Features Australia

Time’s up for Aussie of the Year

But who will pull the plug?

12 February 2022

9:00 AM

12 February 2022

9:00 AM

We hardly watch free-to-air TV these days. The choice between relentless progressive whining on the ABC and offensive puerile reality shows on the other channels means that it’s a no-brainer. (We have watched the men’s and women’s cricket comps, I admit.)

For some strange reason, we had the tele on when the Australian of the Year for 2022 was announced. Thankfully, it went to a worthy recipient, Dylan Alcott – international tennis champion. His speech was truly inspirational. He refuses to see himself as a victim, rather striving to achieve the best he can. He even talked about making a good income and paying taxes and being the luckiest person in Australia, perhaps the world.

(I understand that there has been criticism of him from the disability community. But isn’t that the way, these days?)

The contrast with last year’s winner, Grace Tame, could not have been starker. In her case, we had a self-referencing victim/activist using her position to score as many political points as she could, as well as potentially setting herself up for well-remunerated positions in the future.

Mind you, it was not entirely her fault. She should never have been nominated (by the Tasmanian government).  Her issue was that victims of the type of crime that she had endured were prohibited from talking about the matter after a successful conviction of the perpetrator. Her beef was perfectly legitimate and it was up to the Tasmanian government to sort it out – which it did.

But the trouble was that this sort of experience, tragic as it was for her, did not qualify her to be Australian of the Year.  But with time on her hands – something which many former recipients of AOTY simply didn’t have – she decided to widen the scope of her campaign, including becoming an official enemy of the Morrison government. Hers was a quest to stamp out all sexual abuse, all discriminatory treatment of women.

The culmination of her year as AOTY was the surly reception she gave to the Prime Minister (and Mrs Morrison) at an official lunch. Rather than simply accepting that her rudeness was a mistake, she doubled down by telling us (via Twitter, of course) that ‘the survival of abuse culture is dependent on submissive smiles and self-defeating surrenders. It is dependent on hypocrisy’. There you have it.

It’s worthwhile outlining the criteria here that are supposed to determine AOTY. It looks relatively straightforward. ‘Significant contribution to the Australian community and nation; an inspirational role model for the Australian community; demonstrated excellence in their field’. It’s hard to see how Tame fitted the bill.

In more recent years, the process has been driven by the states and territories.  Each one nominates a person of the year for the state (as well as on oldie, youngie and local hero). The AOTY is then selected from this list. Some of the recent problems with the selection of AOTY stem from this arrangement.

Over the years – the award has been going since 1960 – there has been a mixture of types, with sporting champions the most common choice. It’s questionable whether some of the selections would be made today.

I love the fact that Alan Bond was AOTY in 1978 – that was before his jail sentence, of course. Peter Hollingworth also held the title but this was before he was effectively pushed out of his role as governor-general following the allegation that he had failed to deal effectively with earlier cases of child abuse.

Actor Geoffrey Rush also was AOTY in 2012, well before all that kerfuffle about his performance in King Lear (allegations that were never proved but would have obviously knocked him out of the running).

Indeed, the first recipient of the award, Sir Macfarlane Burnet (who had won the Nobel Prize and was a leading virologist), went a bit wacky later in his life, writing numerous books (more like tirades). He was emphatically anti-nuclear and also concluded that cancer would never be cured and there was no point making efforts to do so.

As for the sporting stars, they are a mixed bag. Two Australian cricket captains, Alan Border and Steve Waugh, were AOTY. One now advertises foot massaging devices and the other (subsidised) solar panels.

Others include Dawn Fraser (a bit of a rabble-rouser, so good); Lionel Rose (good); Evonne Goolagong (good); Shane Gould (good); Rob de Castella (remember him?); Kay Cottee (now advertises insurance); Cathy Freeman (good); Pat Rafter (who?); and Adam Goodes.

Of course, Goodes was not really selected because he was an excellent footballer. It was his portrayal as a victim of racism and advocacy of Indigenous rights that got him the gong. He is another example of the self-referencing victim/activist who have become the more typical stereotype of recent AOTY.

Rosie Batty and Lieutenant-General David Morrison fit into this group, and it’s interesting that Morrison (who decided to campaign aainst the ‘sexist’ use of the word ‘guys’) has subsequently sunk without trace since being AOTY.

Quite a few AOTYs have come and gone without anyone much noticing – generally the seriously accomplished professional who didn’t have any spare time to devote to the position. Examples include plastic surgeon Fiona Wood; immunologist Ian Frazer, biomedical scientist, Alan Mackay-Sim; quantum physicist, Michelle Simmons; and eye surgeon (and rabid sugar opponent), James Muecke.

I particularly like the 2019 choice – the two blokes who rescued some young football players stuck in a flooded cave in Thailand. Brave to be sure and what a good outcome. But what was their message as joint AOTY – take up dangerous cave diving and feel a sense of satisfaction? But they had been nominated by Western Australia and they were the best in the list at hand.

But here’s the thing: the real conclusion is that it’s time to hang up the boots on the Australian of the Year award. Plenty of countries manage well enough without such an award – so can we.

It’s simply not possible for one person to represent the achievements and aspirations of a nation. And more recently, it is more often than not a position that creates division and opposition.

Reflecting the wokeness of the era, we should expect the state and territory councils to increasingly serve up lists of acrimonious activists from which to choose. In other words, it’s likely to get worse rather than better, notwithstanding the commendable awarding of AOTY to Dylan Alcott.

It’s just unclear who is going to draw the curtain on the whole shebang.

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