Young Australians

For the first twenty years of the Australian of the Year Awards there was no specific honour reserved for younger Australians. Nevertheless, in this period several young sports stars won the main award, including Dawn Fraser, Shane Gould, Lionel Rose and Evonne Goolagong. Gould remains the youngest person to be named Australian of the Year; she was only sixteen years old when she accepted the award ‘on behalf of all those young Australians striving for excellence and a better way of life.’ During the presentation ceremony at Melbourne’s Australia Day Luncheon, Victoria’s Governor explained that Gould ‘had brought much credit to Australia at the Munich Olympics and her natural charm, academic ability and self-discipline made her a great Australian.’ Ironically, Gould shared the podium with a retired Supreme Court judge, Sir Reginald Sholl, who in his Australia Day address called for an inquiry into ‘the disorders, laziness and ingratitude of young people.’89 Clearly, Sir Reginald saw a need for more youth role model like Gould.

Shortly after the formation of the NADC in October 1979, the Northern Territory representative Dr Ella Stack convinced her fellow board members to introduce a new award that focussed specifically on the achievements of younger Australians. The inaugural winner, youth unemployment worker Julie Sochacki, was named Young Australian of the Year in January 1980. The NADC coordinated the announcement with the Victorian Australia Day Council, which choose the Australian of the Year for the last time. The following year, the NADC assumed responsibility for both awards. Sochacki was described as a ‘student nurse drop-out’ who set up a volunteer employment bureau to help those who, like herself, were struggling to find a job. When the Federal Government began financing her enterprise in 1977 she found work for 165 young people within a year.

During the first decade of the Young Australian of the Year award a prominent theme was triumph over adversity, as four of those honoured had overcome disability to excel in various ways. Two made their mark in the sporting arena, including wheelchair athletes Peter Hill and Deahnne McIntyre, while Michael Waldock and Brenden Borellini were an inspiration to the vision and hearing impaired. Waldock lost his sight as a teenager, but after being given a CB radio for his sixteenth birthday he began working for the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard. He monitored radio signals seven days a week and contributed to 160 sea rescues in thirty months.91 Brenden Borellini overcame a double disability and was the first deaf and blind student in Australia to be integrated into the standard high school system. Interestingly, another early Young Australian award went to Marty Gauvin, a computer expert and entrepreneur, who developed commercially successful software that was designed to make computers more accessible to the vision impaired.

Although a significant number of Australians of the Year have a background in science, this is less common for the Young Australian of the Year. Astronomer Bryan Gaensler, who was honoured in 1999, believes this is not surprising: ‘scientists take longer to achieve, especially those working in the medical sciences.’92 Gaensler graduated in Physics from the University of Sydney with a perfect score of 100 per cent. During his subsequent PhD research, he showed that supernova remnants were aligned with the magnetic field of the Milky Way, forming ‘cosmic compasses.’93 Only two other Young Australians of the Year excelled in science, including palaeontologist Scott Hocknull (2002), and schoolgirl biologist Anna Bown (1994). Similarly, only four winners of the Young Australian of the Year award have been honoured for creative endeavours, including writer Paul Radley (1981), conductor Simone Young (1986), pianist Rebecca Chambers (1996) and filmmaker Khoa Do (2005). This might be indicative of the time it takes to mature as an artist: whereas a sportsperson’s career might be winding up by the age of thirty, an opera singer’s career has hardly begun. Unsurprisingly therefore, twelve out of thirty Young Australians have excelled in a range of sports, including four swimmers, three athletes (two in wheelchairs), and individual achievers in rugby, archery, hockey, tennis and motorcycle racing.

The Young Australian of the Year award has had a far greater emphasis on community service than the Australian of the Year award. The inaugural winner Julie Sochacki was the first many whose volunteer community work or commitment to important social issues was outstanding. Some, like Sochacki, worked in youth orientated programs, including Asian Tsunami survivor Trisha Broadbridge (2006) and Indigenous youth advocate Tania Major (2007). Hugh Evans (2004) focussed on international humanitarian aid, while James Fitzpatrick (2001) applied himself to the challenges of rural health. Nova Peris (1997) was the first Aboriginal Australian to win an Olympic Gold medal as part of the women’s hockey team in 1996. Peris also undertook important community work as a volunteer motivational speaker to improve the self-esteem of children in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. She is one of four Indigenous Australians to be named Young Australian of the Year, joining rugby league captain Mark Ella, Cathy Freeman and Tania Major.