An eye surgeon has been named Australian of the Year for 2020 for his work preventing blindness.
This year’s winners:
- Dr James Mueke is named Australian of the Year for his work raising awareness of type 2 diabetes and its links to blindness
- Pro tennis player Ash Barty is named Young Australian of the Year for inspiring young people to follow their dreams
- Obstetrics specialist Professor John Newnham is named Senior Australian of the Year for working to prevent pre-term births
- Bernie Shakeshaft is named Local Hero for his work establishing an education program for disadvantaged youth
Dr James Muecke’s work specifically focuses on the leading cause of blindness in adults — type 2 diabetes.
In 2000 Dr Muecke co-founded Vision Myanmar at the South Australian Institute of Ophthalmology and later co-founded Sight For All, a social impact organisation aiming to create a world where everyone can see.
Dr Muecke says with 80 per cent of world blindness avoidable — and almost 90 per cent in poor countries — blindness is a human rights issue.
‘Doing our nation proud’
The world’s top women’s tennis player, Ash Barty, was also honoured as the Young Australian of the Year for inspiring legions of fans through her actions both on and off the court.
The 23-year-old from Ipswich in Queensland is the first Australian woman since Evonne Goolagong Cawley to hold tennis’s world number one ranking.
As an adult, Barty has won six singles titles on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour, including one grand slam singles title at the 2019 French Open. She also sits in the top 20 of doubles players and was a doubles runner up for the Australian Open at the age of just 16.
But National Australia Day Council chair Danielle Roche said it was Barty’s down-to-earth attitude that earned her the 2020 Young Australian of the Year Award.
“Ash Barty is the world’s number one tennis player, a champion athlete and an extraordinary young woman doing our nation proud,” she said.
“Her achievements are inspiring young Australians to follow their dreams.”
Barty did not accept her award in person, instead appearing via video link from Melbourne, where she is in the running for the Australian Open title.
2002 Australian of the Year and fellow tennis pro Pat Rafter presented Barty with the award, who said she was “very humbled”.
“I think for me, my whole life, all of my team, everyone I work with, it’s about being your authentic self,” she said.
“Just trying to do the best you can, regardless of what you do — in sport, in life, in anything.
“This is incredibly humbling, and I know that it’s going to be something that sits very, very high on my mantelpiece at home.”
Obstetrician whose work reduced pre-term births by eight per cent recognised
Being honoured with the title of Senior Australian of the Year was obstetrics specialist John Newnham.
Professor Newnham is one of the world’s leading authorities in the prevention of pre-term birth and his initiatives have been credited for reducing pre-term births in WA by eight per cent.
Professor Newnham said as a young medical student he became fascinated by life before birth and how little was known about how those events could impact someone’s health throughout their lives.
“I believed I had found an undiscovered continent, and I have spent the rest of my life exploring it,” he said.
“Eight per cent of Australians are born pre-term and in Indigenous Australians, that rate is almost double.
“We have shown in Western Australia that the rate can be safely reduced, improving the lives of many people. This is a whole-of-nation effort now, and I’m very proud and thrilled that this award will help propagate our efforts.”
‘We don’t quit until the job is done’
Bernie Shakeshaft was awarded the title of Australia’s Local Hero at a ceremony in Canberra on Saturday night in honour of his work with disadvantaged rural youth.
In 2006, after seeing the plight of children in his hometown of Armidale in New South Wales, Mr Shakeshaft began BackTrack — a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to reconnecting children with their education, families and communities.
In the years since the youth program has gained the support of magistrates, police and mayors.
It has also been credited for helping decrease the youth crime rate in Armidale by 38 per cent.
Mr Shakeshaft said, for him, children were the most honest barometer of society.
“When one in five kids under the age of 17 don’t go to school or have a job, when one in four kids are suffering from mental health issues, when there’s 28,000 kids sleeping rough in this country at the moment, I say that’s not good enough,” he said.
But it was a chance encounter with the chief executive of a bank at a Christmas party that allowed Mr Shakeshaft to begin his program and do something about it.
Mr Shakeshaft built on the skills he had developed growing up and as a jackaroo in the Northern Territory learning from Aboriginal trackers to develop an alternative education program for kids who had lost interest in school.
Children participating in the program can now gain skills like woodwork and welding while learning alongside dogs that help keep them focused and calm.
“Thirteen years ago I started a personal dream with a handful of volunteers in an empty shed. Since that day, we just kept doing whatever it took to progress those young people,” Mr Shakeshaft said.
“If they can’t read and write, we teach them to read and write. If they don’t have somewhere to live, we provide somewhere to live. We even built a business employing unemployable kids.”
So far more than 1,000 children have taken part in the BackTrack program.
When accepting the award, Mr Shakeshaft said BackTrack participants had been working alongside firefighters since September last year.
“Through our experience I’ve noticed the parallels between the response to fires and our kids,” he said.
“When a fire breaks out, you need to take action and you need to do it quickly … we knew what we had to do, so we just got up and did it.
“Protecting our nation’s most valuable assets, our kids, is no different. We need to rally together as a nation and take action quickly.
“And just like the fires, we don’t quit until the job is done.”
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