The Official Announcement

During the 1960s and 1970s the Australian of the Year award was presented at Melbourne’s Australia Day Luncheon, which was held in either the Town Hall or the Royale Ballroom. The winner was usually announced about two weeks earlier at a function that provided an opportunity to promote the upcoming Australia Day celebrations. This event was a public relations exercise that attempted to capture the imagination of the media and the nation, but in 1966 a journalist from The Age did not follow the script, preferring to poke fun at the stage-managed event:

The patriotic tension in the boardroom on the 8th floor of the Australian Natives’ Association building in Elizabeth Street yesterday morning was being stretched to breaking point. From four corners of the room hung Australian flags. At the Head of the long boardroom table sat Sir Norman Martin, chairman of the Australia Day Council. …

There had been intense speculation earlier as to what the “special uniformed messenger” would be wearing when he arrived bearing a sealed envelope containing the Australian of the Year decision. … He was made to walk from the lift door to Sir Norman twice to satisfy other television cameramen, until, rather thankfully, he at last handed the envelope over.

It was somehow an anticlimax when Sir Norman demanded: “Do you bear a message from the Premier?”

“Yes” said the messenger meekly, and as Sir Norman announced the winner to be Robert Helpmann, a shower of prepared press releases announcing the same thing landed gently on the table in front of the waiting pressmen."

Since the 1960s the annual announcement has become progressively more sophisticated. After the NADC took over in 1980 it usually presented the award at an Australia Day concert, which moved around the nation and was often televised. In the 1990s an Australia Day breakfast at Admiralty House in Sydney was the usual venue for the announcement, but more recently the concert has been revived and is held in the national capital.

A highly memorable Australian of the Year function occurred in 1994, when the guest of honour was the His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. The Australian of the Year, environmentalist (and republican) Ian Kiernan, sat on the stage after receiving his award, when a gunshot was heard and an assailant rushed toward Prince Charles. Kiernan jumped to his feet and wrestled the intruder to the ground with the assistance of New South Wales Premier John Fahey. Kiernan later recalled: ‘the Premier and I lay on the stage, panting as the adrenalin began to flow, and wondering what to do next.’117 As it turned out, the man was armed only with a toy cap pistol, but the incident was a serious security breach and somewhat upstaged Kiernan’s award.

Since 2004 the award presentation has been held on Australia Day Eve in Canberra. The 32 state and territory recipients enjoy an eventful day including morning tea with the Prime Minister at The Lodge, and lunch with the Governor General at Yarralumla. The winners are announced at an event at Parliament House, broadcast live to the nation. Specially produced video packages describe the winners in each of the four categories. The scale of the event displays a marked contrast to Sir Norman Martin’s modest press conferences of the 1960s.

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