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Choosing 200 Significant Australians

 

Why 200?

That's easy. We set out to choose 100 but just couldn't trim enough remarkable people off the list so we ended up with 200. Even then we've cheated - there's over 200 but nobody is ever going to count them so we should be able to get away with that.

What constitutes an Australian?

This one is not so easy. If a person was born in Australia but spent most of their careers overseas  we have sometimes claimed them as Australians. This includes people like Jack Smart and Peter Porter. Often Australians who have become world class have had to travel to where the audiences or laboratories are. Then there are people like Patrick White and Germaine Greer who were often highly derogatory about their country of origin, or Rupert Murdoch who chose to renounce his Australian citizenship in order to further his business interests. Some, such as P. L. Travers (author of Mary Poppins) seemed to attempt to quietly hide their Australian background. In the end we restricted ourselves to people who have lived in Australia and who were influenced by, or have influenced, Australia. For instance, people who still retain a noticeable Australian accent are likely to have been influenced by their time in Australia. As it turns out, there are only a small percentage of people on our list where people might want to quibble about their nationality, and, to our knowledge, none who would object to being described as Australians.

Why significant?

Why not great Australians? Why not famous Australians? Why not successful Australians? Why not most popular Australians?. Well, that's harder still.

We didn't choose great Australians because there are some people who have had a strong influence on Australia who are not necessarily great. Ned Kelly was a murderer but was quickly elevated to legend status. We may have large reservations about the work Daisy Bates did with the Aborigines, but she is still a remarkable woman who influenced thinking in Australia. Some others like Vida Goldstien are included not so much for what she achieved but for what people think she achieved. Many people would argue that Rupert Murdoch is not a great man, but most would agree that he is a significant person who has had an impact not only on Australia but the rest of the world.

Selecting people from the history syllabus would leave major holes. It is the nature of much current Australian history teaching that areas such as the hard sciences, mathematics, engineering and the like are simply ignored. Although twelve out of Australia's thirteen Nobel Prize winners  are scientists or mathematicians, many history teachers could name only a few of them and less could explain the significance of their work, but most could wax lyrical about minor writers or painters who never achieved international recognition. Similarly the place of business and industry in Australian history is often ignored or dismissed as 'vaguely dirty'. Hence whole numbers of significant Australians have been written out of (taught) history.

We didn't choose successful Australians because there are many people who were successful at earning money or attention but who left nothing of enduring worth behind them. or who did not take the step of converting a successful life into a significant life.

Fame would produce a strangely skewed list because of the nature of fame in Australia. Australian hegemony tends to denigrate people who become world class or successful in their area. This is sometimes called The Tall Poppy Syndrome - the tall poppies get their heads cut off. The only areas where it is acceptable to succeed are sport, and commercial entertainment such as pop music. As Robert Hughes put it - "Sport is the only form of elitism that Australia will accept- and that is its great hypocrisy". (It was also Hughes who referred to Australia as a "fame brothel") This means that many important Australians are unknown to the Australian public at large and are rarely to be found on school curricula while many unimportant people are famous and feature heavily in school assignments.

Who Made Australia Great?

In a special wrap-around for Australia Day 2007 the Melbourne Herald Sun newspaper published a quiz asking "How well do you know your country, the people who have made it great and its rich history?" The 50 questions included ones such as  "Rove McManus has a cousin in which AFL team?" Of the questions about people, 6 were about naming pop groups or their members, 7 were about television soapies and light entertainment, 6 were about sport, 3 about film celebritires with one writer, one politician and nobody else. All of these people were living except for one who died of substance abuse. So there you have it - these are the people who made Australia great as decreed by the newspaper with the largest distribution in the country.

Fame in recent years has become a commodity manipulated by the media. Television stations for instance go to great lengths to manipulate people's thinking about who is important or famous. Quiz programs are devised so that people feel that it is clever to know the details of the products and people (often in Hollywood movies) which that station is promoting. Celebrity trivia is often rebranded as 'news' and Melbourne even has a free evening paper which seems dedicated to this purpose. Alternatively, by appearing on a reality TV program you can achieve instant fame for doing nothing of significance or value. Our list contains very few (if any) instant idols, vacuous 'personalities' or other products of commercially manufactured fame (it took Geoffrey Rush 20 years to become an overnight success).

Then there are some people who are (mildly) famous in Australia for just one aspect of their achievements. Thus the polymath Clive James is famous for his television shows but many Australians are not familiar with his achievements as a poet, essayist and journalist. Like many others on our list, he would not have included if we were just considering the achievements for which people are famous.

People like Steve Irwin are currently famous but it make take some years before we find out whether his contributions to entertainment and the environment, are lasting and sustainable and of the significance of others already listed. If they prove to be he will happily be added to our list.

ABC's Top 10 Most Popular Australians

In 2008 the ABC asked its viewers and listeners to vote for their ‘Favourite Australian’ public figure. After an "overwhelming response", the results were:

  1. Olivia Newton John (pop singer, actress)
  2. Peter Cundall (gardener, TV presenter)
  3. John Farnham (pop singer, entertainer)
  4. Bob Brown (conservationist, politician)
  5. John Howard (Prime Minister)
  6. Fred Hollows (surgeon, social achiever)
  7. Gough Whitlam (ex Prime Minister)
  8. Sir William Deane (retired judge, ex Governor General)
  9. Johnny Warren (soccer player)
  10. Tim Costello (minister, social achiever)
It seems that there is not much point in winning a Nobel Prize or being world class in the high arts or science or mathematics or becoming a significant philanthropist if you want to be popular in ABC Land.
 

If you need convincing that fame would not be a useful criterion, just try observing some of the chat groups on the internet and their rather sad lists of those who the contributors regard as 'famous Australians'. You will probably find few or none of our Nobel Prize Winners or Inventors.  We decided therefore to restrict ourselves to people that matter and will leave it to the media and others to laud those who are 'famous for being famous'. After all there are plenty of Australians who are famous but not important, and there are plenty of Australians who are important but not well known.  (See also the ABC Radio program exploring fame in music.)

If not famous, what about well known? That produces similar difficulties to famous. If, for instance, we were to restrict ourselves to people with entries in high profile online publications like Wikipedia (which is extensive but not encyclopaedic) we would end up with a strangely skewed list. For instance in Wikipedia (as of December 2006) you can find individual listings for television newsreaders and presenters of no lasting significance to Australia but no listing for Sydney Kirkby and numbers others who ended up on our list. For a number of years, Australian history all but disappeared as a stand-alone subject in most Australian schools, so television executives were often the major arbiters of who becomes well known - and a fairly sad and vacuous lot it often was.

In the end we decided on the label significant Australians selected using the following criteria:

Some comments on our final selections

Although for convenience we have organised people under various categories, it is a characteristic of remarkable people that they often excel in a range of areas. Someone like Sir John Monash would easily have made this list for his achievements in any of half a dozen areas alone.

You may not agree with our criteria and selection. However, if it promotes curiosity, discussion and informed debate, then it has fulfilled its purpose.

Go to 200 Significant Australians to see our final list.