Margaret Steadman and other nation-builders

The Australian of the Year awards reflect our nation at its best

Margaret Steadman, 2017 Senior Tasmanian of the Year

Margaret Steadman, 2017 Senior Tasmanian of the Year

I thought I knew something about living more sustainably when I started advocating for stronger climate action. Then I met Margaret Steadman.

At that time Margaret managed the Tasmanian Environment Centre on the cramped upper floor of a quaint old stone building in Bathurst Street, Hobart, where the TEC had operated since it was first set up as a resource for environmental education in the 1970s.

In the late 1990s Margaret and her small, hard-working team of staff and volunteers saw something that many environmentalists didn’t: that in the great battle to conserve Earth’s natural values, the big issue wasn’t wilderness, but how people lived, worked and played.

Under Margaret, the TEC was transformed into SLT – Sustainable Living Tasmania – with a focus on urban life and how we make it work better for the planet. Tasmanians were able to see how this might work in a new annual expo, now called the Sustainable Living Festival.

Margaret moved SLT into roomier premises at 71 Murray Street, where it has gone from strength to strength promoting energy efficiency under another exceptional leader, Todd Houstein. That success didn’t come easily; SLT has always had to battle for every cent of its limited funding.

Since retiring a few years ago Margaret has applied her teaching and advocacy skills to helping people live more sustainably while lobbying government and galvanising public support for more effective climate action.

She does it without fuss and with no expectation of reward. For Margaret, sustainability has never been just something to be thought and talked about, but an integral part of daily life. She prefers walking, cycling or catching a bus to using a car, buys second-hand whenever possible, and uses local food including her own garden produce.

Although she has much to be proud of, Margaret remains refreshingly free of that holier-than-thou attitude sometimes found in people who strive for a better life. She’s one of us, and she’s for us – a proud humanist and humanitarian.

Now she has been recognised by her adopted home state. Named 2017 Senior Tasmanian of the Year, she will stand with other state and territory champions in Canberra tomorrow night for the announcement of the 2017 Australians of the Year.

With her will be speech pathologist Rosalie Martin, named 2017 Tasmanian of the Year for her ground-breaking work as a volunteer at Risdon Prison – a pilot project aptly called Just Sentences which is opening doors for prisoners with low literacy skills.

Young Tasmanian of the Year Mitch McPherson will be there too. He responded to his brother Ty’s death from suicide by setting up a hugely successful suicide prevention charity, Speak Up – Stay ChatTY.

And Anthony Edler, who was awarded Tasmania’s Local Hero of the Year for developing the Risdon Vale Bike Collective, serving not just young Tasmanians but others in less developed places.

Rosalie, Margaret, Mitch and Anthony join 28 other outstanding Australians, young, old and somewhere in the middle, who have unselfishly given their time, energy and talent to improve the lives of people in their communities.

Whatever we may think of Australia Day (and I believe the date should be changed), the Australian of the Year awards is where our celebration of the nation really gets it right.

Of the many ways of commemorating our nationhood, none is as important as the achievements of people like these. They richly deserve our applause.

They are the tip of a very big iceberg. For every person who is recognised in this way there are thousands of others toiling just as hard for the benefit of those around them.

Some of them may benefit financially while others necessarily live very frugal lives, but their motivation isn’t money. It’s a sense of belonging and a passionate desire to make things better.

I invite you to tune in to the Australian of the Year awards on ABC television, radio and online services at 7.30 tomorrow night, and celebrate with the rest of us the achievements of these nation-builders. This is Australia at its best.

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