They hit the headlines on Australia Day, their efforts to improve the lives of others celebrated amid fanfare and politicians eager to be photographed with our national heroes.

But choosing who becomes Australian of the Year (AOTY) is no easy feat.

The process takes months as thousands of nominations are whittled down to a single recipient for each of four categories: the AOTY, senior and young AOTYs, and the local hero.

With nominations for the 2025 winners closing in weeks, National Australia Day Council (NADC) chief executive Mark Fraser has offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how they are chosen — although he is keen to point out that they “don’t call them winners, because they’re all winners”.

Starting with a single nomination

It starts with what could be a single nomination, which can be made by anyone who believes a fellow Australian has achieved something special.

“It’s quite easy. It’s through the website. They just log on there and click ‘nominate now’,” Mr Fraser said.

Hundreds of nominations are typically made in each state and territory, adding up to thousands nationwide, at which point a “very involved process begins”.

NADC chief executive Mark Fraser is encouraging nominations for Australian of the Year.(Supplied: NADC)

“As soon as nominations close at the end of July, we then have a couple of weeks to check the validity and eligibility of all of those, then they go out to each of the states and territories,” Mr Fraser said.

“They then have a state or territory-based selection panel that sits and comes up with a shortlist in each of the four categories.”

Selection panels include representatives of the state or territory Australia Day organisation, program sponsor representatives, and community representatives.

Some 128 people will be shortlisted from across the country before the selection panels meet with Mr Fraser.

“I’m privileged to attend every one of those state and territory panel selection meetings around the country, and we do that over a compressed period in September and have day-long meetings,” he said.

“It’s confidential, anonymous voting, and we end up with the [local] recipients in each of those categories.”

The states and territories then announce their own winners — four in each — with those 32 local recipients in the running for the national AOTY awards. 

“They all come to Canberra in January and they’re here for a wonderful three-day program,” Mr Fraser said.

“Many of them say it’s the most incredible thing they’ve ever done in their lives. 

“They get to go to a morning tea with the prime minister, to the governor-general’s residence and, of course, there’s the awards ceremony.”

An ‘incredible’ experience

Wildlife conservation biologist Tiahni Adamson was awarded South Australia’s Young Australian of the Year in 2024 and became a contender for the national award, which was ultimately won by multiple Olympic medallist Emma McKeon.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meets 2024 SA Young Australian of the Year Tiahni Adamson.(Supplied: NADC)

She described visiting The Lodge as an incredible experience.

“My favourite part of the awards was actually being around all the other nominees and finalists, hearing their stories, and having conversations with them,” Ms Adamson said.

“I was in rooms with amazing people who were both an inspiration and have points of influence to be able to support what I was doing, and uplift the work that I am doing as well.”

Ms Adamson is the lead community engagement officer for climate change solutions company CH4Global and runs her own science communications businesses, with a focus on improving engagement with First Nations people.

She said being nominated for Australian of the Year had a “profound impact on people’s lives for their confidence”. 

Tiahni Adamson was announced as SA’s 2024 Young Australian of the Year in late 2023.(Supplied: NADC/Salty Dingo)

“A lot of people in the awards never had recognition from their communities and were very humble and hard-working, trying to get things done,” Ms Adamson said.

“The ability to know that what you do does matter, and that you matter, has influenced me personally to be able to give more, in a sense, because I realise that what I do is valued and the people want to hear what I have to say.

“That helps drive more change and also helps me be able to support other people to drive change.

“That’s a really nice lens, kind of like a cascade or ripple effect of positive change.”

Guided by three elements

Mr Fraser said in Canberra there was a board of 10 people who sat on the NADC, which made the ultimate decision on national recipients.

The five-step process involved in choosing the winner of Australia’s most prestigious award.(Supplied: NADC)

He said they were guided by three elements: inspiration, contribution, and excellence.

“Inspiration is those people who uplift us, bring us together, and make us proud to be Australian,” Mr Fraser said.

“Contribution is people who are making a difference to others outside their own lives, and excellence is people who are really at the top of their field.

“It’s about recognition, and even being nominated in itself can be the recognition and acknowledgement that people deserve.

“That can be the pat on the back or the encouragement they’re looking for to keep up the terrific work.”

‘By the people for the people’

Mr Fraser said AOTY was Australia’s “most prestigious individual awards program”.

“It’s nominated by the people for the people, and that’s the lovely part of it,” he said.

“A lot of people think it’s a political process, but neither the prime minister nor any other government official has any role in it whatsoever.

“It’s not until the prime minister opens the envelope on stage during the TV broadcast that the prime minister becomes aware of who the awardee is.”

Australian of the Year 2024 nominees visit The Lodge ahead of the awards ceremony in January.(Supplied: NADC)

Nominations for the 2025 Australian of the Year close at midnight on July 31, and Mr Fraser encouraged people to nominate somebody who inspired them.

“We’ve got a lot of challenges as a nation, but this is the one thing that brings us together,” he said.

“It’s a very important national moment and I think it does really build significant social cohesion because people can see themselves from all walks of life and backgrounds.

“Everyday Australians doing extraordinary things — they can see themselves on the national stage.”

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