For the last 57 years on Australia Day, Australians around the country have woken to news of the next Australian of the Year. From cities to country towns, with our families and friends, we discuss the decision and express our opinions on the people chosen to receive this honour.
There's an amazing range of people in the running for 2017 – many from regional and rural areas. Broken Hill resident Josephine Peters has been a volunteer for more than 70 years. Vicki Jellie helped raise millions of dollars to build a cancer centre in regional Victoria. In the desert region of central Australia, Andrea Mason is championing employment and health.
As chairman, I have the privilege of meeting many of the outstanding Australians put forward for the awards. They are role models for us all. This is what it is all about. Reflecting on the Australian characteristics we hold dear. Tenacity. Optimism. Decency. Leading by example, these stories encourage us all to strive to be our better selves. They inspire us and show us what is possible.
Every nominee I've met has been deserving of our respect. For their story, achievements and contributions. They are deserving because they have already inspired someone to nominate them. That’s how the Australian of the Year Awards work. Everyone in the country gets to start the process by nominating someone for consideration.
The Australian of the Year Awards have such resonance precisely because they rely on Australians nominating other Australians. For 2017 alone, more than 3000 people were nominated.
So who decides from all these worthy candidates? Across the country eight selection panels, one for each state and territory, whittle down the thousands of nominations to four finalists in each of the four award categories – Australian of the Year, Local Hero, Senior Australian of the Year and Young Australian of the Year. That's a total of 128 people recognised each year. From these, 32 outstanding Australians whose excellence, leadership and contributions are celebrated on the national stage on January 25.
We then have to choose just four national award recipients. It is, as you can imagine, incredibly difficult. It's a task that I and my fellow board members consider in great depth. And it always comes back the role inspirational leaders play in shaping the Australian story. Perhaps it’s someone who has spent a lifetime dedicated to the needs of other. Or someone whose passion and drive has led to undeniable success. Perhaps they have made ground-breaking discoveries. Or started a conversation with the potential to change lives. There are so many ways Australians contribute and inspire us. It is truly humbling to see.
It's an occupational hazard that not everyone will agree with the decision. But the Australian of the Year Awards continue to be important precisely for that reason. We need people who represent Australians from all walks of life. People who challenge us and inspire and prompt us to discuss our views.
This year, I encourage you to watch the awards on TV or streamed on Facebook and I hope you find inspiration from the remarkable stories. If the awards represent our country’s potential and identity, we should all feel richly proud to call Australia home.
Who will be our 2017 Australians of the Year? Watch the national announcement live on ABC TV from 7.30pm AEDST on Wednesday, January 25.
Know someone worthy of attention? Nominate them for the 2018 awards at australianoftheyear.org.au
Ben Roberts-Smith is chairman of the National Australia Day Council.