Australia Day honours: Shane Fitzsimmons and Emma McKeon recognised with record number of women recipients

Former New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, wheelchair tennis champion Dylan Alcott, swimming Olympic gold medallist Emma McKeon and chef Maggie Beer are among the recipients of Australia Day honours this year.

The honours, which include the awards in the Order of Australia, were handed out to over 700 recipients, including a record number of women.

Almost half – 47% – of the honours list recipients were women, the highest ever percentage, with 45% for service to local communities.

Fitzsimmons, who currently serves as commissioner of Resilience NSW, was honoured as an Officer of the Order of Australia for his work in leading NSW RFS during the Black Summer bushfires of 2019/20.

“I’m very humbled and grateful that someone would take the time to nominate me,” he said.

“Our lives were changed forever by that fire season, and I’m forever grateful and in awe at the remarkable effort of volunteers and members of partner agencies to save and protect as many people as possible.”

“It was an awful time, but when we are at our worst, we see the very best in people.”

Over 6% of NSW, or around 5.5m hectares of land, was burned during the crisis, with over 2,500 firefighters deployed at its peak.

Fitzsimmons said receiving the honour had led him to reflect on the second anniversary of the fires, having attended memorial events last week.

“Going to the memorial brings up so many raw emotions, and connecting with people and catching up with people, it’s had a profound effect on so many of us.”

Fitzsimmons says he continues to remember the 26 people, particularly the seven volunteer firefighters, who lost their lives during the bushfires.

“These are things that will stay with me forever,” he said, adding he was accepting the honour on behalf of everyone involved in the rescue efforts.

Other recipients of the award include two-time world champion netballer Catherine Cox, who told Guardian Australia she was honoured to be recognised as a Member of the Order of Australia.

“I won’t lie to you, I shed a tear when I found out,” she said.

“Because it is such a big deal and the people I know that already have one are exceptional people in their field, so to be considered in the same sort of league is mind-blowing.”

Cox has won 108 caps with the Diamonds since her debut in 1997, and was part of the Australian team that won the world championship in 2007 and 2011, as well as Commonwealth Games gold in 2002.

Although she retired six years ago, Cox said the honour had made her think back on her career, achievements and an early change of home.

“It’s certainly brought me back to a stage of reflection, it’s nice to take a moment just to think about everything that’s happened.”

“My mum actually reminded me the other day that I was actually born in New Zealand. We moved here when I was six, but she said, ‘isn’t it amazing, a little Kiwi girl that’s come to Australia is now being recognised with one of its highest honours.’”

“I thought it was pretty cool as well.”

Principal medical geneticist and medical director at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Prof Leslie Burnett, was also appointed a Member of the Order of Australia, and said it was a great surprise to see his work honoured.

“It was very gratifying. You do your best and try and make accommodations to make the world a better place. And then to see your contributions noticed, to see that it was what the target community wanted, it’s very pleasing and exciting.

“It’s a way of knowing that everything you’ve been striving for has been worthwhile.”

Burnett’s work focused on two key areas: safety and quality at laboratories, and introducing genetic testing and screening in Australia.

“I’ve spent a large part of my life pursuing safety and quality in medicine, and trying to develop laboratories that reach new and previously unattainable standards of excellence.

“If it’s not better than it’s ever been, it’s not good enough for me.”

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