The evolution of Australia’s top honour

Tracey Ferrier
(Australian Associated Press)


When the Australian of the Year awards were born 60 years ago, the nation was still carrying a rather large colonial chip on its shoulder and had something to prove to the world.

For the first decade of the accolade’s existence, international success appeared to be a prerequisite.

The inaugural recipient was Nobel Prize winning immunologist Sir Macfarlane Burnet.

Then came opera singer Joan Sutherland, who couldn’t make it home to accept the award because she was busy receiving an adoring five-minute ovation after making her debut in Rome.

In the years that followed, the nation’s top honour went to a series of recipients who’d made their names on the international stage: Olympic swim champion Dawn Fraser, celebrated actor, ballet dancer and director Robert Helpmann, adored Aussie folk quartet The Seekers, to name a few.

In praising Burnet as the inaugural recipient, the editors of The Age made no bones about what the award was really about back then: “We are beginning to count for something in the world, and we should be intensely proud of that.”

Six decades on, a glance back at past winners shows how the awards have matured with the nation.

There’s no doubt that international success still counts for much with everyday Australians, who are responsible for nominating candidates.

But the list is now also heavy with inspirational role models lauded for their domestic success and endeavours.

In 1975 Australians chose Alan Stretton, the army officer who managed the mammoth recovery task after Cyclone Tracy killed 71 people and devastated 80 per cent of Darwin the previous year.

In 1977, they chose Country Women’s Association president Raigh Roe, who took a particular interest in the plight of Aboriginal woman and introduced leadership and nutrition schools for indigenous girls in the late 1960s.

The next year native title activist Galarrwuy Yunupingu won the title as the first non-sporting indigenous recipient.

Others would follow: Neville Bonner, the first Aborigine to sit in federal parliament; Lowitja O’Donoghue, the inaugural chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission; Yothu Yindi singer Mandawuy Yunupingu, who used hit songs to tell Australia’s whitewashed and forgotten indigenous history.

In the 1980s, there was a relapse of sorts, when award organisers copped flak for a run of already-famous recipients: Paul Hogan, John Farnham, cricket captain Allan Border, and champion marathon runner Robert de Castella.

Sydney Morning Herald editors at the time complained loudly about the perceived shift to “celebrity winners”, and that the nation was lusting after heroes, but only certain sorts.

From the mid-1990s onwards, the accolade has gone to a broadly representative mix of national heroes, fairly evenly spread across the arts, sport, science and medicine.

Other recent recipients, like family violence campaigner Rosie Batty, show the awards continue to mature and can hand “ordinary” people a megaphone to spark difficult national conversations.

Batty received the nation’s top honour in January 2015, not quite a year after she watched her estranged, abusive partner murder their son Luke on a Melbourne cricket oval.

“For me, I just immersed myself in the work that needed to be done on this issue. It probably helped me to survive, at a time in my life when I just wanted to die,” she says.

“I was one of the first ordinary people to get it. It has moved beyond expecting it to be given to a celebrity, and has shifted to the real world and I think that’s been the journey of the award.”

For 2007 recipient, climate scientist and global warming activist Tim Flannery, it was also a “transformational” experience that certainly handed him a bigger megaphone.

He says he always tried to be an Australian of the Year for all Australians, despite the political contention around his field of work.

“That doesn’t mean you don’t comment on government policy; it means you treat everyone fairly.”

Despite the platform he was handed back then to amplify his climate change warnings, Prof Flannery says Australia appears to have a way to go to comprehend the existential threat.

“It’s one of the great burdens of being a scientist really – to see what’s coming for the country I love so much, and have represented as Australian of the Year,” he says.

“And seeing Australians not waking up to it – it’s very hard to watch.”

The 2020 Australian of the Year awards will be presented in Canberra on Saturday, the eve of Australia Day.


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