Rush, 60, beat a former military chief and a host of other well-known Australians to the award, which was presented to him in Canberra on Wednesday evening by Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
He won an Academy Award for his compelling portrayal of troubled pianist David Helfgott in the 1996 film "Shine", an achievement which saw him eventually take the coveted 'Triple Crown' of acting: an Oscar, Tony and Emmy.
"Shine" turned the late-blooming Rush from theatre mainstay to Hollywood star, opening the door to roles including "The King's Speech", which earned him his fourth Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor and a BAFTA nod.
The craggy, versatile Australian also earned critical acclaim in "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers", "Quills" and "Elizabeth", as well as hamming it up in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series and "Finding Nemo".
He said the award was a tribute to the growth of Australia's arts scene from "a relative wasteland into a unique species of native tree that only the soil of this rich country can cultivate."
"We are the plucky country," he said.
"I know that hard-wired into every Australian from every background we love acting the goat, taking the mickey, cracking a joke, spinning a yarn."