Pioneering eye surgeon Dr James Muecke has been named the 2020 Australian of the Year.
Dr Muecke was presented with the award by Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a ceremony in Canberra on Saturday night.
His honour comes as the awards celebrate their 60th year.
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The 56-year-old South Australian has dedicated his life to fighting blindness, in Australia and in developing countries.
Dr Muecke started his career in Kenya almost 30 years ago and has become one of the country’s leading ophthalmologists.
He set up the eye health charity Sight For All a decade ago, with the organisation’s programs now helping over 500,000 people each year.
“What an enormous honour, what a tremendous honour to be named Australian of the Year in 2020, such an auspicious year for eyesight,” Dr Muecke said.
Dr Muecke is now turning his attention to tackling type 2 diabetes and called for a hardline approach to the problem.
“It’s a looming catastrophe for our health system, a growing epidemic that’s affecting nearly one in ten Australians and is the leading cause of blindness in adults.
Dr Meucke has called for a tax on sugary drinks as way of reducing the rates, describing it as addictive as nicotine.
He used his acceptance speech to acknowledge those around the country impacted by bushfires and described our firefighters as our “true Aussie heroes.”
Ash Barty has capped off a stellar 12 months, named as the 2020 Young Australian of the Year and will be hoping the honour can spur her on at her home Grand Slam this week.
The honour for Barty comes after storming to the world number ranking, securing the French Open title and season-ending WTA finals along the way.
Barty wasn’t in Canberra to accept the award as she continues her quest to claim the Australian Open.
But in a pre-recorded interview with 2002 Australian of the Year Pat Rafter, she said she was “surprised” by the honour.
“It’s bizarre for me and my family and my team, we’re just trying to be the best every single day.
“It’s unbelievable, humbling and I don’t think I’m deserving of it.”
Barty paid special tribute to her parents and the values they’ve instilled in her.
“This is going to be something that sits very, very high on the mantle piece at home.”
The 2020 Senior Australian of the Year has been awarded to leading West Australian obstetrics specialist Professor John Newnham.
The 67-year-old is recognised as one of the world’s leading authorities in the prevention of pre-term birth, the single greatest cause of death and disability in children up to five years of age.
“Pre-term birth is the single greatest cause of death in children under five and no one had been able to lower the rate,” he said.
He said babies born prematurely risked a host of complications later in life, including severe disability, blindness, deafness and behavioural problems.
Professor Newnham says he was surprised and honoured by the award.
“I truly understand and appreciate just what an honour it truly is.”
Professor Newnham developed a program for preventing preterm birth and founded the Australian Preterm Birth Prevention Alliance in 2018, the world’s first ever national program of its kind.
He’s called for a national approach to the issue and for more financial support.
“It’s now time for the prevention of preterm birth to become a national priority for Australia.”
Professor Newnham thanked his colleagues in WA and across the country.
“I stand here representing all of you. This is a whole of nation effort now and I’m thrilled this award will help propagate our efforts.”
Youth advocate Bernie Shaekshaft has been named the 2020 Australia’s Local Hero for his work in turning around the lives of vulnerable kids.
The 52-year-old was inspired to take action after seeing the plight of disadvanted youth in his community in the New South Wales town of Armidale.
Bernie founded the BackTrack Youth Works Program, helping to turn around the lives of some of Australia’s most vulnerable kids.
It has helped over 1000 kids and reduced crime in Armidale by 38 per cent, keeping kids out of detention centres.
“When you see these kids come out the other side it restores your faith in humanity and makes me want to get out of bed each day.,” he said.
Bernie says the aim is simple – “keep kids alive, keep them out of jail and to chase their dreams.”
“To be recognised alongside so many cracking Aussies is touching and humbling.”
He used his acceptance speech to urge everyone to “rally together to give these kids the opportunity they deserve.”