Now that the national jubilation for the award of the 2023 Australian of the Year to Taryn Brumfitt has subsided, it might be time to review whether the gong is fit for purpose, if it ever was. If, like me, your reaction was along the lines of a mystified ‘Who? What?’ to the announcement that the award would be going to Ms Brumfitt, a zaftig lady representing something called the ‘body image movement’, then the answer to its relevance, after years of woke decline, may not be all that favourable.
There was a time, long ago, when the Australian of the Year award might have meant something to most Australians by sometimes going to recognisable and widely admired Australians such as Test cricket captains (Alan Border 1989, Mark ‘Tubby’ Taylor 1999, Steve Waugh 2004) and other successful sportspeople (Dawn Fraser 1964, Jack Brabham 1966, Lionel Rose 1968, Evonne Goolagong 1971, Shane Gould 1972, Robert de Castella 1983, Cathy Freeman 1998, Pat Rafter 2002). Popular singers also made the grade – The Seekers in 1967, John Farnham in 1987 and Lee Kernaghan in 2008.
The award, which dates to 1960, has, however, always had a largely elitist flavour, from when it was initially run out of Victoria, with heavy Melbourne Establishment links, before Canberra took it over in 1975. The award’s early decades were dominated by ‘worthy’ Australians of high social status, professionals from the scientific/administrative elite (scientists, ten of them from the field of medicine, have taken home sixteen of the titles to date) whilst the truckies and tradies of Australia have been expected to supply the applause.
The award served the elite’s purpose of validating their cultural preferences, and publicly repudiating the fabled ‘anti-intellectualism’ of Australia, by going all ‘cultural cringe’. So, opera and ballet featured early on with Dame Joan Sutherland (1961) and Robert Helpmann (1965) flying the flag for high culture whilst conductor Bernard Heinze completed the establishment Arts trifecta in 1974. Nobel Laureate Patrick White (1973) represented (proper) literature even though his work is dense and difficult (I narrowly avoided defeat by The Aunt’s Story back in uni English Lit classes; Voss would have completely sunk me) and remains widely unread unlike, say, the Colleen McCulloughs and Bill Brysons of the popular Australian literature world.
Although men of the cloth were not overlooked (Cardinal Norman Gilroy in 1970 and Archbishop Peter Hollingworth in 1991), with only two out of 64 awards to date going to professional Christians, the clergy remain under-represented for a nominally Christian country. Cardinal George Pell, a conservative Catholic priest had snowball’s chance of making it three for the spiritual side of Australia.
Likewise, the military, despite claims to the contrary, have also been short-changed over the journey with only four top soldiers making it. Three of them were certainly meritorious – Major-General Alan Stretton (for managing the Cyclone Tracy cleanup) in 1975, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop (military surgeon and WW2 POW) in 1976, and Lieutenant-General Peter Cosgrove (Commander of the International Force for East Timor) in 2001. The fourth, however, was the result of the forces of woke advancing on all fronts and, in 2016, breaching the khaki heartlands. That was the year Lieutenant-General David Morrison was deemed award-worthy for his “contribution to gender equality, diversity and inclusion”.
Aborigines in pole position
The real heavyweights of the award, however, have been Aborigines whose skin pigmentation confers award advantage. Lionel Rose (1968) was the first (but there were donuts for his contemporary, Johnny Famechon, who was also an internationally successful pugilist but who had the misfortune of not being black). Evonne Goolagong was another Aboriginal first in her sport (and therefore award-worthy, unlike Margaret Court, despite the latter’s distinguished record). Adam Goodes (2014) was a diversity pick. True, he did deservedly win two Brownlows but four white footballers – Haydn Bunton Snr (1931, 1932, 1935), Dick Reynolds (1934, 1937, 1938), Bobby Skilton (1959, 1963, 1968) and Ian Stewart (1965, 1966, 1971) – all went one better without an award. Cathy Freeman (1998) qualified, unlike her successful Olympian and contemporary, the not-black hurdler Sally Pearson).
It could, however, be the end of the run for Indigenous sports stars, given the radical left/black opposition to Australia Day (sorry, Invasion Day) with which the Australian of the Year award is traditionally associated. Indigenous women’s cricketer Ash Gardner might otherwise have gotten a look in (she is triple-malted super extra diverse, having the correct chromosomes, the right concentration of melanin and the de rigeur choice of having a female for her partner) but her outspoken opposition to Australia’s national day (“the beginning of genocide, massacres and dispossession”, “a day of hurt and mourning”) would disqualify her being recognised on Australia Day.
An Australian of the Year award to Ms Gardner would see woke heads swivel uncontrollably, knocking their halos awry – the woke must fete a black Australian who denigrates white colonial Australian history and culture but how could that be done on a day that celebrates that same history and culture. What a woke PR flapdoodle! At least Gardner can console herself for her colonial victimhood with her contract worth $558,000 for one month’s work in the Indian Women’s Premier League playing the game brought to the colonies by Britain.
To the three Indigenous sporting Australians of the Year, we can add five in non-sports fields – Galarrwuy Yunupingu, (native title activist) in 1978, Neville Bonner (first Aboriginal parliamentarian) in 1979, Lowitja O’Donoghue (chair of ATSIC) in 1984, Mandawuy Yunupingu (frontman of Yothu Yindi) in 1992, and the ubiquitous Mick Dodson (‘Indigenous leader’) in 2009. That makes it eight Aboriginals out of 64 recipients, a hit rate of 12.5 per cent, some four times higher than Indigenous representation in the general population. This over-representation is unsurprising given how the Australian of the Year award is run by the National Australia Day Council (NADC), a government ‘social enterprise’ which has demonstrated great fealty to woke issues such as Aboriginality and immigration/multiculturalism taking centre stage on Australia Day itself.
Quick multiple choice question – the favoured status of Aboriginals for Australian of the Year is because (A) it is a noble attempt to address ‘structural racism’, (B) it lifts the heavy yoke of colonial oppression, (C) Aborigines are superior to non-Aborigines in every way (the Alice Springs awkwardness can be blamed on A and/or B) and thus deserve all the award recognition. Quiet down there in the back – there is no option (D) [woke grandstanding], you heartless bigot.
The woke quick-step
Apart from three more scientists and two cave-diving rescuers in the last seven years of the award, it is now a showpiece for woke virtue by self-appointed experts in identity politics bloated with their own woke self-righteousness. So, in the last decade, race has been the woke issue that has done it for Adam Goodes (2014) whilst domestic violence (against women only, note) filled the sails for Rosie Batty in 2015. Sexual assault continued this theme in 2021 for Grace Tame, the surly, purse-lipped activist who advanced her cause by being ostentatiously uncivil to Scott Morrison in front of the cameras. Perhaps she got the nod because the woke, female-dominated NADC (eleven of whose twelve staff are female) saw an opportunity to make life uncomfortable for a (nominal) conservative and male prime minister. Still, sexual violence is not all downside – Tame’s 12 months of fame and petulance won her a book contract, her biography (The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner) demonstrating how the award can monetise a grim social problem.
Women’s body issues was the diversity shtick that has worked in the current year for Taryn Brumfitt, the “fiercely passionate thought leader” behind the Body Image Movement (which “celebrates body diversity in shape, size, ethnicity and ability”, thus ticking all sorts of woke boxes) being the latest iteration of the ‘It’s OK to be Fat’ movement in which a land whale with the body mass of a prime-mover is actually a beautiful and healthy thing, not the ticket to an early death from chronic disease.
The Diversity-Equity-Inclusion vibe worked for Lieutenant-General Morrison in 2016 whilst in 2022, Dylan Alcott, (“Paralympian and advocate for disability”) met the criteria for disability as a woke category. Disability shouldn’t really be shoe-horned into that league, however. In my experience, having shared a workplace with disabled workers, they wanted to be treated equally, no more or no less, judged on merit. Being singled out for praise on the basis of an “identity” as a disabled person was treated by them as patronising. Alcott, however, clearly had the ‘diversity’ thing on his side and met the need for the disability box to be ticked by the award gatekeepers.
‘Social issues’ with a prominent identity-politics twist look set to keep their activists on a winning streak in the current climate, with woke capture of the commanding heights of Australian culture now thoroughly entrenched. The Australian of the Year award has increasingly become a vehicle for niche social issues about which all good people should agonise. Does Australia have social problems such as sexual violence? Yes. Is Australian of the Year the appropriate place to address them? No. The award should be about celebrating what is good about Australia and its people, not a social engineering exercise for public lamentations and the rending of garments about its failings.
Broken beyond repair
There will never be another good old-fashioned, popular Australian of the Year like Hoges (Paul Hogan, 1985), or country music legend Slim Dusty, with his songs about the simple pleasures of mateship (the closest Slim came was the consolation prize of Senior Australian of the Year, an award no one cares about, in 1999), or (pale, male, stale) cricket captains (although the eco-doom preaching of the current one would pass muster). Those days are gone and the award will continue to generate a big fat ‘Who cares’ if the reign of the social issues activists endures.
The Australian of the Year award is broken beyond repair. It always had a structural flaw (it was elitist), it has been subject to the wear and tear of arbitrariness (why a Johnny Farnham but no J O’K, or The Seekers but no AC/DC) and the temptation to exploit it for social/political passions of the moment (Tim Flannery got it in 2007) has been hard to resist at times. But now, thanks to the relentless forces of wokeism, it is broken beyond repair. Perhaps the award would be best retired from active service, but there is a wretched bureaucratic momentum to the thing (someone has to process those 3,500 nominations each year) and it serves too valuable a purpose for the political and woke elite to be scrapped.
The award could be made relevant again but that would require a government to tackle the woke feelgoodery by appointing an appropriate NAQDC chair and board. The current NADC board members have thoroughly woke value systems. They are not a collective of objective minds who deliberate on the award with the wisdom of seven Solomons – rather, they are jumped-up, woke, social engineers hell-bent on ‘educating’ and ‘improving’ the socially and politically deficient citizens of Australia. Mind you, the Australian of the Year minders have played their social engineering hand rather well – dare to criticise any woke winner and you will be seen as implicitly deriding their cause/issue and thus you will be peremptorily dismissed as a sexist, misogynist, ageist, ableist, fat-shaming sizeist, a living, mouth-breathing Trumptard! You know the drill.
The Brahmin Elite who have always had the lion’s share of Australian of the Year awards have been usurped by the new Woke Elite and, now, the damage has permanently incapacitated them. Were it a racehorse, the screens would be placed around it for a merciful euthanising. The Australian of the Year award, it’s knackered.