I was born in Perth and my ancestors were farmers from the northern Wheatbelt; they influenced me heavily when I was a boy – I have very strong regional Western Australian farming in my soul.
To me, Australia Day is an occasion where we celebrate our history in all its ways, knowing that it’s not perfect, but of course it never can be. It’s a time to reflect on our history, be aware of who we are and be extremely optimistic about the future.
Australians to me are very respectful people with a sense of humour which is unique.
We have lots of reasons for optimism. I would counsel young people to be careful to not race to embrace negativity but adopt positivity because we have a lot to be positive about.
We are arguably the most successful multi-racial and multicultural society. It’s come at a price though and people before us have worked hard and endured a lot to make the story a success. But as a result, society is highly enriched by our diversity and I think it is a platform for a very productive, successful and happy society.
I consider myself extremely privileged to be the recipient of two prestigious awards in 2019 and 2020. The first being the Australian Medical Association Hippocrates Award for Outstanding Contribution to Medicine, which is recognition from my peers and doctors of WA.
The second was receiving the accolade of 2020 Senior Australian of the Year!
It’s a great honour and I’ve done everything I can to represent the Senior Australian of the Year Award, Australian people and the causes I represent. The awards I’ve won are thanks to the people of Australia.
I’m aware there are thousands of unsung heroes. Nurses working in remote and regional WA, volunteer ambulance drivers and volunteers of all types who work very hard. I’m acutely conscious I’m at a time of my life where there’s visibility around me, but I’m also aware of all the people in our system who are doing amazing work and who are never acknowledged. I salute them.
2020 was a very challenging year, but we are the lucky country, and once again we have made our own luck. We’re an island, well resourced, have a well-educated population, an extremely good healthcare system and our politicians have been responsive to healthcare advice.
In regards to COVID-19, the story has not ended, but at the moment we are in a very good position. We as Australians work hard to make our luck, but I think we have got a wonderful, bright future in this country.
When I started in medicine, I did my basic and obstetrician training here at King Edward Memorial Hospital before heading overseas. I needed to see the world through the eyes of an obstetrician. I went to Africa for six months and I was employed by Zulu King Buthelezi to work in a busy hospital.
I later went to London to sit my exams – growing up in Perth, I didn’t know if my education had been as good as the other students from other countries. There were 350 people sitting the exam from all over the world and I came top to win the gold medal, which taught me that my education and training in Perth was second to none. That was really something for me.
I spent 18 months in London and I learnt plenty, but I missed Australia so much.
As a boy I wanted to be an explorer, but I felt there was nothing left to explore. Africa, South America and inland Australia had already been explored, but as a medical student I realised that life before birth hadn’t.
I felt like I found my undiscovered continent, so I spent my life exploring it.
I went to Los Angeles to study fetal medicine, and when I arrived back in Australia, King Edward created the first maternal fetal medicine position in the country.
There was no way on earth anybody could have lured me to work or live anywhere else, I’m wedded to WA and this is my land.
I was going away to train, so I could come back and do something for WA – I lived for the bush, the beaches and the Australian people.
This Australia Day, I’ll be in Canberra for the Australian of the Year announcements on January 25. I’m extremely privileged to be handing the baton over to the next Senior Australian of the Year.
My wife Susie and I usually take our three grown-up children and their spouses, together with the four grandchildren, down south to the farm, following in the traditional lifestyle of our ancestors.
History is very important – firstly, it tells you who you are because we are no different from our ancestors; our DNA is very much the same we just have different life experiences.
I spent my life reading and discovering history. I think it’s very important that all Australians are aware and should celebrate it, as there’s a lot of things we should be grateful for.
Professor John Newnham AM
Chair, the Australian Preterm Birth Prevention Alliance and 2020 Senior Australian of the Year
The story of Australia is extraordinary. This Australia Day, let’s reflect on our shared history – both the highs and the lows; and let’s celebrate our nation, our achievements and most of all our people.
Visit australiaday.org.au to see more Australian stories.