Australian of the Year: General David Morrison’s tumultuous 12 months.

By Stephen Dziedzic

Just before David Morrison received the Australian of the Year award one year ago, the heavens opened.

The rain poured down and the former Army chief beamed when the Prime Minister handed him the award on the lawns of Parliament House.

General Morrison has endured a torrid 12 months since that evening.

The National Australia Day Council said General Morrison had been “recognised internationally for his commitment to gender equality, diversity and inclusion”.

He first shot to prominence with a 2013 speech he gave as Army chief, which was written by another finalist for Australian of the Year, Catherine McGregor – who then worked as his speech writer.

The speech was a strong rebuke to misogyny and sexist attitudes within the Army, and quickly gained prominence online.

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“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept,” he declared.

But Ms McGregor criticised the selection of General Morrison in a newspaper not long after the ceremony, calling him a “weak and conventional” choice for the award.

The former Army Lieutenant Colonel told the gay and lesbian publication the Star Observer, that she felt “really sad” the Australia Day council “did not have the courage to go with an LGBTI person”.

She swiftly apologised, but the new Australian of the Year was embroiled in more controversy within days.

Many Army veterans were angry that he used his first speech to champion a Republic and equality – rather than focusing on the welfare of veterans.

The Defence Force Welfare Association said it had been inundated with correspondence from members, who accused him of neglecting veterans in his speech. A petition calling on him to resign sprang up online.

The Australian of the Year drew more publicity when he backed a campaign which urged Australians not to use gender-based terms like “guys” in the workplace.

The campaign did not impress the most senior woman in the Federal Government, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

Some Coalition MPs also began to grumble that General Morrison risked “politicising” the Australian of the Year awards.

‘Jedi Council’ controversy

The Australian of the Year has also been dogged by lingering acrimony in military circles about his push to eliminate poor attitudes towards women in the Army.

General Morrison’s now famous 2013 speech on gender equality was delivered in the wake of the so-called Jedi Council sex scandal. Six Army personnel were sacked for distributing emails with demeaning sexual videos of women, leading General Morrison to deliver his ultimatum.

But investigations found the highest ranked officer among the 17 men implicated in the scandal – former Lieutenant Colonel Karel Dubsky – never opened any of the offending emails.

He was eventually cleared of involvement, but his command was never restored – and he told the ABC’s 7:30 program he tried to commit suicide when General Morrison was named Australian of the Year.

A leaked New South Wales Police report also found Defence failed to cooperate with its investigation into the scandal.

The dispute found its way into the halls of Federal Parliament, where Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie took up cudgels against General Morrison.

Senator Lambie moved a motion in Parliament calling on the Government to “remove General Morrison from Australian of the Year, and replace him with a person worthy of the title”.

It was comprehensively defeated – with the Government, Opposition and the Greens all voting against it. One Nation senators and crossbenchers Derryn Hinch and David Leyonhjelm voted yes.

Fallout from Morrison’s appointment

As General Morrison’s time as Australian of the Year comes to an end he has no shortage of detractors.

The ABC has spoken to several Coalition backbenchers who have been critical of General Morrison.

There is no personal animosity towards him – and MPs are careful not to weigh into the dispute around the Jedi Council.

But many of them believe General Morrison has undermined the institution of Australia Day by championing issues like the Republic.

Coalition MP Craig Kelly said the winner of the Australian of the Year award should not “stray into political territory”.

“We have to be very careful that doesn’t happen, because that diminishes the award,” he said.

“The winner should have backing across the nation so every Australian can celebrate this achievement.”

Another Coalition MP said there was a “near unanimous” feeling on the Government backbench that General Morrison’s time as Australian of the Year had politicised and damaged the institution.

Some ministers share this view as well.

Senator Leyonhjelm has slammed the Australian of the Year awards – calling them a “festival of political correctness”.

“In recent years, the Australian of the Year has been often awarded to the person who is most likely to lecture us about being racist, sexist or environmental vandals – if not all three,” he said.

“Many Australians are suffering from lecture fatigue, and will tune out from anything the winner has to say.”

General Morrison declined an interview to discuss his time as Australian of the Year.

But he briefly reflected on the “tumultuous aspects” of his tenure during his final Australian of the Year address, defending his actions by using one of his father’s sayings.

“Dad, who retired from the Army after almost 30 years of service as a General, was a man of great humility, who understood that difficult decisions have to be made in life,” he said.

“But if they’re made for the right ethical reasons, then those difficult decisions need to be stood by. I am incredibly proud to have been his son.”

This post originally appeared on ABC News.


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