The uniformly admirable citizens held up for acclaim each year say a lot about what the country aspires to, writes David Marr.
WINNERS make awards. The list of Australians of the Year has been so good for so long we've forgotten how odd it is that every summer a rather shadowy committee plucks out an Australian for the rest of us to admire. And we have for over 50 years.
The first and latest choices have a lot to say about the possibilities of distinction in this country. The Nobel prize-winning immunologist Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet was the first Australian of the Year in 1960. He made heart transplants possible.
The latest is the Academy Award-winning actor Geoffrey Rush, who has packed out a Melbourne theatre for the past two months playing Oscar Wilde's great ogre Lady Bracknell. Seats weren't to be had for love or money. Laughter could be heard blocks away.
Virologist and immunologist, Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet,
was the first recipient of the Australian of the Year award.
Money and power aren't the point here. The rich have no place on the list. Raw success isn't enough. There has to be something more, some sense of distinction that lifts a candidate out of the ruck of the famous.
Brains have beaten brawn hands down. Yachting, swimming, cricket, boxing, tennis, athletics and formula one have delivered only 15 Australians of the Year since 1960. The rest are all brains: lawyers, a couple of upper level bureaucrats, environmentalists, a painter, half a dozen singers - including all the Seekers (1967) - and 11 scientists and medicos.
The committee loves the lab. Theirs is an indoors Australia, not perhaps the country we live in but the Australia of our best intentions. Businessmen need to be philanthropists to make the grade. No footballers.
The only near-guarantee to a place on the list is winning the Nobel prize. Patrick White (1973) was one of these. Ditto Sir John Eccles (1963), Sir John Cornforth (1975) and Professor Peter Doherty (1997). Brian Schmidt of the infinitely expanding universe who won in Stockholm in 2011 is a sure-fire Australian of the Year sometime soon. Perhaps in 2013.
Yachting is the single most favoured sport. The track has never had a guernsey. Only two writers have made the grade and that was years ago: Patrick White and Manning Clark (1980). Joan Sutherland (1961) and the conductor Bernard Heinze (1974) are the only classical musicians on the list. Johnny Farnham made the grade in 1987.
The good news is that the only Australian of the Year to end up in the clink was Alan Bond (1978). He went from winning the America's Cup one year to a spectacular business crash soon after and found himself behind bars for four years. The tax collectors have not laid a glove on Paul Hogan (1985).
Geoffrey Rush is the latest of a long list of show-offs that began with Sutherland and dancer Robert Helpmann (1965), Paul Hogan, Johnny Farnham and Mandawuy Yunupingu of Yothu Yindi (1992). By some strange oversight, neither Barry Humphries nor Edna Everage has had a chance to be the promised ''role model for us all''.
The Yunupingus seem to be the only family that's given us two Australians of the Year: Mandawuy and the rights advocate Galarrwuy (1978).
It needs to be noted that black leaders have a distinct advantage over white. The only white politician ever to be Australian of the Year was the former Liberal foreign minister and later governor-general Richard Casey KG, GCMG, CH, DSO, MC, KStJ, PC (1969).
Nothing comes with this office except an inscribed chunk of green glass. There's no title; no stipend; no uniform; no official residence; nothing to pin in the lapel; and only the haziest of duties.
What the winners are given is a voice. Psychiatrist Patrick McGorry (2010) used the award to address a few problems he saw in his country, including detention centres which he spent the year blasting as ''factories for producing mental illness and mental disorder''. He was listened to. That's the only privilege of what's now an old and respected office.