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Australian of the Year

Nick Bryant | 08:35 UK time, Monday, 19 January 2009

Great to see Chris Lilley getting the international recognition he so richly deserves for the comedy series, Summer Heights High, ABC's laugh-out-loud mockumentary set in a suburban high school. It's showing on HBO and BBC Three, and getting rave reviews. You can watch snippets here.

The almost-as-funny precursor to the series was We Can Be Heroes, which chronicled the search for the Australian of the Year. Filmed again in mockumentary style, it featured an eclectic cast of characters, all played by Lilley himself. There's a housewife from Western Australia born with one leg shorter than the other, who plans to roll from Perth to Uluru; there's the bespectacled Chinese physics prodigy who wants to leave the lab behind so he can star in a stage show about Aboriginal Australians, Indigeridoo; and there's the famous-for-five-minutes policeman from Queensland who saved a group of children drifting skyward in an inflatable bouncy castle - the ideal launch-pad, he reckons, for a lucrative career in motivational speaking and self-promotional merchandise.

Suffice to say, the real Australians of the Year are noticeably less comic, and have usually been drawn from the mainstream of Aussie life rather than plucked from its odd box. Now, with Australia Day fast approaching, we are close to finding out who will be this year's recipient.

Casting an eye over the previous 52 winners (you can get the full list here) offers an intriguing perspective on the Australian national character, which is both reinforcing and revelatory.

The world of sport is best represented, with 12 winners. So no surprises there. Three of those have been successful Australian cricket captains (Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh), and winning Olympians feature prominently. There are four gold medallists, although the country's most successful Olympian, Ian Thorpe, has so far missed out. The winter sports do not get a look-in, perhaps because of the regional and fragmentary nature of winter sports. Even the legendary John Eales, one of the few players to have won the Rugby World Cup twice, does not make the list.

The arts get what's perhaps a surprisingly good look-in, with 10 recipients. This is a particularly eclectic bunch, from the Nobel prize-winning author Patrick White to Paul Hogan, and from the internationally renowned opera star Joan Sutherland to John Farnham, the Cliff Richard of Australia.

Scientists are also well represented, with nine recipients (including three Nobel prizewinners). Proportionately, so, too, are the military, with three, and environmentalists, with three (the most recent being Tim Flannery, who used the platform offered by Australian of the Year to criticise the environmental policies of the former Howard government).

freeman_b203_ap.jpgSix winners have been indigenous Australians, three of them sportsmen and women (the 400m runner Cathy Freeman, the tennis star Evonne Goolagong Cawley and the boxer Lionel Rose).

The list has a degree of ecumenical balance, with two churchmen, an Anglican and a Catholic. But elected politicians do not get much of a look-in. Neville Bonner, the first Aboriginal person to sit in the Federal parliament, is the only one on the list. Businessmen also get short shrift. The entrepreneur Dick Smith and Alan Bond are the only two (although Bond's award had more to do with bankrolling success in the America's Cup rather than his money-making skill). There's no place for the moguls Kerry Packer or Rupert Murdoch, nor their fathers.

Only one "public intellectual" has been recognised, the renowned Australian historian Manning Clark. But, then, larrikins (an Australian term for a boisterous, loutish, or otherwise badly behaved young man) do not get much of a look-in, either. Paul Hogan is the only comedian to have been honoured. Had Barry Humphries received the award you could have got a larrikin, a public intellectual and a woman all in one fell swoop. Anti-authoritarian figures, like Shane Warne and Dennis Lillee, have also been overlooked.

Australian emigres, like Clive James, Germaine Greer and the writer Robert Hughes have not made the grade. Neither, for that matter, have Australia's most globally successful entertainers of recent years, Steve Irwin, The Wiggles or Kylie Minogue.

Men have been honoured more so than women, but Australians of the Year are usually far from ocker (rough and uncultivated). An early recipient was the ballet dancer, Sir Robert Helpmann.

I suppose all this raises a few questions, which I'd love you to weigh in on. Are there any glaring omissions? Who should be this year's recipient? (The cricketer Glenn McGrath is among the finalists.) And, I guess, should there even be an Australian of the Year?


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  • 1. At 4:52pm on 19 Jan 2009, Evan wrote:

    I just have to clarify your definition of a larrikin. In no way is a larrikin a 'boisterous, loutish, or otherwise badly behaved young man'! A larrikin for the benefit of all non-Aussies, is a character, a rogue, a bit of a 'lad', causing trouble but all in the name of fun.

    For an example of this is, think back to WW1... Australian soldiers had the the utmost disdain for British officers and the high command and would disregard all their commands when not in the field of battle, all the while taking the mick, acting the goat or being a larrikin. But when duty called were the best soldiers of the whole war. Not exactly the character traits of a 'boisterous, loutish, or otherwise badly behaved young man'.

    It's an essential part of the national character and not understanding that is to not understand Australia.

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  • 2. At 9:00pm on 19 Jan 2009, jakeincanberra wrote:

    I disagree with the previous comment that a 'larrikin' is 'an essential part of the national character'. I think a better characterisation would be to say that it is an essential part of the Australian mythology.

    This, to me, is one of the problems of the 'Australian of the Year' (and Australia Day in general). It is too easy for people to perpetuate the myth that we're a nation of bronzed, blokey larrikins who are all surf-lifesavers in our spare time (and thus make the implicit suggestion that anyone who doesn't fit in to this mythical mold of an 'Aussie' is somehow 'un-Australian'). I'm a bit sick of this 2 dimensional view of Australia.

    What about recognising the contribution new migrants make to our 'national character'? We're a country comprised of people from 231 different places (beautifully depicted in Michel Lawrence's photographic book 'All of Us'). I'd prefer an Australia that was inclusive of everyone within our population: indigenous people and both recent and past migrants from all parts of the globe.

    It'd be nice if every now and then we could go beyond the stereotypes and recognise that the 'true' Australia is much more complex than any one character.

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  • 3. At 9:08pm on 19 Jan 2009, KennethM wrote:

    Mr G is a hero

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  • 4. At 02:07am on 20 Jan 2009, Freakontheguitar wrote:

    The problem with awards like this is that there is no clear measure to define who is the best. It is an issue when you compare works of art. Is Michelangelo a better painter than Van Gogh? Is Hugh Jackman a better actor than Russell Crowe? The answer is a matter of taste

    With something like the Australian of the Year competition it is even worse: you are comparing painters with actors, tennis players, writers, cricketers, environmentalists, feminists, swimmers, scientists and peace activists (to name a few). How can you ever say who is better? And why does it have to be someone who happens to be in the public eye?

    I am not against the Australian of the Year competition. It is an honour to win the title, and those who win usually deserve it.

    But it is no dishonour not to win it, because it is not just the Australian of the Year, but also those other 20 million inhabitants of Australia that make this country what it is.

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  • 5. At 02:23am on 20 Jan 2009, Carltonblue wrote:

    Larrikin a myth? You've got to be joking. Go around to any workplace lunchroom and you'll here Aussie larrikins at work (or play).
    The myth is that we're all bronzed and surf. But many are still larrikins - that is they like a joke, whether practical, pulling on one's leg or having a go at someone in a laughing manner when they get something wrong.

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  • 6. At 03:07am on 20 Jan 2009, pciii wrote:

    So to summarise the great larrikin debate: they do exist and they are annoying, but they can't surf. Yep, can think of a few Aussies who fit that description, not much to be proud of there though.

    On to the Australian of the year, seems like they've done a good job over the years - a nice balance of populist and high-brow choices. I note the winners are chosen by panels (sounds like a QUANGO) rather than popular vote. Reckon Warne would have won by now if that wasn't the case.

    Personally I think that Shaun Micallef of Newstopia desrves a mention as well as Chris Lilley. There isn't much domestic telly that doesen't revolve around 'gritty' crime dramas or soppy family sagas so these guys stand out.

    Supposedly it goes agains the Aussie spirit, but does anyone have any nominations for worst Australian (be it person or organisation) of the year?

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  • 7. At 05:17am on 20 Jan 2009, wollemi wrote:

    'Worst Australian'.....there is the annual Ernie Award for sexism.

    The original 19th Century meaning of 'larrikin' was negative - akin to delinquent, anti social, gang type behaviour. Sometime, maybe around WW1(?), it changed to mean possessed of an irreverent humour aimed at deflating self importance. Roy and HG with their take on the Sydney Olympics, complete with their own stuffed mascot, were a pair of larrikins.
    Or Craig Lilley's take on the search for Australian of the Year

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  • 8. At 05:30am on 21 Jan 2009, dennisjunior1 wrote:

    Congrats to whomever is the Australian of the Year....

    ~Dennis Junior~

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  • 9. At 05:38am on 22 Jan 2009, expatlancastrian wrote:

    I've met many "larrakins".
    Over the years it's a word that's mellowed in it's meaning.
    My favourite larrakin is (was) a mate who has since died. He was 20 or so years older than me. I met him through his wife, and my wife, they worked together. He was a down to earth bloke, no pretentions, liked a beer, he was a "tradie" a house painter. He would do anything, yes anything, to help you. With his wife they made me, my wife, my kids welcome in their home. They made me feel at home in Australia.
    All of that was 40 years ago and on Monday 26/01/2009 I celebrate 40 years of life in Australia with a heap of my friends. Rich and not so rich, they are all my mates and have made my life in Australia such a rewarding experience. The best 10 quid I ever spent.

    I just wish Charlie were here to enjoy it with me. A good "larrakin" mate.

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  • 10. At 2:33pm on 23 Jan 2009, busby2 wrote:

    Nick Bryant

    With the UK in the midst of a recession, I would be interested to know what the situation was in Australia and I hoped your blog might shed some light on what is going on in Australia.

    Instead all we have is this very lightweight piece on the Australian of the Year which surely is nothing more than a ridiculous popularity contest which is surely of little interest to British readers on a BBC website which we licence payers pay for.

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  • 11. At 2:24pm on 24 Jan 2009, dudeDavros wrote:

    Chris Lilley is a legend. I think his comedy goes down so well (especially in Australia) because his characters are the kinds of people you really experience walking down an average Australian street. I could watch Summer Heights High over and over. David

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  • 12. At 06:55am on 26 Jan 2009, Julialucas wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 13. At 10:04am on 26 Jan 2009, BryantObsessed wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 14. At 3:35pm on 26 Jan 2009, gongdonkey wrote:

    Never mind "Australian of the Year" - what about "Australian of the Century" ......... just has to be Sir Les Patterson, Cultural Attache to Great Britain ?
    Good on yer, Les !

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  • 15. At 11:20pm on 26 Jan 2009, BryantObsessed wrote:

    Prof Dobson chose a foolish media topic to welcome his award as Australian of the year.

    as soon as the the countries media and news agencies point camera's and microphones at him he chooses the topic of "changing the date of Australia Day".

    how frivilous. how trivial. how utterly useless as a public debate.

    Symbolism is not policy. and is only a means to an end. but we've lost sight of the end goal.

    Aboriginal leaders should not drift from the core topic of Aboriginal Affairs - the ever widening gap between aboriginal people and the rest of australia citizens on most social measures - mortality, crime, health, education, etc.

    lets hope Dobson starts to speak with more eloquence on aborginal issues that actually matter.

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