Australian of the Year 2020

Dr James Muecke. Courtesy: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Eye surgeon Dr James Muecke has been named the 2020 Australian of the Year.

Earlier, Ash Barty was named the Young Australian of the Year, Bernie Shakeshaft was named the country’s Local Hero, and Professor John Newnham was named Senior Australian of the Year.

Dr James Muecke named Australian of the Year 2020

The 56-year-old Adelaide-based ophthalmologist was one of the favourites to take out the honour, which was announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

He commenced his acceptance speech with a memorable joke, noting that 2020 was “an auspicious year for eyesight”.

He described type 2 diabetes as a “looming catastrophe” and a “growing epidemic” that was impacting nearly one in every 10 Aussies. It was the leading cause of blindness in working-age adults and the fastest-growing cause of blindness in Aboriginal people, he said.

Dr Muecke said he wanted to spend the year to “challenge our perception of sugar”.

“I want to encourage hard-hitting strategies to build greater awareness of the detrimental role sugar plays in our society, and how it’s as toxic and addictive as nicotine, and should be treated by consumers, businesses and governments as such,” he said.

Dr Muecke’s honour marks the second time an ophthalmologist has been named Australian of the Year, after Dr Fred Hollows in 1990.

People from a medicine or science background have been named Australian of the Year 16 times, outnumbering those from the world of sports (14 winners in total) and the arts (11 winners in total).

Dr Muecke’s work combating blindness has taken him from Kenya and Myanmar to remote Aboriginal communities.

He co-founded the organisation Vision Myanmar in 2000 and another not-for-profit, Sight For All, in 2007.

Sight For All deploys volunteer Australian and New Zealand eye specialists to combat preventable blindness in nine Asian countries and one in Africa. More than 120 eye health specialists donate more than 10,000 hours of their time each year, the organisation states on its website.

Dr Muecke’s recent research focus has been on type 2 diabetes, the leading cause of blindness in adults.

Professor John Newnham named Senior Australian of the Year 2020

Professor John Newnham of Perth was announced as the Senior Australian of the Year for his world-leading work in preventing preterm births. A pilot program he developed in WA led to an eight per cent reduction in premature births across the state, leading to a national rollout of the program in 2018.

The 67-year-old professor of obstetrics also founded and led the pioneering Raine Study, the world’s first and most enduring pregnancy-focused lifetime cohort project.

“Professor John Newnham’s lifetime of research has saved many thousands of infant lives and leads global practice improving the health of millions of women and babies,” said the Chair of the National Australia Day Council, Danielle Roche.

Prof Newnham said his interest in life before birth started when he was a young medical student.

“I became fascinated by life before birth, and how little was known about events before birth and how they may impact on our health and our disease throughout the rest of our lives. I believed I had found an undiscovered continent, and I have spent the rest of my life exploring

it,” he said.

Some eight percent of Australians were born pre-term, and the rate among Indigenous Australians was twice that, he said, and it was time for pre-term birth to become a national priority.

“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,” he said.

Ash Barty named Young Australian of the Year

Ash Barty, who smashed her way to a fourth round appearance at the Australian Open on Friday, was widely tipped to be named the Young Australian of the Year ahead of the announcement.

The 23-year-old from Ipswich has won fans for both her on-court success (she won the 2019 French Open) and her calm, down-to-earth and quintessentially Aussie demeanour.

Currently ranked the top singles tennis player by the Women’s Tennis Association, she also serves as the National Indigenous Tennis Ambassador for Tennis Australia.

Chair of the National Australia Day Council, Danielle Roche OAM, said Ms Barty’s was “inspiring young Australians to follow their dreams”.

“Ash Barty is the world’s No.1 tennis player, a champion athlete and an extraordinary young woman doing our nation proud,” she said.

Ms Barty could not be in Canberra to accept the award, given she is currently competing in the Australian Open. She was presented with the award by Pat Rafter in a surprise moment when she thought she was assembling for a TV interview.

She described the honour as “bizarre” and “humbling”.

Asked what qualities her family had helped instil in her, the world’s number one said; “Everything comes from mum and dad”.

“All of my values that I’ve lived by and try to live by every single day, regardless of whether it’s in sport, all come from mum and dad. It’s about being humble and respectful, and giving it a crack – trying to be the best you can be, and that’s all you can ask of yourself.”

Bernie Shakeshaft named Australia’s Local Hero 2020

Armidale-based youth worker Bernie Shakeshaft was named Australia’s Local Hero for his work with the innovative BackTrack Youth Works Program, which has so far assisted more than 1000 rural youth to reconnect with their education, training, families and community.

The program, which receives no more than five per cent of its funding from government, uses animal-assisted learning, agricultural skills and a residential component, and has been instrumental in decreasing Armidale’s youth crime rate by 38 per cent.

The 52 year old started the program in 2006, using skills he developed growing up and as a jackaroo in the Northern Territory learning from Aboriginal trackers. His work was recently the subject of a documentary called Backtrack Boys.

Accepting the award, Mr Shakeshaft said young people were the “most honest barometer of how we’re trackin’”.

Too many young Australians were being left behind, he said.

“Kids are being locked up at unprecedented levels. One in four suffering from mental health. Twenty-eight thousand kids tonight in Australia homeless. One in five kids under the age of 17 are in no form of education, training or employment. For some, it’s so bloody tough, they take their own lives. For me, that’s not good enough, Australia. I reckon we can do better.”

Mr Shakeshaft finished his speech with a message for “Aussie kids doing it tough”.

“Hang on, don’t give up, help’s on the way. To those young roughnuts locked up who nominated me, I’m comin’ to see you, mob.”

Previous winners in attendance

Prime Minister Scott Morrison commenced the event with a message of thanks for volunteers fighting bushfires across the country.

“Thousands of volunteers are fighting fires and reminding us about what it means to be a citizen of this great nation,” he said. “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. Sweat. There is prosperity and there is struggle, and it is a story of a people grappling with the most tenacious, but yet most beautiful, continent on earth.”

All those people were Australians of the Year, he said.

Tonight’s gala event also celebrates 60 years of the award. Ex-winners including Shane Gould, Robert de Castella, Dr Fiona Wood, Tim Falnery and Mark Taylor spoke to hosts Kumi Taguchi and Jeremy Fernandez about the experience of winning the award.

The Deep Blue Orchestra also performed a special arrangement of the Yothu Tindi song World Turning during a special segment honouring the previous winners who had died.

Previous winners including Rosie Batty (2015), Ita Buttrose (2013), Robert de Castella (1983), Dawn Fraser (1964) and the joint recipients of the 2019 award, Dr Richard Harris and Craig Challen, were all in attendance.

Prime Minister Morrison choked up earlier today while hosting a morning tea for the finalists at The Lodge.

“Earlier in the week my father passed,” he said. “He loved Australia and he’d love you all because you’ve been building the country he loved.”



2020 ACT Australian of the Year – Katrina Fanning

2020 NSW Australian of the Year – Professor Munjed Al Muderis

2020 NT Australian of the Year – Dr Geoffrey Thompson

2020 Queensland Australian of the Year – Rachel Downie

2020 SA Australian of the Year – Dr James Muecke AM WINNER

2020 Tasmania Australian of the Year – Dr Jess Melbourne-Thomas

2020 Victoria Australian of the Year – Archie Roach AM

2020 WA Australian of the Year – Annie Fogarty AM


2020 ACT Senior Australian of the Year – Sue Salthouse

2020 NSW Senior Australian of the Year – Sue Lennox

2020 NT Senior Australian of the Year – Banduk Marika AO

2020 QLD Senior Australian of the Year – Peter Dornan AM

2020 SA Senior Australian of the Year – Sylvia McMillan

2020 TAS Senior Australian of the Year – Dr Graeme Stevenson

2020 VIC Senior Australian of the Year – Dr Raymond Shuey APM

2020 WA Senior Australian of the Year – Professor John Newnham AM WINNER


2020 ACT Young Australian of the Year – Madeline Diamond

2020 NSW Young Australian of the Year – Corey Tutt

2020 QLD Young Australian of the Year – Ash Barty WINNER

2020 SA Young Australian of the Year – Zibeon Fielding

2020 TAS Young Australian of the Year – Will Smith

2020 VIC Young Australian of the Year – Taya Davies

2020 WA Young Australian of the Year – Yarlalu Thomas


2020 ACT Local Hero – Julia Rollings

2020 NSW Local Hero – Bernie Shakeshaft WINNER

2020 NT Local Hero – Shirleen Campbell

2020 QLD Local Hero – Adjunct Assistant Professor Nick Marshall

2020 SA Local Hero – Emmah Evans

2020 TAS Local Hero – Thomas Windsor

2020 VIC Local Hero – Josephine Jones

2020 WA Local Hero – Suzy Urbaniak