Much has been made of the virtually all-female line-up at this year’s ACT Australian of the Year awards last night, but the other factor that links the winners is sheer astonishment.
“I honestly thought this is lovely, I’m going along to this event and I can just sit here and watch,” says the ACT Australian of the Year, former broadcaster and gender equity activist Virginia Haussegger.
Young ACT Australian of the Year winner Hannah Wandel concurs. “I had a crazy day at work, and I just didn’t think about the event in that regard,” she says. “My partner said he’d never seen anything like the look in my eyes when the announcement was made. I told him it was complete shock.”
The ACT Senior Australian of the Year is paediatrician Dr Sue Packer, whose lifetime activism on behalf of children has been recognised. The Local Hero of the Year is David Williams, who’s spent 20 years helping people with disabilities to find their voices through his Confident Speakers programme.
“It’s an incredible honour and privilege to feel that the community has put this trust in me to represent them. It’s a gift,” Haussegger says.
“I’m assuming this is a first – for a state or territory to have such a high representation of women nominees for Australian of the Year and I think that says a great deal about Canberra frankly. We have equal representation in the Assembly, but also in the public sector where we’re doing well with leadership. We have increasing numbers of women on boards, women taking leadership in development, business and property.
“Here in Canberra, we are really comfortable with gender equality. We need to encourage the rest of the nation to grab that ethos.”
ACT Young Australian of the Year Hannah Wandel is passionate about empowering young rural women through her Country to Canberra programme and is also motivated by achieving gender equality “soon – in the very near future” for the girls and young women with whom she works.
“I think back to all the girls I’ve met travelling through Australia. I remember being in the NT a few months ago after our Project Empower workshop. Six girls came up to me in tears, saying how grateful they were because nobody had ever spoken about self-worth to them, about how double standards work, about getting slut-shamed, overlooked.
“They understood those things for the first time, but they were also empowered and had the authority to talk and a platform to do it. We’ve had young women from really low SES backgrounds who participated in our Country to Canberra programme go home and become school captains or the first in the family to go to university. That’s what I think about when I can’t sleep.”
Wandel and Haussegger both have plans for the platform they’ve been given. For Haussegger, it’s the opportunity to talk about the work being done by the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation which she heads at the University of Canberra, and she says the current momentum on equality is “one that I haven’t felt for years and years.”
“Our vision is really simple – we want men and women to share leadership and key decision making roles right across Australia by 2030. Our interest is in public leadership, particularly political participation. We can’t make claims to be a world class democracy when the figures around women’s participation are so poor.”
She also wants to drill down into data about men who say they feel excluded and ostracised. “I’m upset that young men think gender equality disadvantages them. We have to work on unpacking where those beliefs come from and developing a better understanding of attitudes across the generations. I’d like to run a national programme of storytelling, so we can all stand in each other’s shoes and share our stories.”
Hannah Wandel hopes to use her platform to talk about regional education, improved gender equality and strengthening rural Australia. And on the Country to Canberra programme, she says “We are all volunteers and we do this while having full-time jobs and while studying. I’m hoping to extend the programme and make it sustainable for the future.”