Australia Day 2023 honours for elder abuse law trailblazer, Indigenous activist and a fossil hunter

Most of the 1,047 Australians honoured are not famous but many of them have changed lives, if not the country

Most of the 1,047 names on the 2023 Australia Day honours list are not as recognisable as Archie Roach, Norman Swan or David Wenham.

But many of them have changed lives, if not the country. Take the solicitor Rodney Lewis, appointed to the Order of Australia for his “life-long contribution to human rights and civil liberties both in Australia and more broadly across our region”.

At the end of last century, Lewis became interested in elder law, long before elder abuse became a common term.

In 2011 he wrote the seminal text Elder Law in Australia, back when other lawyers “didn’t want to know about it”.

“It’s really only in the last handful of years that lawyers have started to realise that although they might be able to deal with, say, a conflict over a will, their client would probably start off by saying ‘my sister has just organised my mother to go down to her solicitor and make another will ... that’s elder abuse, isn’t it?’,” he said.

“We ignored it.”

Things changed, though, when a 2017 Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry found adult children were pressuring their parents to relinquish their family home – that they, and others meant to care for the elderly, were instead physically, emotionally and sexually abusing them.

Next came the national plan to respond to the abuse of older Australians, then the royal commission into aged care safety and quality, and a range of other responses.

Lewis was a pioneer of the work that has led to elder abuse now being taken seriously and tackled, and continues to advocate for better legal protections.

Other recipients whose work might go under the national radar, but were transformative, include Michael Barnett for service to the LGBTQ+ community, the palaeontologist Lesley Kool, and Leanne Miller for “significant service to women’s affairs, and to the Indigenous community”.

Barnett, a co-convener of Aleph Melbourne, said he worried about suicide rates and mental health issues in vulnerable young people, because of “relentless and pointless homophobic and transphobic intolerance”.

He worked hard to turn things around in one specific community.

“Over the years of my advocacy and activism I have seen Melbourne’s Jewish community become a beacon of LGBTIQ+ inclusion,” he said.

Kool worked on “Australia’s greatest dinosaur hunt”. Victoria’s state fossil emblem – Koolasuchus cleelandi, a cretaceous period amphibian resembling “something between a huge newt and a crocodile” – is named after her.

“I’m a history lover driven by the thrill of uncovering a fossil bone or tooth no one else has seen,” she said.

“These animals were as Australian as the koala and the kangaroo, but very few people are aware they ever existed.

“We would like to change that view.”

Miller is from the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria and her mother, Frances Mathyssen-Briggs, and grandmother Geraldine Briggs are past honours recipients.

“It is perhaps turning into a family tradition,” the Yorta Yorta woman of the Dhulanyagen Ulupna clan said.

Of her achievements, she said she was “especially proud of reports that examine the impacts of discrimination on women in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities”.

Lewis said he was “honoured” to be put into the same category as the more famous recipients of the awards.

“It was mentioned to me that this had gone in, I didn’t think much of it,” he said. “You just plod along from day to day.”

Anyone can nominate any Australian for an award in the Order of Australia. If you know someone worthy, nominate them now at


Tory Shepherd

The GuardianTramp

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