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Our Bravest Award: The Australian of the Year

Catherine Russell

In the shadow of Commonwealth Bridge, along the foreshore of Lake Burley Griffin, stand plinths commemorating our Australians of the Year dating back to 1960.

It is an award that has attracted its fair share of controversy and commentary – the hallmarks that we have an award that we value greatly.

Yet it is evident reading the snapshot biographies back to 1960 that we needed the Australian of the Year Awards to understand who we were as much as who we are becoming.

After all, no other nation has a national award with such credibility that is backed by government and sponsors alike, and announced by the countries leader in an event watched by millions of Australians.

It was an award then conceived to be akin to the Oscars for ‘we [were] beginning to count for something in the world and we should be intensely proud of this fact.’

In the 1960’s it could have been an #Oscarssowhite or a ‘Man of the Year’ experiment but the people we have chosen as Australians of the Year illustrate that we have been braver than we realise.

From the very beginning when our international achievers were being acknowledged, the award was a flashpoint that brought together all that was good about Australia but also that which we needed to acknowledge within our society.

When immunologist Sir Mcfarlane Burnet was awarded the first Australian of the Year in 1960, Harold Blair the renowned indigenous singer and activist was entertaining the luncheon. Blair took the opportunity to subtly remind those in attendance that Australia had a history prior to 1788.

The following year Joan Sutherland was award the Australian of the Year title signalling this would be anything but a role that would just reinforce a narrow view of Australia.

Today the plinths chart Australians that are sportspeople, philanthropists, business people, inventors, scientists, artists, academics, diverse in culture, gender and beliefs and since 1993, champions for causes and issues that can help shape Australian society.

It is why Rosie Batty as our 2015 Australian of the Year was so profound. I like many I didn’t want her year to be over.

I wanted her to keep on being our Rosie – advocating with such empathy and resolve; popping up in the media reminding us to be courageous and to turn our lives and our fortunes and tragedies into something greater.

I was genuinely proud that Rosie was our Australian of the Year in 2015 and that she brought domestic violence to the fore so that real changes could be made. I was proud too, of what the Australian of the Year role had become; a vehicle for advocacy, inclusivity and generating debate.

To honour the achievement of individual Australians is one thing but to be a country that is brave enough to amplify the issues we need to talk about, as a nation is truly something else. And this makes me proud.

Our recent recipients have helped us understand youth mental illness (Professor Patrick McGorry) called on us to continue to be generous nation (Simon McKeon), made us view the arts as an integral part of our national character (Geoffery Rush), championed women (Ita Buttrose), helped us confront our racist undercurrents (Adam Goodes).

And it is right that at this moment in time, that through the appointment of David Morrison to the role in 2016, we broaden and amplify our national conversation about diversity.

“It is an extraordinary time to be an Australian,” The Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared on appointing Morrison to the role.

A point immediately challenged by our latest recipient in a sign of things to come.

“It is an extraordinary time to be an Australian, but I need to give it qualified agreement. For reasons beyond education and professional qualifications or willingness to contribute or a desire to be a part of our society … too many of our fellow Australians are denied the opportunity to reach their potential.

“It happens because of their gender, because of the god they believe in, because of their racial heritage, because they’re not able-bodied, because of their sexual orientation.”

And so a thread in our national conversation is electrified and amplified for the entire world to witness.

We often lament our political leaders, our sportsmen, where our nation is headed on many fronts but when it comes to appointing our Australians of the Year I think we are getting this right.

It is perhaps, an extraordinary time to be an Australian of the Year, when a nation sits up and listens to what you have to say, knowing it will be uncomfortable in may ways, but that we will all be the better for hearing it and thinking about it.

In the shadow of Commonwealth Bridge, along the foreshore of Lake Burley Griffin stand empty plinths awaiting their Australians, which begs the questions, what sort of nation are we yet to become? And who will challenge us?

To learn more about the Australians of the Year visit the website to learn more about the history of our national award read the compelling account by Dr Samuel Furphy. 

Catherine Russell

Catherine Russell is enthralled by public affairs in Canberra and the world at large; the issues that impact people from all walks of life; start memorable dinner party debates; fuel politics; create our advocates; and drive social media commentary. Consultant, mother and partner Catherine presents the HerCanberra perspective on the headlines. More about the Author