Australia awards' forgotten heroes

If there was ever any doubt that Australia is a clever country, this year’s Australia Day winners would clear that doubt. This year’s award recipients prove that our nation does indeed produce among the finest scientific minds in the world.

In case you missed the honour roll, the top gong went to quantum physics professor Michelle Yvonne Simmons. Biophysicist Dr Graham Farquhar was named Senior Australian of the Year, mathematics teacher Eddie Woo is the new Local Hero and soccer player Samantha Kerr scooped the Young Australian guernsey.

As deserving as the recipients are, and as proud as we should be of them, it appears that this year there was a strong bias towards recognising science. Apart from Ms Kerr’s award, the lack of diversity in the winners’ circle begs the question, “did Aussies not excel at anything else?”

A scan of the nominees for Senior Australian of the Year, all 31 of them, clearly suggests many citizens are champions in their fields. These ranged from agriculture and speech pathology to helping abuse survivors and people with disabilities.

And while they cannot all be winners, perhaps some of them may have been more worthy of an award recognising the epitome of humanitarianism than the eminent Dr Farquhar. His work consists mostly of researching the viability of genetically modified grains.

If I had been on the judging panel, I would have assessed the material impact ­– in the past, present and near future – of each of the nominees’ endeavours in improving the lives of disadvantaged people. It seems to me that while the biophysicist’s insights are awesome, so much more worthy of recognition are the efforts of nominees outside the lab, such as Barbara Spriggs. She is the South Australian whose suspicions that her husband was being abused in an Oakden aged care facility led to a government inquiry into what really goes on in nursing homes.

Another highly commendable senior citizen is farmer Raymond Harrington who invented the ‘seed destructor’ – a contraption attached to a harvester that pulverises 95 per cent of weed seeds.

His technology will allow farmers to increase crop production and save billions of dollars by avoiding herbicides. The latter can only make our foods safer by allowing them to be harvested without exposure to carcinogens, such as those allegedly contained in Roundup. It will also help to stem the flow of poisonous chemicals into the environment, which damage other layers of the food chain.

As a former biotechnology journalist, I respect science and I’m passionate about it. But today you can call me a do-gooder, anti-intellectual or leftie activist and I will still hold my head up high. You see, in addition to Mrs Spriggs and Mr Harrington, my shortlist of finalists who I believe were more worthy of winning a Senior Australian of the Year award is as follows:

  • Dr Catherine Hamlin, who with her husband established six hospitals in Ethiopia to treat new mothers with horrendous child-birth injuries for free
  • Aboriginal elder Aunty Faye Carr has helped to improve the lives of Indigenous mothers and children struggling with family violence and has also ‘parented’ many young Australians who do not have anyone to call mum or dad
  • Carmel Crouch adopted a disabled child and went on to found STEPS and Pathways College – both of which help young people with disabilities to live independently
  • Former carpenter Dr Barry Kirby studied medicine in his 40s so he could help stem fatalities among Papua New Guinean new mothers. His Safe Motherhood Program slashed maternal death rates by 75 per cent  
  • A co-founder of ShareLife Australia and an organ transplant recipient himself, Brian Myerson has attracted $150 million of government funding and triggered an inquiry into the lengthy waiting lists that more than 12,000 transplant patients endure.

Do you think that the Australia Day awards should go to people who actively help improve the welfare of others? Who would you have chosen to be Senior Australian of the Year from the list of nominees? Is there any merit in even having these awards?

Related articles:
Meet our Senior Aussie of the year
What makes an Australia Day winner?
Victorian of the year rejected by cabbie

Written by Olga Galacho

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