Whose Australian of the Year?

During the 1970s the Australian of the Year award began to suffer from its close association with the Victorian Australia Day Council. The council had long been a leader in promoting Australia Day celebrations, so it was not unreasonable that it introduced an award of significance to the entire country. Nevertheless, there was always going to be a problem of public perception. Initially, this related principally to promoting the award outside of Victoria. The new award did not immediately attract interstate attention, but interest slowly grew until Robert Helpmann featured in a prominent article on page four of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1966. The Victorian Australia Day Council worked hard promoting the award with a carefully stage managed official announcement, which usually occurred about two weeks before the Australia Day Luncheon at the Melbourne Town Hall. In a quiet month for news in Australia, the award gradually became part of the news cycle, even outside of Melbourne. As the profile of the award increased, however, its Victorian origins became a liability.

In the 1970s, two rival awards (both called the ‘Australian of the Year’ and both awarded in January) challenged the authority of the Victorian Australia Day Council. The first competitor was The Australian newspaper, which introduced its own award in 1971. As the highest selling national newspaper, The Australian was well placed to promote its new award as a truly national honour. Furthermore, feature articles on prominent nominees were a convenient inclusion on a slow news day. Readers of the newspaper were asked to nominate candidates for the award, with the final choice falling to the editor. On several occasions The Australian has made the same choice as the Australia Day Council. A notable difference, however, is that The Australian award has often been presented to serving politicians, including Gough Whitlam, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke. The Australian award still exists today, despite various attempts by the National Australia Day Council to cooperate with The Australian and end the duplication. Today, the NADC award enjoys a higher profile and official government endorsement, which ensures that it is relatively safe from challengers; but this was not the case in the 1970s, when interest in Australia Day was limited and the Federal Government had no involvement in the award. As long as the strong association with Victoria remained, the Australia Day Council’s award remained vulnerable.

In this context, the introduction of a third ‘Australian of the Year’ award in 1975 was a particular concern. On this occasion the challenger was the recently formed Canberra Australia Day Council – a group of young and progressive Canberrans, who aimed to increase the profile of Australia Day in the national capital. Since 1957 the Federal Australia Day Council had attempted to bring the various state based Australia Day councils together, and to lobby the Federal Government for financial support and recognition. The Federal Council had little success, however, and remained an under-resourced secretariat that moved around the country from state to state. The new Canberra council was not affiliated with the Federal Council and pursued its own goals in Canberra, which were often at odds with the prominent Victorian council. In particular, the Canberra Australia Day Council was sympathetic to the emerging republican movement, while the Victorian Australia Day Council was staunchly committed to Australia’s constitutional ties with Britain.

Australia’s political climate in the mid-1970s nourished this division. After coming to power in 1972, Gough Whitlam’s Labor government had hinted at constitutional reform and hadsupported the idea of a new national anthem to replace ‘God Save the Queen.’ In 1973 the Victorian Australia Day Council noted its opposition to the growing campaign to change the national flag and expressed concern at ‘trends to abolish the Monarchy, delete the oath of allegiance and also abandon the National Anthem.’19 In this period the Victorian council also battled the perception that it was an exclusive organisation. In 1971 newspapers reported that the Australia Day Luncheon in Melbourne was not open to all who wished to attend; the council disputed this fact, but continued to struggle against the view that it was representative of the Melbourne Establishment.20

Founding Chairman of the Canberra Australia Day Council, Frank Boddy, recalls that one of the group’s early campaigns was to turn the Australian of the Year award into a truly national award. He recalls that the Victorian council was not particularly interested in talking to his group.21 Consequently, Boddy and his fellow board members decided to introduce their own Australian of the Year award, believing that if Victoria would not cooperate then Canberra was perfectly entitled to give an award of its own. Significantly, the Victorian-based award had gained the endorsement of the Federal Australia Day Council in 1973 and argued for its legitimacy on that basis.22 Nevertheless, the rival Canberra group found oxygen due to the fact the Federal Council had not been successful in lobbying the Whitlam Government for support.23

In January 1975 the Canberra council presented its first award to Major General Alan Stretton, the Director-General of the Natural Disasters Organisation. Stretton had risen to fame during the emergency response to Cyclone Tracey, which devastated Darwin on 25 December 1974. Given the circumstances, the announcement was bound to attract the attention of the media, but the profile of the new Canberra award was boosted by the fact that Gough Whitlam presented the honour to Stretton. Furthermore, over the next few years, the Canberra Australia Day Council made good use of the parliamentary press boxes to promote its award to the national media.24 Needless to say, the Victorian Australia Day Council was not impressed that another Australia Day organisation had copied its idea. Frank Boddy recalls that the Canberra council was aware that the awards duplication was inappropriate, and also admits that the selection process for the Canberra award was hardly rigorous; but the Canberra council was primarily motivated by its desire to see Australia Day organised at a national level, with proper links to the Federal Government.

 In January 1976 the Canberra council did not present a second award, an oversight that Boddy attributes to simmering discontent following Gough Whitlam’s dismissal. Soon afterwards, the Victorian council again sought (and gained) the endorsement of the Federal Australia Day Council for its own award. The following year, however, the Canberra award was revived and remained for three more years. The conflict came to a head in 1978 when Victorian Australia Day Council Chairman Senator David Hamer announced that he was ‘most annoyed’ at the Canberra choice of West Australian businessman Alan Bond. Frank Boddy recalls that he and Senator Hamer proclaimed the merits of their competing awards during a prime time television debate moderated by Mike Willesee.25 When the Victorian council honoured the National President of the Country Women’s Association, Mrs Raigh Roe, Hamer proclaimed, ‘This is the real Australian of the Year.’26 Mrs Roe was diplomatic when asked for her opinion, noting she was happy that Australia Day motivated people to name Australians of the Year: ‘Perhaps it would be fine if there were more. There are hundreds who would deserve recognition.’27

The impasse was resolved only when the Fraser Government created the National Australia Day Committee in 1979, which was given responsibility for advising the government on all aspects of Australia Day. With proper links to the Federal Government, this new body was able to take charge of the situation and resolve the dispute. The Australian of the Year award had been embroiled in a political debate about Australian nationalism. Certainly, the charge that the Victorian award was unrepresentative would not have gone away, no matter how many non-Victorians were chosen for the honour; but the issue was more about differing visions for Australia Day. The Victorian council was certainly conservative on many political issues, supporting the monarchy and opposing a new national anthem, but its selection process for the Australian of the Year produced an often-surprising list of winners over twenty years. In the late 1970s in particular, Victorian Premier Rupert Hamer’s selection panel was progressive in its choices, including the sixth female winner, Mrs Raigh Roe, and the Aboriginal land rights advocate Galarrwuy Yunupingu. In the end, however, it was unsustainable that the Victorian Premier should play such an important role in an awards program that had become nationally significant.