What’s Your Cause?

Early winners of the Australian of the Year award were simply asked to attend the Australia Day Luncheon in Melbourne and accept their medallion and the congratulations of those assembled. Several of the international winners did not even return to Australia for their award. In more recent years, however, an expectation has grown that the winner will undertake a national tour, during which they will attend public receptions and deliver speeches. As the award became more prominent, many saw the opportunity to promote an issue that was important to them. In 1980 Harry Butler suggested that his award was a sign that Australians had become ‘more than ever aware of their environment and were keen on enjoying the countryside without destroying it.’118 In 1985 Lowitja O’Donoghue embarked on a campaign to change the date of Australia Day. It was not until 1987, however, that the NADC began to fund a national Tour of Honour for the award winners. The tour is an important means of promoting the Australian of the Year award, but it also places an expectation on the winner that they will have something worthwhile to say.

In 1987 Dick Smith set himself the challenge of reducing the number of teenage smokers by lobbying the government to regulate tobacco advertising.119 Smith recalls that he knew something about advertising from his business experience and he could see quite clearly that cigarette advertising was often aimed directly at children.120 He initially faced an uphill battle in convincing the government to act, but the near prohibition of tobacco advertising in subsequent years appears to have vindicated his stand. Other winners have actively criticised Government policy on important issues: in 1991 Fred Hollows condemned Australia’s involvement in the First Gulf War, suggesting that the human consequences of the conflict were being obscured. He argued that ‘the capital involved in producing one missile could be used to restore the sight of hundreds of thousands of Africans.’121 Hollows was succeeded by Peter Hollingworth, who had previously been critical of government policy and had accused Prime Minister Bob Hawke of being ‘out of touch with ordinary people.’122 Hollows later recorded that he was pleased to hand over his title to Hollingworth: ‘If the Australian of the Year, with the automatic claim on a certain amount of media attention, can be relied on to be a bit of a stirrer rather than a yes-man (or woman) for the establishment, things might look up.’123 Hollows might have been pleased if he had lived to see Young Australian of the Year Bryan Gaensler criticising the Howard Government’s refugee policy in 2001. Gaensler was studying in Boston and was shocked by the way Australia was being portrayed in the international media. He wrote a letter, signed by 150 other Australians studying overseas, which said, ‘we are deeply concerned that Australia’s international standing as an open and tolerant nation has been compromised.’124 Gaensler recalls he quite deliberately used his status as a Young Australian of the Year to generate media attention.125

The demands placed on the Australian of the Year were difficult for some, who struggled to integrate public appearances with their busy careers. In 1984 Robert de Castella told the press that he was honoured to be named Australian of the Year, but his preparation for the Olympic Marathon was his priority: ‘To an athlete it’s nice to be accepted, but it doesn’t make you run any faster.’126 Ian Thorpe faced a similar dilemma when his Young Australian of the Year award coincided with his preparation for the Sydney Olympics. The 2001 Australian of the Year, General Peter Cosgrove, later recalled in his biography that his year in the spotlight was ‘a frenetic balancing act between the wonderful opportunities and obligations of an Australian of the Year and the ongoing and increasing demands of commanding the Army in a time of considerable challenges to our national security.’127

In 1994 the dating system for the Australian of the Year award changed and winners were named for the year ahead rather than the year just passed. As a result, there was no ‘1993 Australian of the Year.’ The change reflected the growing assumption that the award was as much about what the winner would do in the year ahead, as what they had achieved to deserve the honour in the first place. In 2003 Professor Fiona Stanley embraced this expectation and planned her year very carefully. She decided to focus on three themes that were relevant to her work: Children, Research and Aboriginal Disparity. Stanley received 650 invitations to speak in eight months. She was unable to accept the majority of them, but when she did she stressed the priority of children’s health and education, the important role of research in informing policy, and the dire need to improve the health of Australia’s Aboriginal communities. Stanley believes that the Australian of the Year award serves an important purpose, and that ‘whoever wins, they should have the ideas to help shape a civil society.’128

When Macfarlane Burnet wrote his autobiography in the 1960s, his Australian of the Year award featured as a short coda to his journey to Sweden for his Nobel Prize, after which he ‘really came down to earth and got back to the bench.’129 It is a stark contrast to the experience of the 2008 Australian of the Year, Lee Kernaghan, who put his country music career on hold to tour Australia’s drought affected regions. Kernaghan finished his year by writing a report in which he listed the key issues affecting the rural communities he had visited and the measures he had taken to advocate on their behalf.130 For Kernaghan at least, the Australian of the Year award was not simply an honour, but carried with it an obligation to serve the Australian people.