There is something deeply soviet about the Australian of the Year awards. The idea that the state might annually pat one of it denizens on the head is patronising and infantising. In fact, the whole notion of government awards should be confined to Orwellian satire.
I think it was in Miss Elliott’s Year 5 class that I was first introduced to serious awards. Obviously, there were merit certificates before then, and no doubt my parents employed various motivational techniques even before primary school, but the seriousness of Miss Elliott’s Star Chart was in the end of year prizes – a cellophane wrapped hamper of stationary items, lollies and – best of all – a scratchie (the caveat being that if you won more than $10 it had to be shared with her). I was fortunate enough to finish the year in the top three (my scratchie yielded less than $10, in case you’re wondering) and although I can’t remember the specifics now, I felt there was some fairness to the whole business. There were standards and at least the appearance of objectivity.
Upon leaving school and doing the night-fill at Woolworths, I always felt the Employee of the Month scheme to be somewhat less objective – although maybe it was just that I was never awarded it – but more or less well-deserved. I was never quite sure how it was judged (or by whom), but the winners were always reliable and polite staff members, and never the tardy, shabbily dressed ones (never the night-fillers either, from memory!). But both Miss Elliott’s Star Chart and the Employee of the Month seem like very models of impartiality, integrity, and maturity, compared to the 2016 Australian of the Year.
To be the Woolies’ Employee of the Month, there was but one basic requirement: it’s crazy I know, but you actually had to be an employee that month. Being on the payroll was pretty much the only sine qua non. To be the Australian of the Year, you do have to be an Australian, but the preliminary process is one of political expediency. Take, for example, the Queenslander of the Year, transgender activist and sometime military officer Cate McGregor. She lives in Canberra, and has done for forty years, but she ‘identifies as a Queenslander’. Of course, in these days of identity politics and the privileging of what you ‘identify as’ over ontological reality, identifying as a Queenslander is as legitimate as being a Malcolm but identifying as, for example, a Cate. To be fair, it appears that McGregor didn’t drive her own odd interstate categorisation, but she knew that the ACT honour roll wasn’t big enough for both her and the eventual Australian of the Year, General David Morrison.
Speaking of which, the former Chief of Army is himself a curious choice. As James Morrow noted in the Tele last week, his true accomplishments are in the realm of ‘human resources heroism’ rather than ‘battlefield bravery’. Morrison was essentially unknown until his 2013 video went ‘viral’ as he angrily told the Army, and another army of Youtube-watching gender enthusiasts, that those who don’t appreciate the place of women in the army should ‘get out!’. It was a good speech and an important message, especially in light of the sex scandals that plagued the defence force at the time. But his utterly worthwhile commitment to investigating, punishing, and eradicating sexual harassment in the military seems to have morphed into an insatiable fetish for diversity that has, in recent days, seen him not only accept the official praise of an increasingly ungrateful nation, but also chastising his new subordinates for their bigoted views on gender, race, sexual orientation, and religion. The Australian reports him lamenting the ‘undue emphasis on Anzac stories’ which are ‘overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon,’ and thus alienating other talented people when it comes to defence recruitment. And naturally there is his PC commentary on the plight of Muslims. Morrison’s demographic snapshot of the Army may indeed be accurate, but if its business is defending Australia, then that is the outcome that the generals should be assessing, not whether various identity and diversity boxes are ticked.
But he is no longer a general; he is (of course) the ‘Chair’ of the Diversity Council, which sounds like another dystopian figment of George Orwell’s dark imagination. In the cause of diversity, and in keeping with the now accepted role of Australian of the Year to berate and chastise, Morrison’s taken to tackling the big issues including, for example, the ‘concerning’ lack of representation of Asian Australians in the upper echelons of commerce. To civilians, it may sound like he’s becoming a parody of himself, but to his former military colleagues it sounds all too familiar. The usually loquacious General Morrison hasn’t yet commented on the charge that he was always a politician’s soldier rather than a soldier’s soldier, but leading men into battle does seem to have been less of a priority for him than promoting racial and gender diversity. And indeed transgender diversity, for which his former speechwriter, the very same Cate McGregor, was the poster boy, so to speak.
For the obvious political machinations behind McGregor’s award as Queenslander of the Year, and the obvious political agenda behind Morrison’s national success, the Australia Day Council (which sounds almost as depressing a place to work as the Diversity Council) deserves embarrassment and censure. But at least they got one thing right: they didn’t appoint McGregor to the top job. The day after Australia Day (which the Australia Day Council assures us is about unity, diversity, etc), McGregor told the gay newspaper the Star Observer, that the appointment of her former boss and patron was a ‘weak and conventional choice’. By ‘conventional’ I assume she means he lives in the province in which he was nominated, and I certainly agree that he is a weak choice. McGregor continued: ‘I think I’ll die without seeing a trans Australian of the Year and I think that’s terribly sad.’
What I wouldn’t give to return to the innocence of Miss Elliott’s Star Chart, or to the Woolies’ wall of pimple-faced check-out chicks (although as per Diversity Council guidelines they are now properly referred to as ‘retail officers’)! Instead, this year, the awards go to a pencil-pushing, diversity-championing youtube star telling companies to hire more Asians, and to his former acolyte, and now nemesis in the diversity wars, Malcolm-cum-Cate of the ACT-cum-Queensland. And I think that’s terribly sad.
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