Dr James Muecke named Australian of the Year; Professor John Newnham, Ash Barty and Bernie Shakeshaft honoured

Australian of the Year Dr James Muecke, with PM Scott Morrison; (top right) professor John Newnham; Ash Barty and Bernie Shakeshaft. Photos: Dion Georgopoulos
Australian of the Year Dr James Muecke, with PM Scott Morrison; (top right) professor John Newnham; Ash Barty and Bernie Shakeshaft. Photos: Dion Georgopoulos

Pioneering South Australian eye surgeon Dr James Muecke has been named the 2020 Australian of the Year.

The announcement was made on Saturday night at the National Arboretum in Canberra.

Dr Muecke, 56, was nominated for his work preventing blindness, and founding a social impact organisation called Sight for All. His focus is on the spiralling epidemic of blindness caused by type 2 diabetes. It impacts one in 10 Australians and is the fastest growing cause of vision loss in Aboriginal people, and the sixth-biggest killer in Australia.

In accepting the award, he said it was an honour.

"What a tremendous honour to be named Australian of the Year 2020 - such an auspicious year for eyesight," Dr Muecke said.

He said type 2 diabetes was "a looming catastrophe for our health system".

 Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Australian of the Year Dr James Muecke at the 2020 Australian of the Year Awards. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Australian of the Year Dr James Muecke at the 2020 Australian of the Year Awards. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

"As an eye surgeon, I often see patients at the end stage of their diabetes, when it's too late to save their sight. What saddens me greatly is that, much of the time, such complications are avoidable, whether through lifestyle changes or more disciplined health checks," Dr Muecke said.

"My mission this year is to get back to the root cause of this disease and prevent what will otherwise be our nation's health catastrophe. This year, I want to challenge our perception of sugar, our relationship with sugar, and the impact that it has on the development of diabetes."

Dr Muecke said his goal is to build greater awareness of the detrimental role sugar plays.

"It's as toxic and addictive as nicotine, and should be treated by consumers, businesses and governments as such."

But before he got too far into his speech, Dr Muecke said he'd have 12 months to talk about his work.

"So tonight, firstly, I'd like to acknowledge our most recent catastrophe and recognise the thousands of Aussies who are experiencing such difficult times right now," he said.

"The uncompromising bushfires that have swept through our country have left widespread disruption and heartbreak in their wake, and few of us remain untouched."

He said too many people lost their lives, and the devastation to landscape and wildlife "is beyond belief".

"During this turmoil, we've seen the best in human nature and have witnessed the true Aussie spirit rise - proud, and unrelenting. It's heart-warming to see the outpouring of goodwill when generosity from the public and the selfless acts of bravery from our courageous firefighters and emergency services. In my eyes, these Aussies are our heroes, and I applaud their sacrifice and unwavering commitment. Whilst I've not been fighting fires, I humbly accept this award and, with it, my role to contribute to this great country."

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison took to the stage at the beginning of the event on Saturday night, he also recognised the enormous contribution of volunteers in responding to the devastating fires over the past months.

"Normally at this event, we look to our nominees as reminders of lives and of service over self," Mr Morrison said.

"Generosity over selfishness. And a willingness to show courage in the face of adversity. But tonight, we need no reminder because beyond these walls, to the south, to the north, to the east and the west... thousands of volunteers are fighting fires and reminding us about what it means to be a citizen of this great nation. They - like the nominees here tonight - are demonstrating to us that our national story is one of great achievement. But also of pain, of effort, of sweat."

Mr Morrison it had been a summer of good deeds, great sacrifice and terrible loss.

"Through this long summer, we have seen the unquenchable spirit of Australians. Australians rallying to each other, be they family, friends, or indeed strangers."

"So tonight, I say to all the heroes - not just of the bushfires, but of the floods a year ago and of our terrible drought that has ravaged our country - you are all Australians of the Year."

The official Australia Day Honours list in 2020 recognises 837 outstanding and inspirational Australians.

There were five people appointed Companions of the Order, 59 appointed Officers of the Order, 224 appointed Members of the Order, and 549 OAM Medals awarded.

Women made up 41.6 per cent of awardees.

Almost 45 per cent of awards, 375 in total, were for outstanding service or achievement in the community.

WA obstetrician named Senior Australian of the Year

The 2020 Senior Australian of the Year is Perth-based obstetrics specialist Professor John Newnham AM.

Professor Newnham is one of the world's leading authorities in pre-term birth prevention which is the single greatest cause of death and disability in children up to five years of age.

In accepting the honour, Professor Newnham, 67, called for more support for a new program to reduce the rate of pre-term births across Australia.

Senior Australian of the Year professor John Newnham at the 2020 Australian of the Year Awards. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Senior Australian of the Year professor John Newnham at the 2020 Australian of the Year Awards. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

"It is not time for prevention of pre-term birth to become a national priority for Australia," Professor Newnham said.

In his speech, said for many years as part of his career he's had the privilege to care for women with complicated pregnancies and sick babies before they are born.

"As a young medical student I became fascinated by life before birth, and how little was known about the events before birth and how they may impact on our health and our disease throughout the rest of our lives," Professor Newnham said.

"I believe I have found an undiscovered continent, and I have spent the rest of my life exploring it."

He said until recently it was thought that pre-term birth could not be prevented.

"However, we have shown in Western Australia that the rate can be safely reduced, improving the lives of many people."

The program, called the Australian Pre-Term Birth Prevention Alliance, is now being rolled out across Australia.

"There is no roadmap to follow, but we should all be very proud of the fact that Australia is now the first country to have such a national program," he said.

Worldwide, 15 million babies are born prematurely each year.

In Australia, 8 per cent of babies are born pre-term and that rate doubles in the Indigenous population.

Ash Barty named 2020 Young Australian of the Year

Ashleigh Barty, the 23-year-old world No.1 women's tennis player, was named the 2020 Young Australian of the Year on Saturday night.

She was praised for inspiring fans with her "dynamic game, formidable serve and down-to-earth attitude".

Barty, who was not at the awards ceremony on Saturday night, was surprised earlier in the day by tennis great Pat Rafter in Melbourne at the Australian Open.

"This is bizarre. It really is," Ms Barty said, receiving the award.

"I think, you know, for me, my family, my team - we're just trying to do the best that we can every single day. To be Young Australian of the Year's unbelievable. Very, very humbling. I don't think I'm deserving of it but, yeah, I'm just trying to be me."

Ashleigh Barty, who was named the 2020 Young Australian of the Year on Saturday night. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Ashleigh Barty, who was named the 2020 Young Australian of the Year on Saturday night. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

She said it was important to focus on being your authentic self in all you did, and striving as high as you could.

"This is incredibly humbling, and I know that it's going to be something that sits very, very high on my mantelpiece at home," she said.

Barty, who was born in Ipswich, Queensland, started playing tennis when she was aged four, and by the time she was 12, she played against adults.

Her professional career started in 2010, winning the junior title at Wimbledon when she was 15, the second Australian to win the title. At 17, she was a three-times grand slam doubles finalist and ranked inside the world top 100.

After the 2014 US Open, Barty, then 18, announced she would step away from professional tennis.

"It was too much too quickly for me as I've been travelling from quite a young age," she said in 2015.

"I wanted to experience life as a normal teenaged girl and have some normal experiences."

After a stint playing cricket, Barty returned to tennis in 2016, reaching the third round of the Australian Open in 2017 and 2018, and the quarter-final in 2019.

Barty won the French Open, her maiden grand slam title, last year.

"It's unbelievable. I'm a little bit speechless. I played the perfect match today. I am so proud of myself and my team," she said.

Barty first became the world No.1 in June last year, the first Australian woman to do so since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1976, and the fifth Australian overall.

"I am so proud that another Aboriginal player sits on top of the rankings in women's tennis, particularly a young lady who conveys such happiness in all she does," said Goolagong Cawley, who Barty credits as a mentor.

Barty, whose father Robert is a Ngarigo man, was named the National Indigenous Tennis ambassador in April 2018.

"I'm a very proud Indigenous woman and I think that for me taking on this role is something very close to my heart. I'm very excited," Ms Barty said at the time.

"If we can get more kids playing tennis and more kids enjoying tennis across Australia within the Indigenous communities that would be amazing."

Barty has said she works hard to balance the demands of a busy international schedule playing tennis and her own mental fitness.

"I go home often throughout the year. That's for me how I mentally refresh, physically refresh as well, make sure that I'm ready to go," Ms Barty said last year.

Barty will play the United States' Alison Riske in the fourth round of the Australian Open in Melbourne on Sunday night.

Bernie Shakeshaft named Australian Local Hero of the Year 2020

Bernie Shakeshaft, who works with at-risk teenagers in Armidale to help them on the path towards employment and further education and training, has been named this year's Australian Local Hero.

Mr Shakeshaft established BackTrack in 2006, a program which has since supported more than 1000 young people towards finding work and education opportunities and expanded into other NSW towns.

Bernie Shakeshaft at the 2020 Australian of the Year Awards on Saturday night, where he was named Local Hero of the Year. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Bernie Shakeshaft at the 2020 Australian of the Year Awards on Saturday night, where he was named Local Hero of the Year. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Bernie Shakeshaft at the 2020 Australian of the Year Awards on Saturday night, where he was named Local Hero of the Year. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

On Saturday, he called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to support long-term holistic support for Australian kids, and encouraged young people doing it tough to hang in for help that was on its way.

"I started BackTrack, seriously as simple as this - to keep kids alive, to keep them out of jail, and to chase their dreams," Mr Shakeshaft said in accepting the award.

"To be recognised and stand beside so many cracking Aussies is touching, and it's humbling. To be here because some kids who were locked up in a juvenile detention centre that I have never met who saw our documentary and made the nomination, makes it even more special.

"Sometimes, I think we underestimate the power and the potential of our young people. Our youth are our nation's most valuable asset. As parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and friends, our kids bring us together. As a nation, they're our future. As a society, they're the most honest barometer of how we're tracking."

BackTrack's participants train dogs, learn trade skills, tackle an individually tailored school curriculum and work together on other local projects.

The program has gained the trust of magistrates, the police and mayors. There has been a more than 38 per cent drop in Armidale's youth crime rate since the program began

A 2018 documentary, BackTrack Boys, brought Mr Shakeshaft's work to a wider audience, with a growing demand for similar programs in other areas.

BackTrack programs have recently been set up in Dubbo, Lake Cargelligo, Condobolin and Bourke.

Mr Shakeshaft, 52, has worked closely with Indigenous trackers as a jackeroo in the Northern Territory and as a youth worker in NSW before starting BackTrack.

"We take kids that are on long term suspensions or completely removed from the education system - it is not an Indigenous program although 75 per cent of the kids we have are," Mr Shakeshaft said in 2018.

"Most of these kids have a mountain of issues so we take a holistic approach and fill gaps in the system, sometimes they might take three or four years in the program.

"We have an 87 per cent success rate. That is 87 per cent of kids that leave the program are either in full time education and training or full time employment."

Mr Shakeshaft in July last year said there had been a 35 per cent cut in juvenile crime in a year when new programs had started in Gunnedah, Armidale and Glen Innes.

Now 40 teenagers - male and female - come daily to training sessions and classes at a former council shed in Armidale, which has been part of the program since the beginning.

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