Bushfires on minds at Australian awards

Paul Osborne
Prime Minister Scott Morrison poses with three of the four Australian of the Year category winners

All people involved in tackling the bushfire emergency are "Australians of the year" according to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

But there had to be one winner.

South Australian eye surgeon Dr James Muecke wants to put the fight against diabetes - and the role of sugar - on the national agenda.

Type 2 diabetes affects about one in 10 Australians, is the fastest-growing cause of blindness in Aboriginal people, and the sixth-biggest killer in the country.

Dr Muecke said as an eye surgeon he often saw patients at the end stage of their diabetes, when it's too late to save their sight.

"My mission this year is to get back to the root cause of this disease and prevent what will otherwise be our nation's health catastrophe," he said after being named Australian of the Year overnight.

He wants to encourage "hard-hitting strategies" to build greater awareness of the detrimental role of sugar.

"And how it's as toxic and addictive as nicotine, and should be treated by consumers, businesses and governments as such."

Awards also went to Queensland tennis sensation Ash Barty (Young Australian), WA obstetrics specialist Professor John Newnham (Senior Australian) and NSW youth advocate Bernie Shakeshaft (Local Hero).

With smoke from nearby bushfires in the air outside the Canberra ceremony venue, Mr Morrison paid tribute to all those involved in tackling the emergency or impacted by it.

"They - like the nominees here tonight - are demonstrating to us that our national story is one of great achievement, but also of pain, of effort, sweat," he said.

"You are all Australians of the year."

Dr Muecke poured out similar praise.

"During this turmoil, we've seen the best in human nature and have witnessed the true Aussie spirit rise - proud, and unrelenting."

Barty was presented with her award in Melbourne by 2002 Australian of the Year Pat Rafter.

She was in the Victorian capital attempting to become the first home-grown Australian Open singles winner since Chris O'Neil in 1978.

"All of my values that I've lived by and try to live by every single day, regardless of whether it's in sport ... all come from mum and dad," the ever-humble Barty said after receiving her award.

Perth-based Professor Newnham, 67, is recognised as one of the world's leading authorities in the prevention of pre-term birth, the single greatest cause of death and disability in children up to five years of age.

"It is now time for prevention of pre-term birth to become a national priority for Australia."

Mr Shakeshaft took out the Local Hero award for his work with disadvantaged youth in the NSW regional city of Armidale, through the BackTrack Youth Works program.