Paul Keating once said that great leaders require two things: imagination and courage. Two years ago, I wrote a blog post criticising the concept of ‘Australia Day’ and its celebrations every year on January 26th. It is not our national day and never will be. 24 months later I am here to pose the question: What does it mean to be a truly great Australian?
Just hours ago, one very famous guy won the award of 'Australian of the Year'. Good on him I say, but ironically it suggests that winning this overblown, meaningless prize is a bit like winning a Best Actor Oscar. Lots of people have the potential to win it, very few worthy candidates are taken seriously, the crowd pleasing choice usually wins, and the week following the award no one quite remembers who won. In a funny way this seems to reflect how we as Australians see ourselves.
We as a nation do not speak in reverent tones about our leaders, political or otherwise and yet it has not occurred to the population that our leaders are a reflection of ourselves. Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Michael Clarke, and yes, even Rush (just to take four basic examples of some of the nation’s highest profile citizens), are in broad terms leaders. They all have qualities of stoicism, determination and grit. Notice how they are all mean exactly the same thing? Of these four Australians you could all say they do varying degrees of good work and are extremely high achievers in their chosen fields, but when was the last time that any of these people listed above inspired their followers intellectually, creatively and perhaps most importantly of all, when have they inspired enhanced community activism or contribution?
Again, I think its valuable to note that as Australians the two biggest days that (in theory) give us an inflated sense of patriotism are the days that represent two of our biggest failures as a nation. Along with Australia Day, ANZAC Day celebrates that thousands of lives were sacrificed for a cause that had no real strategic or national merit. Is it any wonder in this climate that Australia as a nation rewards the trier who more often than not is doomed to failure? That we praise those who have determined personalities rather than those who have intellectual or creative flare? Perhaps most devastatingly of all, that we reward mainstream mediocrity rather than those people who seek to challenge and inspire us?
As Australians, we should be entitled to expect that our ‘Australian of the Year’ not only have the qualities that represent the nation, but also provide the characteristics of who we as a nation aspires to be. When was the last time an Australian of the Year was an internationally recognised person in their field, with a strong sense of community involvement who challenged perceptions of the world around them? By my reckoning it was 1994: 18 years ago. In that time we have had 4 Prime Ministers, 4 Olympic Games, as well as thousands of intellectual, cultrual and community based achievements. None of the 18 following award recipients have fulfilled the basic requirements of what it means to represent the entire Australian nation as its best and the brightest.
If Keating is right then Australia is sorely lacking in both imagination and courage, because we in fact have no real leadership in this country. More accurately perhaps, those who do have leadership qualities are under recognised and neglected. If Australia truly is the great nation that is worthy of its people, perhaps we have to redefine what it means to be a truly great Australian? Because if recent history is any guide we are looking in the wrong direction.