Grace, I was thrilled when your name was announced as Australian of the Year. Thrilled, but filled with worry. I wanted to share with you my concerns because we have more in common than you may realise. You are young and beautiful. When I became Australian of the Year in 2015, I was 53. The year before my beloved son Luke was murdered in front of me by my former partner and I became an advocate.
Our advocacy – because of our lived-experience – is not all we share compared with other Australians of the Year. We don’t have institutions behind us. We aren’t doctors. We aren’t in the military. We aren’t sportspeople. We are just ordinary people who came to the attention of Australians because of the horrific events in our lives.
Yes, becoming Australian of the Year is a brilliant experience for which we can be grateful. It gives our causes, violence against women and children, access to platforms previously thought impossible. Australians need to know and understand your experience of child sexual abuse and assault at the hands of a disgusting predator, a former teacher, who groomed and raped you just as Australians learned fathers kill their children.
I am writing this from one Australian of the Year to another to help you in times to come. There is untold pressure and it comes from the least expected places.
I dearly hope you won’t have to deal with the kind of abuse I had, but I fear you will. At first, everyone is delighted for you but as your messages gain impact and momentum, the backlash grows and directs back towards you with an ugliness you can never anticipate. I was devastated when attacked by Mark Latham, who accused me of financial mismanagement, of bullying, of desperate attention-seeking.
I learned to switch off but, still, it took me time to recover and there were times both during my tenure and indeed after that I struggled. I had to go on for Luke, for all the women and children like us.
The media can be wonderfully supportive, but also demanding. You will be besieged by those who want you to talk from early morning into the night. You suddenly become incredibly popular with politicians who benefit from your advocacy. And there is little or no support from the National Australia Day Council for people who don’t have the big support networks.
You will also be besieged by every community-based organisation, business and institution. You offer hope and inspiration to everyone, including the most fragile, but it becomes a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week role. Hard to say no yet hard to manage the thousands of demands on your time.
If there was one thing I would ask NADC to consider, it is to prepare the honorees more thoroughly. Give an indication of the avalanche about to hit. The first day I received one or two speaking requests, then a flood. We both have the grief of the lived experience but this is more intensity than I ever imagined.
The former CEO of the National Australia Day Council, Jeremy Lasek, summarised my experience: “Rosie is a bit of a one-off in terms of her circumstances . . . I think she has been quite remarkable. [Former Australians of the Year] were either well and truly gainfully employed or in positions where they’re able to support themselves.”
After the announcement, I remember standing on that stage looking around, filled with competing emotions: sadness at what brought me there, swirling excitement, the possibilities for change. To make that happen, ensure you have the right people around you, people you can trust, people who will hold you when you are at your worst. My parents flew out from Britain and that was a blessing. I had my close friends, but you need more than that.
During my year I spoke at 250 events, not including meetings with politicians or dealing with media. You can’t waste this platform and I know you won’t. But you will feel you owe it to everyone, that you can’t let anyone down. I didn’t want to let Luke down. I felt responsible for making the most of every minute. Sometimes I didn’t know how to choose what was most effective. I didn’t have any balance. I had lost Luke. I didn’t know how to fill that gap except to I throw myself into being a campaigner, to immerse myself. And for that I am thankful.
I hope you will get some help in prioritising. Sometimes it got to me. I would say to myself: “Who do I think I am? I can’t do this.” I was overwhelmed and scared of failing. But having the right people around me did let me do the best I could.
You are young and your life is before you. I know you will continue your journey in your own authentic way. But please seek out mentoring and coaching, not just from those you already know. I understood family violence from my own bitter experience but I learned so much more, from the then CEO of DV Victoria, Fiona McCormack, now the Victorian Victims of Crime Commissioner, and from the University of Melbourne’s Cathy Humphreys.
Their counsel was more than wise. Do you have the best research-based evidence to support your cause? This was a question which had never occurred to me before that year, but finding and using evidence will make a big difference to those who need convincing. You are now Australian of the Year and people will listen to you as they have never listened before. Your audience will hang on every word so those words need to be considered and informed.
Sending you courage and strength for the year ahead. Congratulations.
Rosie Batty was Australian of the Year in 2015 and continues to advocate for gender equality.