Some Australians didn’t take one day off in 2020.
Some dropped everything to help the vulnerable and others stood up for our natural wonders.
Others have dedicated their entire lives to improving the rights of Indigenous Australians.
This Australia Day, 845 people are receiving the country’s highest honours, including Order of Australia awards, meritorious awards and distinguished and conspicuous awards.
Despite a determined effort by the Governor-General to celebrate more women, this year only 36.7 per cent of recipients are female — a drop from 41.6 per cent last year.
Here are the stories of nine Australians being honoured today.
Caroline Edwards (PSM)
Caroline Edwards didn’t hesitate when she was asked to lead Australia’s public health response to coronavirus, despite it being the greatest pressure of her career.
The Public Service Medal recipient and Associate Secretary of the Health Department can be credited with securing the nation’s supplies of COVID-19 tests, personal protective equipment and ventilators, as well as leading the expansion of telehealth services.
She is now driving the vaccine rollout.
“There was no moment that I could actually say it was somebody else’s responsibility or that I could take a weekend off and say, ‘Well, I’ll worry about that on Monday’,” she said.
“I’m sort of proud to have survived all of that and come out at the end with a well-functioning team and really have contributed, in whatever small way, to the fantastic place that Australia finds itself in.
“Mind you, when I go to bed at night I do have to remember that over 900 people in Australia have died from COVID and every one of those people has a family who’s left behind and is grieving for them.”
Sarah Parry (AM)
For seafarer Sarah Parry, getting all hands on deck has helped troubled and disadvantaged teenagers discover a sense of purpose by learning to sail.
Since starting construction of her tall ship, Windeward Bound in 1990, the honours recipient has worked with thousands of young people, testing their ability to overcome challenges, instilling a sense of self-confidence along the way.
“Every time we go to sea with a new bunch of kids, we come back with a completely different bunch of kids in the same bodies — that’s what drives me,” she said.
“One of the things that equalises them best, I have to say, is sea sickness when we go to sea. That levels everybody out and it’s really, really good because it brings everybody together.
“They come away with a feeling of achievement in their own right, but they also come away with a different mental approach than they might have had before and that comes from inclusivity, it comes from all the challenges that get thrown at them, particularly on a voyage.”
Aunty Frances Mathyssen (AM)
Yorta Yorta elder, Aunty Frances Mathyssen, has spent her life advocating for her community, since walking off the Cummeragunja Mission in 1939.
From the fight for treaty, to her devotion to children’s services and the provision of culturally-informed healthcare, Aunty Frances has been at the forefront.
As well as being instrumental in the establishment of Victoria’s first statewide Aboriginal Welfare Committee, Aunty Frances co-founded the Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative from her home kitchen in the 1970s.
“I’m happy today to say that I got recognised but I didn’t do it to get recognised, I did it for my people,” she said.
“It’d be great if everybody recognised Aboriginal people for what we’ve been through.”
And at 91 years old, she doesn’t intend to stop.
“When you think of the little kids that are coming up, they’ve got to be educated and taught about what happened in the past,” she said.
“We still have a lot to do.”
Malcolm Turnbull (AC)
Malcolm Turnbull joins a line of former Australian Prime Ministers who have been appointed the country’s highest civilian honour.
Mr Turnbull’s contributions to national security, free trade, economic reform and clean energy have been listed as key achievements.
But it is the changes introduced to the Marriage Act during his time in the top job of which he is most proud.
“There aren’t a lot of social reforms of that kind that occur and I was very pleased to be able to deliver that, it had been too long delayed,” he said.
“I think I was able to position Australia correctly in terms of our region, taking a strong independent position, standing up to pressure from other more powerful nations.
“I’m proud of all of the things we were able to get done while I was Prime Minister.
“I got a lot more done than I thought I would be able to.”
Samia Baho (OAM)
Coming to Australia as an Eritrean refugee more than 30 years ago has shaped Samia Boho’s advocacy work today.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she could often be found in the arrivals terminal of Melbourne Airport at 3:00am welcoming displaced migrants and refugees, weary from hours of travel and anxious of what may lie ahead.
“I say, ‘If anybody comes and they don’t have family here, call me,’. In Tasmania, in Sydney, everywhere I go I say, ‘This is my number, anybody who doesn’t have anyone, I’m here.’
“They call me, I jump and I go.”
Ms Baho is passionate about empowering women and helping them find employment in Australia, setting up a specialised centre in Melbourne’s west.
“We have a good connection with other services, with many sympathetic people, that whatever we need to do, it will happen,” she said.
“But the main goal and aim is employment.
“If you get employment, your life will change in a lot of aspects.”
Russell Reichelt (AO)
Russell Reichelt is determined to use his honours appointment to raise greater awareness around climate change and what can be done to fix it.
While humbled to receive the accolade, the former executive chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority expressed his gratitude to the thousands of frontline workers and volunteers toiling behind the scenes.
“It’s caused me to reflect on these awards and right now, I would give 10 or 12,000 of them to firefighters, health workers, migrants, all the other people that are bending their backs to support our country in this time of stress,” Dr Reichelt said.
Conservation is central to the marine ecologist’s message, having developed a reporting system that has been adopted by UNESCO to monitor all World Heritage Sites listed for their natural values.
“Climate change is the greatest threat to, not just the Barrier Reef but coral reefs worldwide and so this award has inspired me to work harder to explain that more frequently in every forum I can that we do need to respond very strongly to this.
“There’s a good future ahead if we tackle this with both hands and heart.”
Margaret Court (AC)
Former tennis great Margaret Court is being promoted from an Officer of the Order of Australia to a Companion.
Ms Court said she was “honoured” to learn she would receive the award and wanted people to focus on her tennis achievements as opposed to her personal beliefs.
The 78-year-old’s nomination was leaked last week and sparked public debate due to her previous criticisms of the LGBT community and same-sex marriage.
Ms Court was the first female to win Wimbledon in 1963 and is now a reverend in Perth.
“I represented my nation, I always stand for my nation and I love my nation,” she said.
“I love all people, I have nothing against people, but I’m just saying what the bible says.”
Anne Burgess (AM)
Advocating for the vulnerable is front and centre of Anne Burgess’ philosophy.
The former acting commissioner of the South Australian Equal Opportunity Commission has been awarded an Order of Australia medal for significant service to mental health, gender equality and older people.
She reflected that over the years her perspective on how to best achieve this had changed.
“I think I started off thinking, that’s what it was, giving a voice to vulnerable people,” she said.
“I think more and more latterly, what I’ve been able to do is stand alongside vulnerable people and help them put their voice forward so they’re the ones who are intricately involved now in designing the services that they need.
“I really feel like if you can get a band of good people around — and I’ve always been really lucky in getting really good people, really enthusiastic, courageous people around me — you can help make a difference.”
Greg Chappell (AO)
Cricket great Greg Chappell has been recognised not only for his contribution to the sport but his commitment to ending youth homelessness through his charity, The Chappell Foundation.
“We had pretty modest ambitions when we set the charity up,” he said.
“From my own point-of-view, I thought if we could put one life back on track it would be worthwhile.”
The former Australian captain and coach said he was lucky to play cricket at “a very interesting time, not only for cricket but I think in Australia”.
“There was a lot of change going on and sport reflects that change in society and cricket certainly did reflect that in the era that we played.
“But I remember the things we did as a group more than the individual things, some of the best lessons came from the worst days.”