Australian of the Year – Safe Choice or Right Choice?
2 February 2016 at 10:08 am
For a “conventional” and “safe” choice, the appointment of David Morrison as Australian of the Year has stirred up a significant amount of controversy. But his latest public appearance has shown that, regardless of background, he is a powerful diversity advocate, writes Pro Bono Australia journalist Xavier Smerdon.
One week after receiving the most prestigious award an Australian citizen can have bestowed upon them, former army chief David Morrison has found himself having to defend his position as Australian of the Year.
More than 20 minutes of Monday night’s Q&A program on the ABC was dedicated to questions about whether Morrison’s award was an indictment on Australian culture.
The special Australia Day panel was first asked why the community happily listened to a white man champion diversity but was less tolerant of former AFL star and 2014 Australian of the Year Adam Goodes.
This was quickly followed by another audience member who asked: “Can we envision a proper future in which women are rewarded for the tireless work they undertake whilst men are given credit for simply saying the right thing?”
While host Tony Jones and fellow panelist and indigenous journalist Stan Grant lept to Morrison’s defense, the man himself was more keen to accept the criticism leveled at him, even rejecting suggestions that he was the only senior military personnel to denounce sexism in the way he did.
“I agree with you 100 per cent. I’m sitting here now as the 2016 Australian of the Year, I feel I don’t know how it’s arrived,” Morrison said.
“I’ve become something of a notorious figure for being a white, Anglo-Saxon, hetersoxeual male, from a privelaged background who talks about these things now. I’m not the only voice in Australia with the same sort of gender or ethnic make-up. I have just been paid attention to.”
— ABC Q&A (@QandA) February 1, 2016
It was the latest and most in-depth look at whether Morrison, whose 2013 speech chastising male members of the army involved in or condoning the sexual abuse of their female colleagues went viral, was the right choice for Australian of the Year.
Herald Sun columnist Rita Panahi called him “another sanctimonious blowhard lecturing the country”.
Even fellow nominee and long-time colleague and friend, Cate McGregor, told prominent LGBT publication the Star Observer that she thought giving Morrison the award was a “weak and conventional choice”.
McGregor later made an unconditional public apology to Morrison on Twitter.
Morrison has long been aware of the irony surrounding his situation, telling Pro Bono Australia News in November last year that his background even made him question whether he was the best candidate for chair of the Diversity Council Australia.
“I had a couple of initial reservations and I expressed both of them to the board when I met with them,” he said.
“The first was I wondered about the look of having a 59 year old, Anglo-Saxon being the Chair of the Diversity Council of Australia, but they assured me that they thought I had enough runs on the board to pass that test and I was very grateful for that.”
But he appeared to place little significance on the heat he received, and in reserving his most passionate response for a question about a reported reduction in domestic violence figures, he perhaps showed why he was the right choice for Australian of the Year.
“It’s not about the statistics, it’s about the lives that are being taken and damaged here. What do you want to do? Do you want to compare a particular figure from a year to a year?” he said.
“We are, as a society, becoming more aware of what I think is the greatest social challenge that we face and that is domestic violence in this country and nothing should be said to take our attention from it. Get real Australia.
“We run the risk of being a nation of bystanders comforted by a few statistics. Let me tell you, there are people dying and people whose lives are absolutely ruined as a result of domestic violence and what’s more, we are all as a society the victim. That’s bullshit.”