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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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