Arise Sir Bob of FOMM – Senior Australian of the Year

Readers of Aboriginal or Torres Strait descent are warned that the following text contains names of deceased indigenous people.


Image: ‘The Accolade,’ a painting by E.B. (Edmund Blair) Leighton (1853-1922), online courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Gee, wow – I’m speechless. It’s just as well I didn’t wear my “I am not Australian” T-shirt (in English and Arabic). I’d just like to thank my pet fox terrier Spot, who was my idol and a great motivating force in my life. She taught me to always watch my back. Only yesterday I was thinking that Australia needs more maverick voices in the media, people who are not shackled to editorial policies, politics or commercial imperatives. I realise what might have got the panel’s attention was Friday on My Mind’s impertinent suggestion that all those named Senior Australian of the Year still alive and intellectually sharp could run the country better than anyone currently on holidays waiting for parliament to resume.

I was wrenched from this splendid dream, about to take the stage at a lavish black-tie Australia Day function in Canberra (idly wondering why I wasn’t wearing trousers), when the dog barked. It’s a rare thing for the dog to bark so I had to go and investigate. It was nothing, or possum nothing, but I checked the doors anyway and then went to make toast.

Last night the National Australia Day Council (NADC) broke from a pattern of favouring sports and arts, naming physicist Professor Michelle Simmons as Australian of the Year. Last year the committee also went for science, choosing Alan Mackay-Sim, a biomedical scientist specialising in spinal cord injuries.

Professor Simmons, who leads the quantum physics department at the University of New South Wales, was named at a ceremony in Canberra last night.

The Australian of the Year has been dominated over 58 years by the fields of sports (15), arts (10) and medical science (9).

Previously the Australia Day awards have favoured high-profile sports people, including Adam Goodes (AFL), Lionel Rose (boxing), Robert de Castella (marathon runner), Evonne Goolagong (tennis), Cathy Freeman (athletics) and Steve Waugh (cricket).

Musicians, writers and artists too have worn the mantle, so as dreams go, mine was not so far-fetched. Winners from the Arts have included Arthur Boyd, Patrick White, Sir Robert Helpmann, Dame Joan Sutherland, John Farnham, Mandawuy Yunupingu, The Seekers and Lee Kernaghan.

Results have not always been as clear cut. In the 1970s, the rival Canberra Australia Day Council emerged, resulting in two individuals being named on four occasions. This happened first in 1975 (Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry, Sir John Cornforth, and the man in charge of cleaning up after Cyclone Tracy in Darwin, Major General Alan Stretton). They did it again in 1977, choosing Country Women’s Association president Dame Reigh Roe and Sir Murray Tyrrell, secretary to six governors-general.

In 1978 panellists picked candidates from seemingly opposite sides of the tracks – entrepreneur and solo yachtsman Alan Bond and Aboriginal land rights activist Gallarwuy Yunupingu. The first Aboriginal elected to Parliament, Senator Neville Bonner, and naturalist Harry Butler tied for honours in 1979.

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser put an end to this in 1979, establishing the National Australia Day Council (NADC). The awards were broadened that year to choose a young Australian who had made outstanding contributions to society. The committee chose community service volunteer Julie Sochacki for her work with unemployed people. They followed up in 1980, choosing quadriplegic athlete Peter Hill for his swimming feats at Paralympian events. This year the NADC chose Matildas soccer star Samantha Kerr, 24, as Young Australian of the Year.

But what’s in it for us old folk?

It took the International Year of Older Persons in 1999 to motivate then PM John Howard to add a new category to the Australia Day Awards. He chose Slim Dusty as the first Senior Australian of the Year. There can’t be too much argument about the choice of Slim as the inaugural elder, still pushing his career forward into a new century. He signed his first record deal in 1946 and was still performing in his 70s. Slim released his 100th album, Looking Forward, Looking Back, the year after he won the award.

Howard himself crossed over to the 60+ side of life in 1999 so the issue may have been weighing on his mind. It would have to be said the 18 recipients of the Senior Australian of the Year award so far come from a broader cross-section of the community than the overall award winners.

State winners of the 2018 Senior Australian of the Year awards included a pioneering surgeon, a scientist and diabetes specialist, a hearing health specialist, a biophysicist and an anti-elder abuse campaigner. Each state and territory selects its winner in four categories and the NADC judges all 32 candidates to select the Australia Day Awards (there is now also a Local Hero award).

Last night biophysicist Dr Graham Farquhar, 70, was named Senior Australian of the Year for his work on food security and feeding the world’s population. Dr Farquhar has won many international awards for his research in agriculture and climate change over the past 38 years.

The Senior Australian of the Year awards and others are just one facet of Republican pride in our national day (whether it is ever moved to a more appropriate date or not). The Australian government also doles out more than 700 imperially-inspired honours for services to professions and communities.

As the Sydney Morning Herald quite rightly pointed out last year, men are far more likely to win gongs than women, with men up to 20 times more likely to be nominated in their chosen field.  Not to labour the point, but gender bias seems evident in the Australian of the Year Award, with 48 men chosen and 14 women.

Those of you who proofread for a living may have noticed I referred to Australia as a Republic, when it is in fact a constitutional monarchy.

One may remember (with a sharp intake of breath), Australia Day 2015 when then Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who had re-introduced the system of Imperial honours in 2014, dubbed His Royal Highness Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh (and retired Air Chief Marshall Angus Lawson), as Knights of the Order of Australia.

It is timely to now recognise this as a Trumpian turn of events, particularly Abbott defending his position as a ‘captain’s call,’ dismissing the social media furore as ‘electronic grafitti.’

Abbott‘s decision to recognise Phil for his years of public service (he is patron or president of 800+ organisations), did not help his support in the polls. Abbott reintroduced imperial awards in March 2014, resulting in outgoing governor-general Quentin Bryce becoming Dame Quentin. Incoming governor-general Peter Cosgrove was also knighted.

After Tony Abbott lost the LNP leadership, pro-Republican leader Malcolm Turnbull quietly re-removed Knights and Dames from the honours list in November 2015. Phil and the others got to keep their gongs, but safe to say we will never again see imperial honours in Australia.

Those with a liking for Morris dancing, Game of Thrones and the Age of Chivalry might miss the mediaeval trappings of a good knighting.

It’s sad in a way that we will never again see a Master of Ceremonies decked in the court finery of velvet, silk and lace, dubbing an erstwhile Sir by laying a sword on his shoulder.

Arise, Sir Bob of FOMM.


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