Kerry Stokes: Australian Of The Year?

A donation of three Victoria Crosses by Kerry Stokes has captured the public imagination, but is it enough to see him bag the celebrated title?

If tycoon Kerry Stokes becomes Australian of the Year, he will surely be the richest and shrewdest holder of the title. It would also be a surprise choice.

The immediate reaction from the world of philanthropy to the Stokes nomination might best be described as curiosity: It’s not that anyone thinks a personal fortune of $2.7 billion should be a disqualification, the questions centre more on what it is that has justified Stokes a shot at the title. (He is a finalist on a shortlist of nine contenders.)

Certainly Perth-based Stokes' past public record of philanthropy – with the exception of his activity in visual arts – is not the most obvious criteria. Though he has already achieved an AC for earlier charitable work, Stokes is not yet a major figure in Australian philanthropy. Indeed it is generally acknowledged that Western Australia trails other states in the levels of philanthropic donations despite the obvious wealth of its mineral-rich elites. (In turn, Australia trails most of the western world on many measures of charitable giving.)

So who put Stokes on the list and what for? The board of the Australia Day Foundation is chaired by cricket legend Adam Gilchrist, with the rest of the group dominated by leading lights from government and non-profit organisations. The key representative from the business community is Stockland director Carol Schwartz. This group has nominated Stokes after his celebrated decision last year to donate a collection of Victoria Crosses in his possession to the Australian War Memorial (Stokes is also a member of the Australian War Memorial Trust).

The donation has captured the imagination of the public and Stokes has been rightly applauded for the initiative. Inside the collectables industry it is estimated that a Victoria Cross is worth up to $1 million… Stokes donated three Victoria Crosses.

To impose some brute mathematics on the quantum of that transaction, it may have been worth around $3 million. Applying that fraction to the wealth of an average member of Australia's mass-affluent (as measured by average balances in DIY super funds at close to $800,000) a commensurate donation might be close to $800. These are rough estimates, but you get the point… financially, the Victoria Cross donation was not a significant move by Stokes.

But then handing over a significant part of your fortune is not a criteria of the Australian of the Year Award. Indeed the criteria are, by definition, inclusive to the point of vagueness. What’s more, the board is expected to show diversity in its choices: Clearly the medical profession has enjoyed disproportionate influence, taking out four of the awards in the last ten years, though sport has offered the greatest total of winners since the awards began in 1960.

Business figures are by no means strangers at the awards – investment banker and 'social entrepreneur' Simon McKeon received the top award as recently as 2011, but a de facto tycoon such as Stokes has not taken the main prize since Dick Smith won it back in 1986.

In assessing the Stokes nomination the board will most likely look to the award criteria that talks of the future potential of the nominee's plans, and this is where Stokes may stand out most brightly... we’ll know this evening.

The award will be announced at 6pm – Friday Jan 25 – at Parliament House, Canberra.

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