Weekly Poll: Who cares about Australian of the Year?

A country music singer that many (most?) Australians have never heard of is Australian of the Year. Does anyone care?

Chairman Rudd reckons:

Lee Kernaghan’s music resonates with every Australian by connecting us all to the spirit of the bush, but more importantly he gives hope and pride to those on the land when they need inspiration most.

He has rolled up his sleeves to make a real difference for those in need in rural Australia.

Pull the other one, Kevin.

OK, Kernaghan has certainly worked hard to lift morale in the drought-stricken bush. But when 98% of us live in urban areas, and 30-odd percent were born elsewhere, can we really say that nasal, droney bush ballads represent our world?

In fact, does a concept like “Australian of the Year” even matter in 21st Century Australia?

Australian of the Year was satirised so well by Chris Lilley in We Can Be Heroes. “Worthiness” is about certain narrow, “respectable”, backward-looking middle-class values.

[Edit: And then there’s the Australia Day Honours, giving out gongs to citizens who’ve done good things.]

In the Sydney Morning Herald today, journalist David Marr wonders why there aren’t any real artists in the list.

Is there anything for Cate Blanchett as she lines up for another Oscar? No, nothing. Or John Mawunrdjul, the greatest of the bark painters after his recent Paris triumph? Not a thing. What about Richard Tognetti, the creative genius of the Australian Chamber Orchestra? Again nothing.

There isn’t a novelist on the 2008 list. This year the nation could have tackled the backlog of great writers unhonoured by Yarralumla. But Helen Garner, Peter Carey, Shirley Hazzard, Alex Miller, Kate Grenville and Tim Winton — among many others — have still to be recognised… Republicans among them may feel now is not the time to accept such honours, but clearly the business of writing isn’t high on the list of achievements officially blessed in today’s Australia…

23 awards were made in the category of the arts, [but] closer examination reveals very few of these distinguished men and women are actually artists. God bless them for being patrons, collectors, administrators, board members, fund-raisers, producers, publishers, gallery owners, researchers, teachers, historians, agents, therapists, curators, keen amateurs and church organists. But where are the professional artists?

Only one of real — and quirky — stature is honoured in the list: Peter Travis, kite maker and sculptor who deserves a place in the pantheon of great Australians for creating the Speedo.

And while I haven’t ploughed through that list, I wonder if there’s anyone who represents our future. No, not people like Young Australian of the Year, motorcycle racing hero Casey Stoner. I mean the people caving out a new vision of Australia for when we live in a wildly-interconnected information world, and when China and India are the world powers.

So, two questions for you on Australia Day 2008:

  1. Does Australian of the Year matter any more? Vote at the website.
  2. If it does, who do you reckon would make a great Australian of the Year? (And this time, let it not be Dannii Minogue, OK?

Results from last time: Without a doubt, Dame Edna Everage should be our next Governor-General, followed by Ja’mie King. God bless you, Australia, always picking a bloke in a frock!

[poll id=”18″]

12 Replies to “Weekly Poll: Who cares about Australian of the Year?”

  1. Sorry to seem pedantic, but there really are two issues here.

    Firstly, the Australia day honours that David Marr has written about, and secondly, the Australian of the Year Awards. (Marr of all people would know that the Australian of the Year in 1973 was Patrick White!)

    The reason that it is important, is that the process is different for each.

    See http://www.australianoftheyear.gov.au/pages/index.asp for the Australian of the Year, and http://www.itsanhonour.gov.au/ for the Australia Day Honours.

    The main difference is that the Australian of the year has a much more public role, and is the “face” of the Country, whereas the Honours recipients can just get on with the good work they have already been doing.

    So the ideal Australian of the Year would seem to be someone who has a public profile already, and uses that to help others.

    There may well be some cross-over. A perusal of the list of Australians of the Year shows plenty with Honours as well.

    The list is an interesting read: Steve Waugh, Dick Smith, Cathy Freeman, Arthur Boyd, Dame Joan Sutherland, and The Seekers all appear. As does Alan Bond, who is the shortest entry on the list, and whose biography page is empty.

    The longest entry on the list is “The Rt Hon Richard Gardiner Casey, Baron of Berwick, Victoria and of the City of Westminister KG GCMG CH.” And he gets a biography, too.

    So Kernaghan is a deserving recipient, and not because of his music, but as the latter part of the quote you opened with points out: “more importantly he gives hope and pride to those on the land when they need inspiration most. He has rolled up his sleeves to make a real difference for those in need in rural Australia.”

    I may not like his songs much, but I know who he is and admire the work he is doing.

  2. @Simon Slade: Absolutely. I have failed to clearly differentiate between Australian of the Year and the Australia Day Honours list. Mea culpa, mea magna culpa! I’ll amend the post momentarily and mark the point where I change gears.

    Kernaghan has indeed done Good Work. It’ll be interesting to see what he does with the role. Tim Flannery says [can’t find the article just now] that he offered to brief the PM about environmental issues but in fact never spoke to John Howard during his entire time as Oz of the Year. Though he certainly made good use of the title in the media.

    Anyway, the Snarky Platypus and I will return to writing our new national anthem… stand by!

  3. I wondered at the time how Tim Flannery had managed to make Australian of the Year in the Howard era and how surprised he was going to be when he found out he was expected to captain the PM’s eleven.

    I do think both Australian of the Year and the Australia Day awardees can be very effective when they’re given to the right people for the right reasons. Fiona Stanley, a few years ago, was an excellent choice, and she used the role to promote the importance of early childhood intervention in a way that made a real difference to people’s lives.

    I would have no problem with Lee Kernaghan getting an Australia Day award for his work as a country singer — I think that this kind of work for the community (whichever community or section thereof) is exactly the sort of thing these awards should recognise. But I’d question that he’s made enough of a contribution to the country as a whole to get Australian of the Year. Paul Kelly would have been a better choice in my view if you were going to pick a popular singer — on the grounds that he has a lot more to say. (Incidentally, Mandawuy Yunupingu was another singer who was AotY).

    I’m a republican, but I don’t have a problem with either the giving or receiving of Australia Day honours. Yes, currently they’re nominally handed out by the Queen, but in reality they’re community awards for service to the community and will almost certainly continue in some form or another if Australia becomes a republic. As such I think they’re a Good Thing.

  4. I’m most nonplussed at the Young Australian of the Year award. In a time where the country and the world are finally starting to wake up to environmental issues — we get a bloke whose only achievement is chewing up as much fossil fuel as possible in search of greater and greater speed? What a great role model.

    I don’t get it.

    Plus — four out of four are white men. Yawn.

  5. @lauredhel: I guess Casey Stoner got the Young Oz 2008 gig for the reasons Simon Slade gives: that he’s got a profile and can help inspire young folk to “achieve something in their lives”.

    I personally reckon that motor racing is a self-indulgent wank. If people want to put their lives at risk and burn off tons of money driving a high-performance vehicle, then let’s pour it into a solid, competitive commercial space program.

    The list of recipients of Young Australian of the Year certainly doesn’t match the real demographic of Australian youth. So how do we fix that?

    Factors I can think of:

    • Are Australian of the Year selection committees are largely white and middle-class, so only know about people in their social and media circles?
    • Are Australians of a non-Anglo background aware of the honour? Do they consider it important? Do they need to be encouraged to nominate?
    • Are Anglo Australians able to achieve more, and therefore get noticed, because it’s easier for them to advance in their chosen field of achievement — whether that be motorcycle racing or Healing the Sick?
    • Anything else?
  6. When you have some time, can you set out what you mean by “middle class”, especially when using it as a pejorative term? I’ve noticed you using over the last couple of days, and it tends to be one of those adjectives that the user presumes is self-explanatory.

    Who are these people? What’s wrong with them? Are any other classes the preferred alternative? Why? Does David Marr harbour any more or less backward-looking middle class values just because his idea of worthiness, ie a “real” artist, is different to somebody else’s?

    Hope you can address this at some time — Joe Orton once wrote “if all else fails, fall back on class hatred” — your writing tends to be more substantial than that, and it’d be a shame to see you seeming to fall to an easy out.

  7. @B Smith: Oh good point! I have indeed tended to use the phrase “middle-class values” without explanation. While it’s great to be associated with Joe Orton, you’re right: it’s not helping my communication.

    Assuming the Muse strikes appropriately, I’ll make that my next substantial essay.

  8. (Sorry haven’t gone back through the comments, apologies for any duplication)

    Every year I yawn on Australia Day as yet another artist or sportsman gets the gong for AOTY. As if we don’t value our artists and sporting heroes enough on every single other day of the year.

    At risk of sounding bitter: what about an engineer winning it? Just once? Or a mathematician? Or a businessman? Or a nurse? Teacher? Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor? So, what do we really value in our yearly Australians? Singing songs, painting pictures, or actually doing stuff?

    At risk of going on a tangent, and possibly even conflicting my previous point: I’ll quite happily defend Casey Stoner and what he’s achieved. And 500cc GP motorcycle racing is an amazing sport that requires a unique combination of skill, nerve, and athleticism that is quite unmatched in the sporting world.

  9. @Alastair: A shame you didn’t read the comments ‘cos Simon Slade had some good points (as did others). His good one was separating Australian of the Year (“community ambassador” role) from the honours list (rewards for service).

    Re the variety of Oz of the Year, check the list:

    • Engineer? Mathematician? Well, none. Though there are plenty of doctors and medical scientists. Many medicos, in fact.
    • Businessman? Alan Bond 1978, Dick Smith 1986. Well, one out of two ain’t bad.
    • Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor? Lt Gen Peter Cosgrove 2001, Maj Gen Alan Stretton 1975 (rebuilding Darwin after Cyclone Tracey)

    Am I now arguing against my original point too…?

  10. Getting off topic here, but the popular perception of “science = medicine”, as reflected in the AOTY recipients anyway, is pretty tiresome after a while.

    Maybe that’s not a fair characterisation, due to sour grapes on my part. But for any given science story on the evening news I will give you 50% odds that it will be some medical breakthrough or study with dubious or surprising conclusions (“eating dirt is now good for you!”). Environment stories make up the bulk of the remainder.

    When I finished school and got admitted to electrical engineering, people would ask me what the exam entrance score was. Just about everyone was surprised when I said it was higher than medicine.

    Sorry for the rant, will try and keep that to own blog in future 🙂

  11. @Alastair: Rant wherever you please, sir! ‘Tis a good rant! I did notice that Australian of the Year does tend to be dominated by medicos. Is that because doctors have connections with everyone in the community and are good at playing The Establishment Game, while scientists and engineers tend to keep to their own?

    “Quick! It’s an emergency! Call a palaeontologist!” isn’t often heard.

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