Federal Politics

ANALYSIS

What the? Australia's latest diversity advocate is a straight, white, male

You could be forgiven for waking up on Tuesday and thinking it was not Australia Day, but April Fools' instead. 

David Morrison named 2016 Australian of the Year

The former Australian army chief has been given the top honour for his gender equality, diversity and inclusion work. (Video courtesy ABC News 24)

Look at the headlines and you'll see that we have a new Australian of the Year who has pledged to make their stint all about diversity

In a speech on Monday night, the winner talked about how some Australians are being held back because of their gender, religion, race, disability and sexuality. And of the need to continue the powerful work done by Rosie Batty to combat domestic violence.

David Morrison has never pretended to be anything other than a lucky white man.
David Morrison has never pretended to be anything other than a lucky white man. Photo: Martin Ollman

Which all seems highly reasonable.  

But who would have guessed that Australia's newest diversity champion is a paid-up member of the straight white dudes club? A man who spent nearly 40 years rising to the top of an institution that is famed for its non-diversity - the Australian army. 

And yet David Morrison took out the Australian of the Year title, when other nominees included a transgender advocate and a women who got corporate Australia to confront sex discrimination?

Is this some kind of joke?

But before you put on your outraged Akubra, Morrison's appointment actually represents a golden opportunity, not an insult. 

For one thing, in recent years, he has demonstrated he is absolutely serious about tackling gender inequality and diversity. He has runs on the board when it comes to taking a stand in the army and in his post-military life has signed up as chair of Diversity Council Australia. 

Morrison has also never pretended to be anything other than a lucky white man. 

As he told an International Women's Day conference in 2013:  

"I can never fully imagine, much less experience, the issues faced by any woman . . . I have never routinely experienced discrimination in my career, nor the apprehension of violence in my personal life."

On Tuesday, he stressed he wanted to be "careful" and "respectful" about how he went about his work. 

But he also argues that the way women are treated globally is a "disgrace".

"We need men of authority and conscience to play a part." 

One of Morrison's fellow nominees for Australian of the Year, Elizabeth Broderick, is adamant that in order to achieve gender equality, men need to join the fight. 

"Gender equality is not just a women's issue," she says. 

This is not about getting men to tell women what to do. Or about patronising minorities. It's about acknowledging that equality and inclusion is everyone's responsibility. 

There is value in having someone from inside the establishment speak up and out. The truth (sad as it may be) is a textbook "macho man" will be able to reach some parts of Australia that other campaigners will not.

And ultimately, if you look at the current state of diversity affairs, any help should be welcomed with open arms. 

Australia in 2016 is a place where one in six women experience physical abuse from a current or former partner and where men are paid, on average, $27,000 a year more than women

In modern-day multicultural Oz, Muslim Australians report discrimination and abuse on a daily basis. And people with ethnic-sounding names face a tougher time on the job market than those with European appellations

It's a place where Indigenous footy players get booed off the field and abuse of the disabled is so widespread, a Senate committee has called for a royal commission

Meanwhile, same-sex couples do not have the right to marry. 

So surely, anyone who wants to devote their year in the spotlight to talking about what are nothing short of national embarrassments should be welcomed with an open mind.  

Morrison will need to bring many different people and groups along with him. But as a former army chief, he has already proved he can lead. 

And as he demonstrated in his blistering acceptance speech on Monday (as well as the infamous "get out" of the army clip), he is has a knack for getting people to take notice. 

So stay tuned. 

Morrison could prove to be one of our most interesting Australians of the Year yet. 

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