Celebrating Great Australians

Last night I attended the CareerTrackers Gala Dinner. It was a night of optimism, inspiration, tears (the best kind) and standing ovations for people – tall poppies – who had achieved great things despite enormous obstacles.

I loved every minute of it – every single minute.

As Michael and I drove home through that lovely muggy warmth of a Sydney summer night, the euphoria settled happily into a nice calm optimism. I wished I could be part of more nights like that. Celebrating greatness and resilience. Fostering optimism and hope.

I will give you some background.

If you don’t know CareerTrackers, here’s the website www.careertrackers.org.au. It is “a not for profit that creates an internship for Indigenous university students, it aims to address indigenous disadvantage in the best possible way”. It supports, encourages, mentors and cares, and then celebrates success when it goes right, and even when it goes a little wrong before it goes even more right.

The Gala Dinner 

So, what does the Gala Dinner feel like? Well, you’re one of 1780+ people rolled into the Australian Technology Park (the old railway buildings in Eveleigh, if you don’t know it by its new name). It’s hot. You share some food and wine with table after table of optimistic excited interested people, while you listen to the most amazing achievements. 72 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who are achieving Distinction plus-average at the university.

Three of those students who are achieving averages of 93%+. Hundreds of Alumni coming out of University courses that many didn’t have the original ATARs to even be considered for (although some rocked that ATAR in as well), universities and companies. They are backing the CareerTrackers interns because they’re great, because they’re committed to making the most of every opportunity and because they represent hope. Hope on the grandest of scales.

The Highlight 

Amongst all that greatness, the highlight of the night is always the student speeches. This year there were four.

Firstly, was an amazing young lawyer (who spoke fluent Cantonese, just by the way) and quoted that he was statistically more likely to be an alcoholic and incarcerated than a successful lawyer heading to China.

Secondly, an incredible young engineer told his deeply personal story of taking a trip down some very dark laneways. He then found his way back to the highest of highs as a brilliant student and role model, albeit an incredibly humble and vulnerable one.

Thirdly, a woman about the same age as me stood up and took us down a meandering path of childhood abuse. A refuge in the stories of library books, more violence as an adult and overcoming extraordinary personal hardship. She went on to be a university graduate, a great Mum and an outstanding contributor to society.

Finally, they awarded the highest honour to a young student who worked for QANTAS. There was speculation that she could one day be QANTAS CEO or even Prime Minister. Her gorgeously proud and humble parents stood behind her, as she told of her community (statistically measured as the most disadvantaged in NSW) and how she was personally helping to lift up the generation behind her (and she’s only in her twenties).

All 1780+ of us rose to our feet time and again. Loudly applauding what was achieved. These students, of all ages, had overcome enormous difficulties and every predictive statistic. They have gone on to make something fabulous happen not just for themselves, but for their family and their community, and ultimately for the Australia, we all share.

I’m sure if you’ve checked, all of us would have said that the only doubt we had that the final awardee – Barbie-Lee Kirby – would one day be Prime Minister (or even President) was that she’d have some stiff competition from the other three speakers of the night.

We applauded. We cried. We felt like we were all in this together, supporting each other to be great. Such was the respect and admiration for each and every student on that stage.

Then as I drove home I was struck that we don’t do that often enough. Applaud and recognise really great Australians.

Time to grow up 

We’re not a young country. We sing that we are, but we’re not. We’re one of the oldest. And frankly, it’s time we grew out of the awkward faux teenage angst we keep putting on.

I’m not suggesting we become all arrogant or weird. I’m not suggesting we stop expecting every person to give more to society than we get back. I’m not suggesting we end our love affair with humility or our scepticism of perfection. I’m not suggesting we do away with our gorgeous self-depreciating humour. These are great Australian ideals. To be kept and nurtured in every new Australian – born or arrived.

Abandon the bloody awful Tall Poppy Syndrome.

The students last night were super tall poppies. Fragile, blowing in the wind, but fighting hard to stand tall and show their faces to the sun. We applauded them with everything we had and felt so incredibly optimistic that this great group of Aussie leaders was coming through.

Equally, those finalists in the Australian of the Year last week were Tall Poppies. Tackling overwhelmingly difficult problems – Ebola, Domestic Violence, Diversity, Alcohol Abuse, Homelessness, Burn Surgery, and the Environment – and making progress. Yet this year, people who’ve achieved very little of anything keep standing up loudly to let us know these finalists aren’t good enough.

We shouldn’t applaud them because there was still work to be done and they weren’t perfect – “don’t let anyone of them ever feel like a winner” is the sentiment.

Frankly, I love the stories of every finalist. I am filled with admiration for their courage and determination to make progress in these most difficult of issues. And I will applaud them, and will not cut them down. I will actively support every one of them to achieve more.

It's time our national identity said, “being proud of the best of us is an important part of us”.

Tall Poppy Syndrome be dammed.

Written – 5 February 2016 – after driving home from the CareerTrackers Annual Gala Dinner, and a week after the Australian of the Year Awards