6 Lessons from the 2016 Australian of the Year

January 26 2016

Happy Australia Day, sublime seekers! Did you watch the Australia Day awards last night? If yes, did the Australian of the Year nominees leave you with the feeling like you should be doing more with your life? An incredibly inspiring – and genuinely good – bunch of people, it’s worth a squiz on iView if you missed it.

I’ve shared before that by day I have the privilege of working in the business of people (human resources) on issues of diversity and inclusion. My phone lit up with texts last night as Lieutenant General David Morrison was awarded Australian of the Year for 2016. I am beyond excited to see a diversity advocate (in particular, a white, male diversity advocate) be given this platform for change! As those who watched the awards last night would know – General Morrison is an incredibly compelling communicator. With Rosie Batty having redefined the influence and change an Australian of the Year is capable of achieving, I can’t wait to see where General Morrison will take things this year.

But there’s another story here that isn’t being widely reported in the media.

David Morrison Australian of the Year

Lieutenant General David Morrison, 2016 Australian of the Year

The lesser-told story is that two of the other seven Australian of the Year nominees were instrumental in seeing General Morrison become the diversity advocate that he has been awarded the Australia Day honour for. I don’t want to skip over the significance of this – three of the nominees’ work has been so significant it saw them all nominated as Australia’s most influential achievers. And buried in this story is some lessons we can all take something from… and that’s how I’m going to share the story with you.

Lesson 1: We’re not born passionate. We find our passion along the way.

David Morrison has not spent his entire career a diversity advocate. In fact, his advocacy was born out a truly abhorrent sequence of events that took place in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). In 2011, the Skype scandal went public – for those who don’t recall, a male and female cadet engaged in consensual sex, however unbeknownst to the female, the male was broadcasting their interlude to six friends via Skype. The story went public and attracted the attention of the public and government. The then Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick – another of the Australian of the Year finalists – was asked to investigate the ADF with a view to determining if a systemic problem was present.

Australian of the Year nominee Elizabeth Broderick

Australian of the Year nominee Elizabeth Broderick: Australia’s most recent Sex Discrimination Commissioner

By his own admission, David Morrison rolled his eyes, claiming the last thing needed was another review into the ADF. Liz Broderick described the initial reception from the ADF as defensive and passive-agressive. She left her first meeting with General Morrison thinking ‘this is not going to be an easy ride’ and quickly realised that she ‘needed to find a lever of change that would have much more impact’.

Lesson 2: There is great power in sharing our stories.

As Liz worked her way through her investigation, she came across three women who during their time at the ADF had been victims of sexual harassment/assault (harassment and assault are very different things, but I do not know their individual stories, only that they fall in both camps). These were women who loved the Army, but whose service had come at an unacceptable personal cost. Two were still employed by the ADF. Liz contacted David and asked him to come not as Chief of Army, but as David Morrison, human being, to listen to these women’s stories. They met in plain clothes at the Human Rights Commission in Sydney, and for six hours, David Morrison the person, listened.

I had the great privilege of hearing General Morrison speak at a diversity and inclusion conference several years back and, with Liz Broderick on the stage with him, he recounted the story of this day. He said that he’d been in the Army for more than 30 years, he’d been to war, he’d seen terrible, awful things in service. But nothing was as horrific as hearing the stories those three courageous women shared with him on that day. In the Australian Story special on the General, he described hearing ‘stories that not just tore at my heart, but tore at the ideas that I had about an institution that reported to describe itself as one that gave everyone a fair go. They hadn’t been given anything like a fair go.’ ‘I felt absolutely 100% responsible for what had happened to them. And I still do.’ He left the meeting upset, but ‘absolutely convinced that I needed to be even firmer in my approach to deal with this.’

By all accounts, it had been a life-changing moment. The courage of these three women to share their stories, and Liz Broderick’s understanding of their power, was the turning point that would eventually make David Morrison into the incredible advocate he is today.

Lesson 3: Decisive Leadership makes a mark… and some situations demand it.

In 2013, the Jedi Council scandal hit the news. The ‘Jedi Council’ was the self-appointed name chosen by a group of male ADF employees who exchanged a series of explicit and degrading emails including images of a woman having sex, taken without her knowledge. The scandal saw 170 people either sacked or disciplined and some referred to police.

On the day the scandal broke, General Morrison sent a furious message to Australian Defence Force personnel via YouTube.

The message went viral, receiving attention around the world. At todays count, it has 1.6million views. One of the most powerful lines from the address: ‘the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.’

This video propelled General Morrison into the spotlight and brought attention to his determination to see the ADF become a genuinely inclusive workforce. Without a shadow of doubt, he meant the words he was saying. But he did not write them.

Lesson 4: Great people have great support.

The author of this speech was Cate McGregor; another of this year’s Australian of the Year finalists. Cate was David’s speechwriter and right-hand, their working relationship was like no other David had experienced – they were a team. As many of you are likely aware, Cate was born Malcolm and received Australia Day honours this year for the incredible works she has done raising awareness as Australia’s (and reportedly the world’s) most senior transgender Army official. Cate lived as Malcolm for more than 50 years before finding the courage to transition to female, an internal struggle she had felt her entire life. When she shared with General Morrison her intention to do so and attempted to resign, he refused to accept her resignation.

Australian of the Year Nominee: Cate McGregor

Australian of the Year nominee, Cate McGregor: author of General Morrison’s viral YouTube speech

By General Morrison’s account, his viral speech ‘wouldn’t have been the speech that it was if it wasn’t written by Cate McGregor.’ When asked why he replies, ‘I think she was confronting her own feelings of isolation.’ Cate’s story, courage, passion and conviction lent itself perfectly to this situation and was another truly instrumental piece in seeing General Morrison propel into the spotlight he so commandingly occupies.

Australian of the Year Nominees

Cate McGregor and David Morrison – an incredible team.

Lesson 5: Together we can do amazing things.

In the same way Cate McGregor’s story is buoyed by Morrison’s support and Broderick’s incredible success and progress as Sex Discrimination Commissioner was undoubtedly propelled by Morrison’s deliberate and unpenetrable determination to create cultural change in the ADF, David Morrison is the advocate he is due in part to Broderick and McGregor’s influence.

Australian of the Year Nominees Elizabeth Broderick and David Morrison

Elizabeth Broderick and David Morrison at NATO Headquarters in Brussels for Gender Week last year.

Each of these incredible Australian’s success is intrinsically tied together. On their own, they were great. Together, their achievements have been amazing. And don’t we know this to be true in our own lives? When you surround yourself with passionate people and change agents, it lights a fire in your belly right? The possibilities are limitless when you use the burn to propel you forward.

Lesson 6: The time for inclusivity is now.

Three of the eight 2016 Australian of the Year nominees were diversity champions – to me this signals so strongly that inclusivity has never been more important. Studies have shown us time and time again that difference (diversity) creates better results and fuels innovation. Getting inclusion right – creating a culture where we can all reach our potential – will elevate us all.

This Australia Day, I’d like to acknowledge the difference that makes our country great. Men and women, old and young, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, Christians, Muslims, from countries around the world, those who settled here and those who are original inhabitants of our boundless plains – I am grateful for the ideas, the culture and the colour we all bring to make Australia great. There is much to celebrate. Happy Australia Day!

What do you think about Australian of the Year? How did you like this different kind of post? Love to chat further in the comments below! 


  • Andrea, I can’t even express how much I enjoyed this post. I remember you telling me about some of these components when we had coffee a while back and I was intrigued – but having read this post today I’m actually a little emotional to be honest – Mr Morrison certainly has my vote for Australian of the Year. I hope you don’t mind but I’d love to share the link to this post on Facebook. x

    • Thank you so much for this wonderful comment, Belinda – I’m so glad you enjoyed it and delighted for you to share it! 2016 will be an exciting year on the gender diversity front – I can’t wait to see what happens… and get amongst the change (with you!) of course! x

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