Katrina Fanning may not have picked up the national gong as Australian of the Year on Saturday night, but it wasn’t for lack of a cheer squad.
“I’ve got a whole bunch of aunties catching the bus from Junee about now”, the ACT’s nominee for the top honour said on Saturday morning at the annual Reconciliation Australia indigenous breakfast. “They’ll be annoying everyone on the bus!”
It was a fair bet, too, that most pubs in Junee were screening the awards – Fanning thinks it’s probably the first time anyone from the small Riverina community has been in this position. “I was at home over Christmas and people I hadn’t seen for years would go out of their way to say hello and congratulate me and say how proud the community is, which was lovely”.
As a proud Wiradjuri woman, that strong sense of community and kinship is fundamental to who she is and how she finds herself on a national stage.
The journey began with representative Rugby League (the Raiders board member is also kin to green legend Laurie Daley). The keen footy player was also a hard worker at school. She remembers with gratitude all the people who raised her up, from the teachers at her country high school who went the extra mile for her (little imagining that she would one day find herself at Harvard Business School, studying organisational leadership), to her family.
“We were lucky to grow up in a town with strong cross-cultural relationships and sport was fundamental to this”, she says. “When we were really young our family sacrificed the little they had so we could fulfil our dreams.
“Every aunt and uncle would drop off whatever they had to make it possible for us to go wherever we had to for sport. That was one of the best things about sport, how my family came together to let us know they cared about us and what we were doing.
This year, 25 per cent of the nominees for Australian of the Year were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. They include among others singer-songwriter Archie Roach; Corey Tutt who founded Deadly Science, an organisation that engages Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in STEM-related subjects; tennis player Ash Barty and artist and cultural adviser Banduk Marika.
Every year in Canberra, the Australia Day awards begin with a breakfast organised by Reconciliation Australia that includes all nominees, but specifically honours indigenous candidates while recognising that for many January 26 also represents Survival Day.
Reconciliation Australia chair Karen Mundine said on Saturday that the 25 per cent figure was a remarkable one.
“Our story has not always been connected with success in the wider community”, she said. “But in the 60 years since Australia Day was founded, we have had many finalists and leaders… Evonne Cawley, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Mick Dodson… are among the giants on whose shoulders we stand today.
“These 60 years build on a continuation of 60,000 plus years of inventing, dreaming and leading across this country”.
It’s also 20 years since 500,000 people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge, to this day the largest public peaceful demonstration in Australian history.
For Fanning, the figures and the event are both deeply meaningful. “I think it’s really significant that this is how we start the day we have together, reflecting on our first nations people and what we’ve achieved. And not just a few of us being recognised tonight but that 60,000 years of knowledge and culture and history is fundamental for Australia’s future.
She’s had a great year thus far since being named the ACT Australian of the Year towards the end of 2019. “To say it’s been overwhelming is not an understatement. Every person you sit next to has an amazing story to tell and is just so passionate.
“If we had more of that across our whole community you’d think we’d be further along on reconciliation”, she says.