Choosing The Winners
Unsurprisingly, the process of choosing the Australian of the Year has evolved considerably over half a century, including both the make-up of the selection committee and the system of nominations. In the 1960s Sir Norman Martin usually insisted that the decision of the small Victorian selection committee was unanimous. If this is true, then it is in stark contrast to the selection process in the 1990s, when Phillip Adams recalls that heated debates were common. In 1980 the NADC had formed an independent panel to decide the award, but eventually the selection fell to the NADC board itself. Typically the matter was considered at a special two-day board meeting, which Adams likened to the election of a new Pope: ‘We would go into conclave, there would be lots of hot air, then a puff of smoke.’
The most significant change in the selection procedure has been expansion of the nomination process. In the 1960s and 1970s, the committee usually chose the winner from a relatively small list of nominees; for example, in 1971 Evonne Goolagong edged out only 18 other nominees. At a meeting in 1982, the directors of the NADC and its state based affiliates identified low nominee numbers as a cause for concern. The problem persisted and board members were regularly encouraged to spread the word and encourage nominations. A public relations report commissioned in 1989 recommended greater community involvement in the nominations process: ‘Allow the “ordinary” citizens of Australia a chance to vote for, or in some way have a say in, who should be Australian of the Year.’ During the 1990s glossy brochures calling for nominations were distributed well in advance of the awards deadline.
More recently, the NADC has realised that the nominations process is important not only to the integrity of its various awards, but is also a crucial means of engaging with the Australian community. In 2004 NADC Chair Lisa Curry-Kenny proudly reported that nominations had doubled from the previous year: ‘This is a key indication that increasing numbers of Australians of all walks of life are actively engaging with the awards program.’ Public interest in the awards serves a much broader purpose, as NADC Chief Executive Warren Pearson explains: ‘The awards program is not primarily about choosing four national recipients; it is about engaging with Australians about citizenship.’ The introduction of the Local Hero award was directed towards this goal, as were various other changes made in 2004. Most importantly, the NADC introduced a new selection process based around state finals. This approach meant a more prominent role for the state-based Australia Day councils and committees, which now oversee the selection of the finalists and host official functions to announce the contenders in November each year. The NADC board now only chooses between the eight state finalists in each category and organises the national announcement in January.
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