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The Morrison government has launched an urgent review of the Australia Day Council but denies a link to the 2021 win of outspoken advocate Grace Tame. By Karen Middleton.

Exclusive: Government review follows Tame appointment

Australian of the Year Grace Tame speaks at the National Press Club.
Credit: Sam Mooy / Getty Images

The federal government has ordered an urgent review of the board structure and operations of the National Australia Day Council amid private criticism of this year’s appointment of outspoken sexual assault survivor Grace Tame as Australian of the Year.

The inquiry process potentially paves the way for the Commonwealth to reshape the make-up of the Australia Day Council board.

While Tame’s selection has not been cited as a reason for undertaking the review, such a reshaping could give the government greater influence over what is traditionally an arms-length process in selecting the recipient of Australia’s most prominent public honour.

The government could also seek to take on a greater role in selecting the state and territory finalists from whom the winner is chosen.

Former Health Department secretary Glenys Beauchamp has been commissioned to undertake the review on what The Saturday Paper understands is a tight time frame.

There has been no similar inquiry conducted in recent years, despite some past concerns about governance and whether board responsibilities were clearly enough defined.

Formally, the review is examining the council’s overall structure and the board’s composition and decision-making processes, particularly to ensure it has the requisite expertise to manage a budget that has expanded significantly in recent years.

Its findings may prompt the government to add new members from the fields of law or finance. As for other board members, they would be federal cabinet appointees.

Board members traditionally reflect a range of considerations, including state and territory origin and Indigenous and multicultural representation. A deputy secretary from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is the sole direct federal government representative – currently Stephanie Foster. Former Olympic hockey gold medallist Danielle Roche is the board’s chair.

Extra members could see the number reflecting the government’s interests increase, with the reasoning that it is entitled to more closely oversee the expenditure of taxpayer funds.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has confirmed it commissioned the review but denies any link with decisions on this year’s winners.

“The department … has commissioned a review into the composition of the National Australia Day Council (NADC) Board, to ensure it can continue to lead and build on the successful work undertaken by the NADC for Australia Day 2020 and 2021,” the department said in a statement.

“The review is intended to inform the Government’s consideration of appointments to vacancies on the Board. There is no connection between this process and the announcement of the Australian of the Year Awards in 2021.”

This year, the council’s choice of Tame came as a surprise to many.

The 26-year-old Tasmanian, who was groomed and sexually abused as a teenager by a schoolteacher, was recognised for her work on the Let Her Speak campaign. The campaign led to a law change in Tame’s home state that meant victim survivors were no longer prevented by law from telling their own stories of abuse using their real name.

Ahead of the January 25 ceremony, speculation had focused on two other candidates.

ACT nominee Brendan Murphy, the former chief medical officer who rose to prominence during the pandemic and now heads the federal Health Department, was considered a favourite. So was former New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner and now Resilience NSW chief Shane Fitzsimmons, who became a familiar face during the 2019–20 bushfire emergency.

Both would likely have been seen as “safer” choices, a descriptor used privately in government circles.

Tame’s appointment was controversial as soon as it was made, not for anything she did or said but because of a suspicious plunge on the betting markets before the announcement.

The odds of Tame winning shortened dramatically to $1.36 with Murphy relegated to second favourite on $3.50, prompting a referral to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission for investigation.

The winner’s name is provided in advance on a strictly confidential basis – and subject to legal undertakings – to about 180 people involved in administration, production and logistics around the awards.

But The Saturday Paper is now aware that Tame’s name was circulating more widely in what transpired was well-founded gossip.

This week, ACIC declined to comment on the case’s status.

Beyond the betting controversy, Tame’s appointment has caused private disquiet in the government for separate reasons.

On social media, she criticised the appointment of Amanda Stoker as assistant minister for Women. Stoker had publicly backed men’s rights advocate Bettina Arndt, who alleged young women were fabricating rape allegations. In 2017 Arndt had conducted a sympathetic videotaped interview with Tame’s rapist, in which Arndt suggested men were the victims of “provocative” girls.

But it is Tame’s inadvertent influence on public debate during the first two months of the political year that has caused the government most grief.

Her passionate speech at the awards ceremony prompted former Liberal ministerial staffer Brittany Higgins to go public with allegations that she was raped by a colleague in their minister’s office in 2019.

Higgins’ revelations sparked a national outcry about bullying, harassment and the sexual assault of women, resulting in mass rallies around the country, including at Parliament House.

As those events unfolded, historic rape allegations emerged against then attorney-general Christian Porter, which he continues to deny. The political pressure saw Porter and Higgins’ former boss, Linda Reynolds, moved to new portfolios, and prompted a dip for both Morrison and the Coalition in the published opinion polls.

Tame also rebuked Morrison personally over his handling of sexual assault issues.

There has been no public negative reflection from the government on the choice of Tame, other than Stoker describing her criticisms as “utter nonsense”, and nothing but praise for the Australia Day Council.

At the ceremony before the winners were announced, Prime Minister Morrison said the nation wanted to honour the service of all of the nominees.

“Because you deserve it,” Morrison said, naming and speaking briefly about each state and territory nominee.

“What an inspiration she is,” Morrison said of Tame, before she was named the winner. “A woman of immense moral courage and strength – leading the #letherspeak campaign, and – we were just speaking earlier – giving voice to survivors of sexual assault. Grace’s work is a reminder, as is the work of so many of you, that Australia is not perfect. And the way to make it better is to work for it into the future as all of you are.”

In the past two years, the Australian of the Year awardees were quieter advocates.

Last year’s awardee was eye surgeon and blindness prevention pioneer Dr James Muecke AM, whose public activities were curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2019, cave divers Dr Richard Harris SC OAM and Dr Craig Challen SC OAM were named joint winners for their heroism in rescuing young soccer players trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand.

But those appointments followed several years of greater public controversy.

Between 2014 and 2016, three winners were subjected to public abuse for their outspokenness.

In 2014, AFL star Adam Goodes was vilified for his anti-racism stance and campaign for Indigenous rights. The following year, family violence campaigner Rosie Batty was targeted by men’s rights advocates. And in 2016, former Defence Force chief David Morrison drew a backlash for speaking out against misogyny.

Private government discomfort about the council’s selection this year is perhaps greater because of its direct impact on the political climate.

Tame is part of the first all-female line-up of Australian of the Year award recipients, along with Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann AM as the 2021 Senior Australian of the Year, Isobel Marshall as Young Australian of the Year and Local Hero Rosemary Kariuki.

Those choices now seem like a portent for the prominence of women in what has already been a volatile political year. They may precede change for the National Australia Day Council, too.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "Exclusive: Government review follows Tame appointment".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.