken campaigner on social justice issues. To complicate matters, he had been nominated for the award by the Canberra Australia Day Council, which had a politically progressive influence on the NADC in its first year of operation.33 When the inaugural NADC chairman Herb Elliot resigned his position a few months later, Home Affairs Minister Ian Wilson denied reports that Elliot had been dismissed because of the selection of Manning Clark: ‘The reports are mischievous and without foundation and I refute them utterly.’34

Despite a shaky start, the NADC pursued its charter of promoting national celebrations on Australia Day. The first secretary of the committee, Frank Cassidy, recalls that a key challenge was the fact that Australia Day had a very low profile.35 In January 1978 Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser had remarked that ‘far more public fervour is displayed at the VFL Grand Final than all the Australia Day celebrations combined’; he suggested, however, that there was ‘a strong current of pride in Australia and a belief in its future destiny.’36 The NADC was formed at least in part to harness this pride and to promote a uniform national day; but it was a slow process, as the Prime Minister was not even in the country on Australia Day in 1980, preferring to attend celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the Indian Republic. Frank Cassidy recalls that the NADC soon realised the importance of the Australian of the Year award in promoting Australia Day. It has remained a flagship program for the NADC ever since.