In an Australia Day Speech, Prime Minister Julia Gaillard announced a new category of honours to pay tribute for the heroes of natural disasters – the National Emergency Medal.

The new Australia Day award will recognise those who performed extraordinary acts during the Victorian bushfires and Queensland floods.

Gillard visited Toowoomba in Queensland to pay respect to the victims of Australia’s floods in which 35 people died, many in the Toowoomba and Lockyer Valley areas.

The PM said that the new Australia Day award would not come into effect until next year, but that honours will be backdates to take into account the heroes of the 2011 floods and the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

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“We are grieving the loss of life, but we are also celebrating the tremendous community spirit as people work together in the most difficult of times and the darkest of hours,” Gillard told the thousands-strong crowd.

“Through the Governor-General, I have requested of the Queen that in Australia Day in the future we will have special honours where we will acknowledge Australians who have done that extra bit during natural disasters and emergencies, Australians who have gone out of their way to extend the hand of mateship to their fellow Australians in times of need.”

After the Australia Day ceremony, Gillard attended a barbeque with survivors of the floods and emergency service workers.

“I thought this was the right place in the nation to make a very special announcement about how we will honour in the future those who have done such courageous things, such selfless things during these dark and difficult days,” Gillard said.

A new flag for Australia?

Meanwhile, the 2011 Australian of the Year, Simon McKeon – a Melbourne businessman and philanthropist – backed his predecessor’s calls for a new national flag.

Last year’s Australian of the Year, Patrick McGorry, has said he is in favour of Australia becoming a republic.

“For me, I’m supportive of a change of flag,”McKeon told the Nine Network.

“But I’m more supportive of let’s bring on the agenda of a very simple question: Do a clear majority of Australians support a republic or not?”