United We Stand

By Gabrielle Hendry

Gabrielle Hendry reflects on what it means to be the Australian of the Year.

The Australian of Year, honoured every year on Australia Day, is supposed to be a prominent Australian who the public can rally around – provoking thoughtful discussions on crucial issues faced by the nation. Rosie Batty, the 2015 Australian of the Year, retired from the role after passionately advocating for domestic violence (DV) reform. Arguably, she has been an inspiration to many DV survivors and has instigated meaningful change through lobbying efforts and public awareness campaigns. Most importantly, she was someone that could unite Australians with her own tragic experiences of DV and the loss of her son, resonating with many.

But more often than not, an Australian of the Year can be divisive – and a choice by the National Australia Day Council (NADC) can do exactly the opposite of what they intend. When former Lieutenant General David Morrison was honoured as the 2016 recipient, criticism rained down upon him as soon as he finished his first speech. Fellow candidate Captain Cate McGregor described Morrison as “a weak and conventional choice” and now a former Australian army soldier has created a petition calling for Morrison to abandon both his Australia Day honour and his title of General. The petition had almost 5000 signatures at the time of writing. Why?

Since 1960, award winners with a sporting background overwhelmingly dominate the statistics, with 14 people chosen. Running a close second are award winners with an arts background, with 10 people honoured. In stark contrast, award recipients hailing from the military make up just 3 of the 57 Australians of the Year since the award was incorporated into Australia Day festivities in 1960.

You would think that the first Australian of the Year with a military background since the 70s would place veteran’s issues and issues surrounding defence policy at the forefront of public attention. You would think that issues such as the struggle to provide support to the families of those service-men killed or injured severely overseas should be mentioned. You would think that tackling psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and desensitisation to violence would be a top priority. You would think that the horrendous side-effects of anti-malarial drugs used by the ADF on past and present members would be worthy of discussion.

In fairness, Morrison has done positive things to address diversity and cultural issues within the Defence Force. On International Women’s Day 2013, Morrison gave a speech to the U.N. General Assembly: “it was apparent that we needed to squarely face some serious cultural problems, in particular the manner in which we treated our female soldiers, those from ethnic minorities and those with alternative sexual preferences…making the most effective use of our female soldiers makes good sense. It enhances our capability. That is a simple truth.”

With these organisational problems now being addressed, I want to hear more from Morrison than buzzwords such as diversity, multiculturalism, and inclusive. I want the quiet suffering of veterans and their families to have the national spotlight shone onto them, just like Rosie Batty did for DV. The Australian Defence Force is a big organisation and members come from many walks of life. But one thing almost all servicemen could agree would be the welfare of veterans and the support they receive from the rest of Australia.

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