Facing the unforgiving steel of A Current Affair’s Tracy Grimshaw in November, Don Burke initially appeared confident he had things covered. During an interview to discuss a slew of allegations of sexual misconduct, the former TV gardener offered up bizarre deflections. He admitted to affairs he wasn’t asked about. He repeatedly mentioned his wife Marea was ill. And he blamed his trouble reading “body language” and missing “subtle signs” given off by others on self-diagnosed Asperger’s: “I suffer from a terrible problem with that. Not seeing.”
What Burke would’ve had no trouble noticing was his instant fall from the upper echelons of the Australian entertainment industry. He became the first high-profile local star to face accusations of being a “sexual predator” and “psychotic bully” after the scandal surrounding Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Australia’s eyes were widened by allegations about the former TV gardener. For decades he was invited into family homes via Nine’s gentle juggernaut Burke’s Backyard. His affable ordinariness drew regular audiences of almost two million. But Burke’s green thumb was paired with an alleged golden grub mentality, according to multiple accusers who went on the record with accusations against the 70-year-old as part of a joint Fairfax Media and ABC investigation into Burke’s behaviour in the 1980s and ‘90s.
A journalist claimed he made a lewd remark about a relative and preserving his gene pool. “He was a vile, vile human being,” said Bridget Ninness, a former Burke’s Backyard producer who later launched legal action against him for psychological abuse. Former Australian Women’s Weekly editor Deborah Hutton said Burke “made some disgusting sexual remark” during a visit to her Sydney home. “You never wanted to be left alone with him. An absolute creep.”
Fashion designer Julie Neilson told A Current Affair Burke asked her: “Do you take it up the a****?” Kerry Packer personally ordered Burke to behave after Olympian Susie O’Neill lodged a formal complaint against the presenter in 2000, claiming at her house he pointed to a painting of a flower and asked: “Is your c*** as big as that?”
He was said to have groped the breasts of TV researchers, tried to remove the clothing of one and told a young actress she would have to audition topless for his show. And so it went on. The tawdriness and scope of the accusations were gobsmacking, but the truly fascinating thing was that during his A Current Affair mea culpa – if that’s what it was – Burke didn’t seem to get it. He has strongly denied all allegations of “that sleazy sexual stuff” but admitted he may be guilty of being a bully. “I have looked in the mirror and there’s a lot I don’t like, but that’s up to the people of Australia now to decide: can they forgive me or not?”
From A-list stars to politicians and athletes, we’ve named the 13 Australians who made headlines and sparked conversations – both heated and admiring – across the nation in 2017. Some covered themselves in glory. Some created controversy. Some made reputations, others lost them. From the cricket arena to the same sex marriage battlefield, regardless of whether they were beloved or booed, their personal and professional wins and downfalls had us talking over dinner tables and media channels.