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Making a Difference: Fifty Years of Indigenous Programs at Monash University, 1964–2014

Chapter 3


Among the many changes ushered in by the election of Gough Whitlam’s Australian Labor Party in 1972 was a commitment to restoring Aboriginal peoples’ self-determination through a range of new government programs and increased levels of expenditure. Honoured by successive governments over the next two decades, this commitment resulted in the founding of Aboriginal legal and medical services managed by local Aboriginal communities, the inclusion of Aboriginal leaders in the processes of government, and other initiatives. As we saw in the previous chapter, the consequences of these developments for Monash’s Centre for Research into Aboriginal Affairs were significant. Energised by an injection of funds, the CRAA embarked on a major program of expansion. However it was not until later, under Elizabeth Eggleston’s successor, that the full impact of Whitlam’s reform agenda was felt. Eggleston had hired casual Aboriginal research assistants and had sought Aboriginal participation in the CRAA’s Board, but it took the appointment of an Aboriginal Director, Colin Bourke, to accelerate and name this process of Aboriginalisation within the University. Under Bourke, the CRAA embarked on a conscious program of Aboriginalisation that was part process and part mission. Applied to all aspects of the CRAA’s work, it gave the Centre a strong and positive focus that saw it grow in size and stature. This focus dissipated under subsequent Directors, such that when Bourke returned to the University in 1997, twenty years after his initial appointment, as a consultant engaged to review Monash’s Aboriginal programs, he found cause to recommend a renewed focus on Aboriginalisation in line with University’s then current focus on internationalisation. The Centre, once a leader in research on contemporary Aboriginal affairs, had become ‘bereft of research activity’.

Colin Bourke: ‘To Get As Many Aboriginal People As I Could’

Colin Bourke became the first full-time Director of the Centre for Research into Aboriginal Affairs in 1977. He was also the first Aboriginal Director. A teacher with the Victorian Education Department, Bourke was vice-principal at Keon Park Primary School at the time of his appointment. His acceptance of the fixed-term two-year appointment was conditional upon the Education Department consenting to a secondment arrangement, which it did. In 1975, two years before his secondment, Bourke had served as Supervisor of Aboriginal Education with the Special Services Division of the Education Department. Convinced that Aboriginal education was composed of ‘two distinguishable but dependent parts’, namely ‘education of Aborigines, and education of the non-Aboriginal community about Aborigines’, Bourke came to the CRAA determined to ‘assist in the development of both aspects’. He knew the challenge that faced him, but was ‘devoted to the fulfillment of the hopes and aspirations of the Aboriginal people’. One of his referees, Eric Willmot, described him, pointedly, as a member of the ‘new group of emergent Aboriginal professionals whose effect on the course of Aboriginal destiny is likely to be a significant event in Australian history’.

A father of four, Bourke was accustomed to the pressures of a busy life. Born in Sunshine, Victoria, he commenced work with the Victorian Education Department in 1955, moving through the ranks from classroom assistant to principal. He became a teacher, he recalled, because of what his father told him about the Depression: ‘everybody got sacked, [but] teachers were still employed … if you want security, be a teacher’. Bourke wanted security, but he had other ambitions. His dream was to teach the next generation of teachers. Having always harboured a desire to go to university, in 1968 he decided to ‘have a crack at doing a degree’. Knocked back on account of his low matriculation grade, he enrolled in a correspondence course, improved his grade and was accepted to the University of Melbourne the next year, graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce in 1974, and a Bachelor of Education in 1976.

Bourke knew about the CRAA and its work under Colin Tatz and Elizabeth Eggleston, but he was not looking for a job. It was Richard Eggleston, Chancellor of Monash and Elizabeth’s father, who alerted him to the position: ‘[he] rang me up and he said “a position is vacant, will you apply for it?”’ Within weeks of commencing at Monash, the Commonwealth Department of Education requested permission to appoint Bourke to the National Aboriginal Education Committee (NAEC), a new organisation consisting solely of Aboriginal members whose purpose was to advise government and other authorities on the educational needs of Aboriginal people from pre-school to university. Informed that Bourke’s membership of the NAEC would entail attendance at three or four meetings per year, the University agreed. A sign of the times, Bourke’s involvement in the NAEC and other Aboriginal organisations, both government and community, was a feature of his directorship which saw an increasingly politicised Aboriginal perspective brought to bear upon the Centre’s work.

Bourke’s first two years as Director of the CRAA were characterised by continuity and change. The Centre continued to ‘undertake and stimulate research and to examine the problems Aborigines have in living in a predominantly white society with the aim of helping bring about an improvement in that situation’. However, emphasis was increasingly placed on the latter aspect (i.e. improving ‘the situation of the indigenous people of this country’). The practice of employing Aboriginal staff, commenced during Eggleston’s time, also continued. What changed was the articulation and consciousness of this as ‘Aboriginalisation’. In his first Director’s report, having completed nearly eight months in the role, Bourke wrote that the Centre had ‘undergone a degree of Aboriginalisation in relation to staff and research activities following the appointment of an Aboriginal Director’. In his second report, he noted that this ‘Aboriginalisation … [had] continued with respect to personnel, philosophy and activities’. What also changed was the size and location of the Centre. In May 1977 the Centre moved from the Law School to the fourth floor of the Education building where it occupied three rooms. By the end of the following year, it occupied five rooms, but was still overcrowded.

The Centre grew rapidly under Bourke, largely as a result of his ability to extract funds from various sources and his commitment to employing Aboriginal people. As Professor Louis Waller, Chairman of the CRAA’s Board, related to Basil Hetzel, former Chairman of the Board:

[Bourke] is energetic, and particularly able in the preparation of proposals for, and the pursuit of, grants from government and semi-government bodies. This, coupled with a regular policy of employing, as much as possible, young Aborigines as clerical staff and research assistants, has made the Centre a contributor, in a small way, to [Aboriginal] employment in this part of Melbourne.

During 1977 funds were received from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs to employ several Aboriginal people: Wayne Atkinson and Colin Johnson were appointed as research assistants, and two temporary clerical assistants, Noretta Knight and Carolin Martin, were appointed among others. Further funds for a short-term research project conducted by Kevin Gilbert were also received. ‘All these new members of staff’, Bourke proudly reported, ‘are Aborigines’.

Many of the Aboriginal staff employed by the Centre under Bourke became influential members of the Aboriginal community: Atkinson completed a Bachelor of Arts and PhD at La Trobe University, worked extensively in Indigenous affairs and played a leading role in Yorta Yorta land and heritage matters; Johnson, also known as Mudrooroo Narogin, became a well-known, if somewhat controversial novelist, poet and playwright; Knight worked for the Aboriginal Development Commission in Canberra; and Martin worked as a senior policy adviser for the Victorian State Government Departments of Education and Human Services before being appointed Manager, Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Museum Victoria. Gilbert, who played a leading role in the 1972 Tent Embassy demonstration, was already an accomplished playwright at the time of his appointment. In 1988 he was awarded the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Human Rights Award for Literature, but he returned the medal citing the ongoing injustice and suffering of his people.

The funding of the Centre during 1977 and 1978 continued the pattern set in earlier years. The University paid the salaries of the Director and the secretary and all other funds had to be found from other sources. That the employment of Aboriginal people at the Centre was only possible through ‘special Department of Aboriginal Affairs funding’ was a source of frustration and concern to Bourke. Skilled in the art of grant writing he may have been, but Bourke found the process of applying for funds ‘an extremely arduous task’. He concluded his first Director’s report with the familiar lament that much of the Centre’s work was devoted towards obtaining funds ‘in order to carry on the work of the Centre’. A partial solution was found in 1978 when the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations (later the Department of Employment and Youth Affairs) agreed to classify the CRAA as a Training Centre for Aborigines under the National Employment Strategy for Aborigines, part of the National Employment and Training (NEAT) scheme. This meant that the Department paid 100 percent of the wages and on-costs of Aboriginal people employed as trainees at the Centre. Most of the training positions were short-term which meant the Centre continually had new trainees. Even though this lessened its overall efficiency, so important was the CRAA’s role as an employer of Aboriginal people that Bourke sought recognition of this as one of the its main functions.

The CRAA’s tripartite purpose, ‘research, resource and teaching’, was enlarged to include ‘employment’ in 1978. The three original functions were also sharpened as a result of the Centre’s Aboriginalisation. The CRAA continued to function as a resource centre (despite the lack of suitable accommodation or funding) with Bourke noting a ‘dramatic’ increase in the ‘number of Aboriginal people visiting the Centre and using its resources’. Anticipating that ‘this trend would continue’, Bourke hoped that ‘eventually the Aboriginal Organisations [would] use the resources of the Centre in preparing their submissions to Government and other funding bodies’. Indeed, this was an important part of his vision for the Centre’s future – that it would become a central repository of information and hub of activities for Aboriginal people and their organisations in greater Melbourne. During 1977 the Centre’s resources were expanded to include recordings of the Black Studies lectures that recommenced that year (see below). An additional resource was found among the small number of Aboriginal students enrolled at Monash; the Centre encouraged them to undertake speaking engagements at local schools.

In 1978 the Centre employed a young Aboriginal woman and trainee librarian, Wendy Carter, on a part-time basis to catalogue and organise the large body of resource material which, that year, was moved to a dedicated room attached to the office of the Centre’s secretary. The Elizabeth Eggleston Memorial Aboriginal Resource Centre was opened in August, though it took another year before it was fully functioning. By the end of 1980 the CRAA was employing two Aboriginal trainee library technicians to work in the Resource Centre which now held ‘over six hundred monograph titles, ninety periodical titles, about two thousand pamphlet titles, newspaper clippings, theses, audio tapes, video tapes, annual reports of Aboriginal organisations, Australian Bureau of Statistics publications, Aboriginal Research Centre reports and publications, seminar reports, maps, Acts and Bills, and official government Hansards’.

The Aboriginalisation of the Centre was also felt in the area of research. Rather than continuing to respond only (or mainly) to the ‘needs of those groups who have the finance and resources to commission research’, Bourke sought to employ Aboriginal trainee research assistants who could ‘react to the research needs of the Aboriginal community’. This was not to deny or downplay the significance of commissioned research; rather, it was to highlight the potential of Aboriginal-led and initiated research. Although most of the research conducted by the CRAA continued to be of the former kind, increasingly it was conducted by Aboriginal researchers. In 1977 the Victorian Education Department commissioned research on Aboriginal education. Worked on by several members of the CRAA, including Colin Johnson, Wayne Atkinson and Bourke, the resulting twenty-page booklet, Aboriginal Educational Services in Victoria, provided a comprehensive overview of Commonwealth and State education services, Aboriginal administered services, and services provided by other organisations including Monash University, the University of Melbourne, Save the Children Fund, and the Master Plumbers Association. Copies were sent to every school in Victoria and efforts were made to distribute the booklet to all Aboriginal families in Victoria.

During 1977 the Education Research and Development Committee, an advisory committee to the Commonwealth Minister for Education, invited Bourke to make an assessment of the bilingual education programs being offered to Aboriginal people around Australia. Most of the research was conducted during 1978; the report was completed in 1979. Other research projects conducted during 1978 included: an Aboriginal history of Tasmania by Colin Johnson funded by the Aboriginal Arts Board; a study of the history of Cummerragunja by Wayne Atkinson, paid for by the Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies; a ten-week survey regarding the possibility of introducing an Aboriginal language into Victorian schools underwritten the Victorian Education Department; and a two-month study of the effectiveness of welfare services for Victorian Aboriginal people funded by Victorian Council of Social Services. The latter two projects were undertaken by Eve Fesl, future Director of the CRAA.

The CRAA hosted two conferences and an art exhibition during 1978. The first conference, held in May at the Monash Halls of Residence, considered the ‘Future of the South-Eastern Australian Aborigines’. Attended by more than eighty Aboriginal people, Bourke remarked that he thought ‘it could easily rank as a major achievement in Aboriginal Affairs’. The second conference, on Aboriginal unemployment, was held at the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (VAAL) office in Northcote. Well attended by Aboriginal people and representatives of various State and Commonwealth Departments, the views expressed found a ready ear in the recently established National Aboriginal Employment Development Committee, of which Bourke was a member. In December nine Milingimbi artists and performers from Arnhem Land (Northern Territory) were brought to Monash for a two-weeks art exhibition and workshop. The grounds at Marist College were transformed into a traditional-type setting where paintings, carvings, weapons, musical instruments and weavings were exhibited and sold, and demonstrations held. Over 2000 people attended the exhibition and participated in the workshops.

The Aboriginalisation of the Centre continued in the area of teaching. The ‘Black Australian Studies’ course pioneered by Eggleston in 1974 and 1975 (see Chapter 2) recommenced as a not-for-credit course in 1977. Initially scheduled on Tuesday evenings, the year-long course attracted a modest twenty to thirty participants. However, following the decision to repeat the evening lecture at lunchtime, the numbers attending greatly increased. Notable speakers, such as Charles Perkins, Margaret Valadian, and Kath Walker commanded audiences of up to ninety people at lunchtime. Bourke was especially pleased at the number of Aboriginal students and community members attending the lectures. He estimated that half or more of the audience at Perkins’ lecture was Aboriginal. Towards the end of 1977, at the request of the Aboriginal Liaison Officer at the University of Melbourne, Eleanor Koumalatsos, the evening lecture was moved to the University of Melbourne. Bourke’s agreement signaled his hope of increasing ‘the dissemination of Aboriginal studies’ to audiences in central Melbourne, especially Aboriginal people. The course continued to be taught at both universities under the auspices of the CRAA in 1978–1981.

The list of proposed speakers for Black Studies in 1978 was a veritable who’s who of notable Aboriginal people: Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Marcia Langton, Lois O’Donoghue, John Newfong, Charles Perkins, Bruce McGuiness, and Chicka Dixon were just some of the Aboriginal speakers the Centre hoped to secure. This was an important point of difference between the Centre’s Black Studies course and similar courses offered at other tertiary institutions. As Bourke noted in his application for accreditation in 1978, the course not only examined issues ‘from the Aboriginal perspective’, but imparted ‘first-hand information’ on Aboriginal issues by Aboriginal people. Later, reflecting on the significance of this, he explained that he felt there were too many non-Aboriginal people talking about Aboriginal people, and too few Aboriginal people ‘giving their views of what Aboriginal people think or want … If you’re going to have someone talk about land rights, why not get someone who is leading the land rights push?’ To Bourke, it did not matter that the guest lecturers were ‘a bit rough around the edges’. What mattered was hearing ‘Aboriginal voices … giving the other side of the story which had never [before] been listened to’.

Waller, writing in support of Bourke’s application for accreditation for Black Studies, advised the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Professor J.D. Legge, that offering such a course ‘would increase the stature of Aborigines, and in doing so, make a positive contribution to improving race relations in this country’. Although the University eventually agreed, initially the answer was ‘no’. The course was considered ‘not academic’ enough, Bourke explained: ‘the Dean said no … you haven’t got a lecturer in charge, you haven’t got a syllabus and [so on]’. Bourke met the Dean’s objections: ‘we started knocking them off, one by one, and in the end we got our accreditation’. As well as Black Studies, during 1978 Bourke lectured on Aboriginal education to Bachelor of Education students at Monash, and Diploma of Education students at various teachers colleges; the Centre combined with the Linguistics Department to offer a beginners course in Pitjantjatjara; and Fesl conducted weekly classes in Aboriginal Studies at the Ferntree Gully Women’s Educational Co-operative.

Bourke’s goal was to ‘get as many Aboriginal people as he could’ involved in all aspects of the Centre’s work, including its Board. During Eggleston’s time, efforts had been made to recruit Aboriginal Board members, but with limited success. This was escalated under Bourke who, at the end of his first year as Director, nominated three new Aboriginal Board members: Eleanor Koumalatsos (Aboriginal Liaison Office, University of Melbourne), Penny Maxwell (administrative secretary, Victorian Aboriginal Co-operative), and Reg Blow (administrator, Dandenong and District Co-operative). All three joined the Board in 1978. Three years later half of the Board were Aboriginal: in Bourke’s view, having ‘membership of an Aboriginal Research Centre Board within a University consisting of equal proportions of University staff members and Aborigines’ was ‘a very satisfactory situation’.


From left: Colin Bourke, Reg Blow, Ian Viner (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs), Professor Ray Martin, Proffesor Louis Waller

Source: Monash Archives

The question of whether Bourke would return to teaching at the end of his period of secondment was resolved with his acceptance of a tenured position as Director of the CRAA at the end of 1978. With security and experience came the freedom and desire to implement greater change. Bourke noted in January 1979 that ‘the objectives of the Centre’, having changed little since 1964, were ‘to be reviewed’. First on the list was the Centre’s relationship with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) in Canberra. The CRAA’s relationship with the AIAS had always been strained, largely as a result of the founding Director, Colin Tatz’s open disdain for the AIAS’s focus on the past. In 1978 the AIAS funded a pilot project on the history of Cummeragunja and this prompted Bourke to reflect that the CRAA had ‘no knowledge of the materials they [the AIAS] have available on the Victorian Aborigines’. Discussions with the AIAS Principal, Peter Ucko, resulted in the AIAS funding a researcher from the CRAA to compile a bibliography of their holdings on Victoria. Colin Johnson undertook the task. Seeking to further improve the Centre’s relationship with the AIAS, Bourke joined several AIAS sub-committees: the Education, Publications, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committees. During 1979 Ucko and a Senior Research Fellow, Alex Barlow, visited the CRAA.

Bourke recognised the importance of committee work for building and maintaining the Centre’s profile. As well as serving on the AIAS committees, the National Aboriginal Education Committee, and the National Aboriginal Employment Development Committee, Bourke served on the Victorian Aboriginal Education Consultative Group, and the Victorian In-Service Education Committee Aboriginal Sub-Committee. The proliferation of Aboriginal committees during this period pointed to the professionalisation and bureaucratisation of the struggle for justice for Aboriginal people. It also pointed to the greater amount of government funding available for Aboriginal organisations. The Department for Aboriginal Affairs increased its allocation to the Centre by fifty percent in the 1978–79 financial year, bringing the total received to $27,000. This was increased the following year to $40,700. Funding for specific research projects was also received from other government bodies, including: the Commonwealth Department of Education, the Department of Community Welfare, and the Victorian Education Department. The latter department funded the Bandjalang Language Program. Building on the Aboriginal language survey conducted the previous year, the CRAA in conjunction with the Victorian Aboriginal Education Consultative Group, brought the Bandjalang language into Warnnambool West and Bell Primary Schools on a trial basis in 1979. The program, which attracted considerable media attention, was continued the following year.

Like Tatz and Eggleston before him, Bourke maintained a good relationship with the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League. In 1979, in the face of falling membership, Bourke called on the embattled League ‘to define its role and direction in Aboriginal affairs for the future’. Subsequently, a two-day seminar was held at Monash ‘aimed at crystallising [the VAAL’s] future role and areas of responsibility in Aboriginal Affairs’. Requests from other Aboriginal organisations and individuals for joint research projects were received from the Victorian Aboriginal Cooperative, the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, and Robert (Bobby) Merritt, author of Cake Man (1975). The most ambitious project was that proposed by the Aboriginal Child Care Agency. It wanted to develop a research project that would examine what happened to Aboriginal children in Victoria from 1939–79, focusing on the role of government agencies involved in the placement of Aboriginal children. This followed the ‘First Aboriginal Child Survival Seminar’ convened by the Aboriginal Child Care Agency in Melbourne in April 1979. Representing as they did the ‘research needs of the Aboriginal community’, these requests received Bourke’s full support. He managed to secure funding from the AIAS for the Victorian Aboriginal Cooperative’s joint project on Aboriginal housing needs in Victoria, and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs paid for a pilot survey on the effects of prisons on Aborigines in New South Wales undertaken by Merritt, but the project on Aboriginal children was not pursued. Such a topic would, in years to come, assume critical importance in understanding the disadvantaged state of Aboriginal people; in 1979, however, appreciation of the nature and extent of Aboriginal child removal was still in its infancy.

In recognition of the Centre’s Aboriginalisation, Bourke suggested changing its name to a title that more readily identified its changed outlook and focus. In July 1979, the Centre for Research into Aboriginal Affairs became the Aboriginal Research Centre. Personally, Bourke preferred MARC, the Monash Aboriginal Research Centre, but the Board opted for ARC. At its November meeting the ARC Board considered a document prepared by the Director proposing the admission of Aboriginal students to Monash University under a revised special admissions scheme. Speaking to the document, Bourke informed the Board that there were significant numbers ‘of Aborigines wishing to undertake university courses’ who had little chance of gaining entry in the normal way or under the existing special admissions scheme. Under the existing scheme, early school leavers and other applicants were required to sit and achieve a minimum level of performance in a general test of scholastic aptitude. Rather than subject Aboriginal candidates to a culturally specific aptitude test, the Board of the ARC agreed that steps should be taken to establish more appropriate avenues for entry. Several alternatives were considered. In the end the Board resolved to recommend that the relevant University regulations be altered to enable Aborigines seeking admission to the University to be considered for selection by a special committee convened by the ARC. While not resulting in any immediate change, this decision helped to pave the way for future change.

With Colin Johnson and anthropologist Isobel White, Bourke cowrote Before The Invasion: Aboriginal Life to 1788, an overview of pre-contact Aboriginal life aimed at school children, during 1979. The publisher, Oxford University Press, did not believe ‘that two Aboriginal people could write a book on their own’: they got White involved, Bourke recalled, and while she was great to work with, their lack of faith was galling.

The year 1979 was also when ‘Aboriginal Studies’, formerly ‘Black Australian Studies’, was first offered as a course for credit in the Faculty of Arts. Forty students enrolled and Eve Fesl, a Monash graduate with an honours degree in sociology, was employed as Senior Tutor. One of the conditions of accreditation, Fesl, who had previously worked as a research assistant and secretary in the Centre, was to provide continuity in a course that was taught by a different guest lecturer each week. Students surveyed at the conclusion of the course reported learning not only a ‘great deal of knowledge about Aboriginal culture’, but gaining ‘a fresh perspective on their own society and its value systems’ as a result. The course was taught again in 1980. Some thirty students enrolled and, as in previous years, the lectures were also open to the public.

The Faculty of Arts reviewed the course in 1979 and 1980. The second review resulted in a ‘flood of letters’ from concerned students protesting – ‘sometimes in somewhat offensive terms’ – against what they saw as the Faculty’s negative attitude to the course. Most of the letter writers complained that the course only lasted one year, however some alluded to concerns, raised in the review, about the course’s academic standards. One letter, addressed to the Vice Chancellor, expressed ‘anger and disgust’ at the university’s inability to ‘see when a course is of importance and value to an individual and his society’. The student’s tirade concluded with an open challenge to the Vice Chancellor to enroll in the course:

If the course appears less academic to you than another subject, it is because you refuse to let it be by limiting the amount of time allowed to cover an area that has a history of 60,000 years in Australia. If you still consider the course is not academic enough, then I feel you should reevaluate the standards of education in this University … If still you are not convinced, I suggest you enroll in the course for 1981 … to get an understanding of the people we are studying and … hearing their interpretation of their own affairs.

The university registrar, J.D. Butchart, doubted whether any of the students had actually seen the review. Instead, it seemed they ‘had been fed some of the comments’ and ‘encouraged to write as part of a propaganda exercise’. The Dean of Arts, J.D. Legge agreed that the letters were probably ‘inspired’, but that did not concern him. What worried him was that ‘not one of the letters’ was ‘correctly informed about the facts of the case’, including ‘the possibility of the Faculty giving additional money to the course next year’. Legge advised Bourke to inform his students ‘that a campaign as ill-informed as this one [was] likely to be counter-productive’. The main suggestion arising from the review was that a series of lectures be given by one visiting lecturer to promote continuity and depth, for which the Faculty of Arts agreed to provide additional funds. In 1981, Eric Willmott, new Principal of the AIAS, was engaged to deliver four lectures.

By then Bourke had resigned. In his final Director’s report, Bourke took aim at the University for failing to provide secure funding: ‘Despite its use of many funding sources the Centre is always experiencing difficulty in making ends meet’, he reproached. By way of example, he relayed how he had had to refrain from appointing a clerical assistant during 1980 so that funds earmarked for that role could be reallocated to pay the senior tutor whose work was essential for the Aboriginal Studies course. He made it clear that the ‘level of funding provided at present [was] seriously hindering the development of the Centre’. The present accommodation was also inadequate: ‘The Centre has serious overcrowding problems’, Bourke complained. He estimated that an additional sixteen offices and purpose built resource centre and language laboratory were required. But these were matters for his successor to pursue.

Bourke left the university in March 1981 to take up a position as General Manager of the recently created Aboriginal Development Commission. He and his new wife Eleanor (formerly Koumalatsos), an ARC Board member (and future Director of the Centre), were farewelled at a cocktail party attended by the Chancellor, Deputy-Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, ARC Board members, Monash staff, and Aboriginal community leaders. On his last day of work Bourke was interviewed by Professor Merle Ricklefs, a recent appointee in the History Department, who wanted to know what could be done to increase the number of Aboriginal students at Monash. Not through lack of trying, Bourke had not managed to Aboriginalise the student-body. Busy packing his office, Bourke replied: ‘what you need is a bridging course’. Bourke’s successor, Eve Fesl worked with Ricklefs to establish the Monash Orientation Scheme for Aborigines (see chapter 4), a path-breaking initiative that saw the number of Aboriginal students enrolled at Monash grow from one in 1983 to fifty-four by 1991.

Eve Fesl: ‘A Somewhat Fearsome Reputation’

Eve Fesl was appointed Acting Director of the Aboriginal Research Centre in 1981, and was confirmed as Director by the end of that year. Fesl had been involved in every aspect of the Centre’s operation since her employment as a casual research assistant in 1977. As Bourke’s secretary in 1978, she was instrumental in developing the administrative machinery that enabled the Centre to become a training facility for Aboriginal people. The following year she became senior tutor in Aboriginal Studies. In 1980 she travelled as a representative of the ARC to Perpignan in the south of France where she attended the inaugural conference of the ‘La Societe Francaise Pour La Promotion De La Culture Des Aborigines Australiens’. By 1981 Fesl was, in her own words, ‘fully conversant with the functioning of the Centre’, and was ‘acquainted with most of the clients and persons involved in the Centre’s business’. She was also intimately familiar with the University itself, having been a student there since 1974.

Born in Queensland in 1930, Fesl’s ancestors were Gubbi Gubbi and Yiman peoples. Excelling in sport, she moved to Melbourne in 1956, her sights set on making the Olympic discus team, but she was not selected. She enrolled in night school, eventually matriculating with the state’s highest mark in German. This led to her being invited to enter the German Department at Monash University. She ended up studying anthropology, sociology and linguistics, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts with honours in 1978. At the time of her appointment as Director of the Aboriginal Research Centre, she was completing a Master of Arts thesis on the Aboriginal languages of Gippsland. Fesl, as reported in the Sun, shattered ‘any bigot’s stereotype of an Aboriginal’; she was ‘gracious, elegant, accomplished and sophisticated’; she was also extremely hard working, averaging seventy hours per week. She had strong views on a range of social issues and stood up for what she believed in: she was pro-environment and anti-freeways; she served as president of the Save the Kangaroo Committee; and, with her husband, showed her support for the ideal of Zero Population Growth by choosing to remain childless.

Within a month of Bourke’s departure, Fesl revealed herself to be a leader with a clear vision for the Centre’s future. Based on her understanding of the needs of the Aboriginal community, as well as her ‘perception of the direction in which the Centre is heading’, she identified the ARC’s future priorities: 1. Research; 2. Aboriginal Studies; 3. Bandjalang Language Program. In her first report as Acting Director, Fesl stipulated that any future funding would be allocated on a priority basis ‘in line with the above hierarchy’. Her approach to management was very hands-on; she had oversight of all the Centre’s research and teaching projects and was not averse to admonishing those whose work failed to reach acceptable standards. She had no qualms, for example, about calling-out an Aboriginal researcher whose work – or rather lack thereof – had ‘become a source of embarrassment to the Centre’. Maintaining a tight control over the Centre’s budget, Fesl proudly reported at the end of her first year in the job that the ARC was functioning within its budget. She approached the Department of Aboriginal Affairs not as supplicant, but as a ‘grateful’ recipient of its ‘continued financial support’. She was also ‘grateful’ to Monash University for its ‘practical support’ and encouragement.

Director of the ARC for over a decade, from 1981 to 1993, Fesl oversaw a tumultuous period in the Centre’s history. Once a lone voice on contemporary Aboriginal Affairs, the Centre’s point of difference had dissipated with the growth of Aboriginal-led organisations during the 1970s. In the two decades since the Centre’s establishment, much had changed in Aboriginal Affairs; legal forms of discrimination against Aboriginal people had been removed from the statute books, and Aboriginal peoples’ access to education, employment, health-care, housing, legal and other essential services had improved. The steadily increasing number of students taking Aboriginal Studies at Monash, and high number of enquiries received by the ARC for information and advice about Aboriginal issues suggested that community attitudes were also changing. Yet, there was still work to be done.

Where Bourke’s research interests and expertise lay in education, Fesl’s lay in linguistics; appropriately the Centre’s focus shifted in line with the new Director’s expertise. Fesl had been employed as a research assistant in the late 1970s working on a project commissioned by the Victorian Aboriginal Education Consultative Group on the feasibility of introducing an Aboriginal language into Victorian schools. The outcome, as described above, was a trial of the Bandjalang language at two primary schools in 1980. Bandjalang was spoken by Aboriginal people in the north of New South Wales. Its introduction into Victorian schools was recommended by Fesl because she felt that no Victorian Aboriginal languages could be revived, and it was the closest – geographically speaking – Aboriginal language still in daily use.

In March 1981 Fesl escorted seven teachers and teacher-aides to the areas around Lismore where the Bandjalang language was spoken. The aim of the visit was to help the teachers obtain a feel for the language through greater understanding of the cultural background and atmosphere out of which the language arose. This was important, Fesl explained, because ‘otherwise it would be like someone trying to teach the French word and meaning for bread when they did not know that the first task for the day of every French child is to go and collect the family’s bread-sticks’. Following the visit, which attracted positive publicity for the Centre, Aboriginal elders in the Lismore area invited Fesl to return to help establish a Bandjalang language program in schools in their area. That year Bandjalang was taught into four Victorian schools (Warrnambool West, Bell Primary, Preston Technical and Robinvale Primary), and an adult class was planned. Plans were also made for the introduction of Walpiri, a ‘strongly traditional language’ spoken by Aboriginal people north and west of Alice Springs. The distinction Fesl drew between Walpiri and Bandjalang was instructive. She explained that ‘unlike Bandjalang … [Walpiri was] spoken by Aboriginal people living a different lifestyle to Victorian Aboriginal people’. The point of teaching Walpiri was thus to give Aboriginal students an ‘opportunity to look at a culture which, in many respects, may resemble that of their forebears’. By 1985 the second stage of the Bandjalang language program had been successfully trialed and the production of books suitable for both adults and children was underway.

Another major project, ‘Personal Development Through Literacy’, commenced in 1981 with the appointment of three Aboriginal community researchers, one each in Fitzroy (Melbourne), Drouin (Victoria), and Bourke (New South Wales), whose task was to collect data and carry out observations in their own communities. The results, compiled by Fesl, were published in 1982 as Bala Bala: Some Literacy and Educational Perceptions of Three Aboriginal Communities.

The establishment of MOSA, described in the following chapter, occupied a considerable amount of Fesl’s time during 1982–83. Having been a student at Monash in the 1970s herself, she knew first hand ‘the kind of isolation white students could never know’. She recalled stumbling ‘blindly through her first years studying German without a text book, [only] to discover the next year that the book was available from the university’. Once MOSA was established, Fesl’s involvement in the bridging course was marginal. MOSA and the ARC were separate entities: ‘completely separate’, according to Ricklefs, MOSA’s co-founder. In the initial proposal for the establishment of the bridging course, Ricklefs explained that while there should be ‘close and cordial contact between the orientation year program and the Aboriginal Research Centre’, the two programs should ‘be kept separate in an institutional sense’. Some overlapping of membership between the Board of the ARC and the MOSA Committee was envisaged, but they were not to be housed together or thought of as sharing a purpose, ‘the two programs’ general aims and responsibilities [being] rather different’. No-one objected to this distinction.

During the mid 1980s the ARC was involved in a national review of Aboriginal employment and training programs, funded by the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations, and was awarded a Community Education Program grant to train Aboriginal women in the identification, preparation and use of Aboriginal plant foods of Victoria. Increasingly, the Centre was called upon to research and write submissions for various government agencies and departments, and more and more time was spent responding to requests for information and advice. Accompanied by an explosion in demand for ‘competent Aboriginal speakers or lecturers’, the Centre found it necessary ‘to confine itself to meeting the needs … of universities … and other institutions of higher education and national conferences of importance’.

Indicative of the divisive nature of some of its work, as well as the growth of splinter groups of Aboriginal activists within society, during 1984 and 1985 strong criticism was leveled at the Director and the Centre from the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (VAAL) and from individual members of the Victorian Aboriginal community for failing ‘to work for the good of all’. The controversy began as a power struggle within the VAAL that culminated in legal proceedings initiated by Fesl and others. Prior to the League’s AGM in 1984, the League’s management committee had sought to prevent a takeover by limiting voting rights. Fesl and her co-plaintiffs wanted the management committee to abide by the principles of community control and open membership on which the League had been founded. The VAAL’s Director (and future Centre Director), Sharon Firebrace, sought to have Fesl sacked, but Monash’s Chancellor, Sir George Lush was unmoved: ‘This University will not dismiss a member of its staff merely because a body outside the University expresses opinions adverse to such a member’.

A formidable and impressive character, by 1985 Fesl’s reputation for standing up for what she believed in was well known. A visiting professor from the University of Western Australia, Robert Tonkinson, remarked following lunch with Fesl that he now understood why she had ‘a somewhat fearsome reputation’: after battling ‘away on several topics’, they parted cordially, their ‘humour and respective positions intact’. Fesl completed her Master of Arts thesis in 1986 and commenced work on a PhD under the supervision of Professor Michael Clyne. An internationally celebrated sociolinguist, Clyne worked mainly in the areas of bilingualism and language maintenance. Guided by Clyne, Fesl completed her doctoral dissertation in less than three years. One of the first Aboriginal people to be awarded a doctorate, and the first at Monash, Fesl’s thesis examined the use of English as a tool of oppression. Arguing that the ‘English language was used to conceal a slave trade in Australia’, she claimed in interviews following the award of her doctorate that both her parents were slaves: ‘In every Koori family there were slaves’.


Dr Eve Fesl with Vice Chancellor Professor Mal Logan after being awarded her doctorate

Source: Monash Archives

Photographer: Richard Crompton

The name ‘Koori’ or ‘Koorie’, meaning ‘our people’, began being openly and widely used by Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia during the 1970s and 1980s. Before then Koori had been a semi-secret word used among Aboriginal people themselves but not generally known by outsiders. Drawing on the research for her thesis, towards the end of 1988 Fesl suggested that the name of the Centre be changed to the ‘Koorie Research Centre’. There were several reasons why such a change was desirable, according to Fesl, but the most significant related to the connotations of the terms ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Koorie’. She explained that:

The word ‘Aborigine’ is a noun which refers to an indigenous group of any country. It is a term which the English first used when they invaded Australia. As a name of a group of people it is non-descriptive, placing the native peoples of Australia into a hodge-podge of peoples, without giving them a named identity … Furthermore, the term ‘Aboriginal’ often is felt to have derogatory connotations, associated from the 19th century with pejorative terms such as ‘primitive’, ‘savage’, ‘barbaric’, etc.

Koorie, on the other hand, was the name that the ‘indigenous peoples of Victoria call themselves’. Fesl argued that is was therefore ‘appropriate that a Centre [such as the ARC], situated in Victoria, should adopt a name more relevant to the people of this state rather than using the identity-less, indeed, often pejorative, term ‘Aboriginal’.

The Board of the ARC was supportive of Fesl’s request and the timing seemed right. At least one member of the ARC’s Board, Dr B.M. Bullivant, objected to the proposal. Historian Bruce Knox, a member of the Professorial Board, also objected. Knox felt that the term ‘Koori’ narrowed the definition of the Centre ‘very severely’. Whereas the present title of the Centre reflected the purpose of its establishment, the new title proclaimed ‘that only studies deriving from, or affecting, the Aboriginal people of south-eastern Australia’ would be undertaken. ‘Koori’, he stressed, ‘is an exclusive term and needs to be used with discretion’. His objections were noted but overruled. As part of Monash’ response to the Bicentenary, the Centre’s name was changed in 1989.

‘1988 and All That’

In recognition of her efforts to preserve and promote Aboriginal culture and languages, as well as her service to the development of multiculturalism, Fesl was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1988. Like many Aboriginal people, Fesl saw the Bicentenary as an occasion ‘not to celebrate, but for Australia to face its history. Until they face it, we won’t have harmony’, she declared. Reflecting a growing mood of Aboriginal assertiveness, especially in the area of Aboriginal history, Fesl called on white Australians to acknowledge the violence of the frontier and ‘honour the Kooris who died in atrocities’. She also wanted acknowledgment of the history of Aboriginal child removal. The burgeoning awareness of the ‘stolen generations’ that followed in the wake of Peter Read’s research in the early 1980s and subsequent establishment of Link-Up, prompted Fesl to note that many removed children were looking for their parents in the bicentennial year: ‘What do you say to the woman who traced her mother too late, two years after she died? Celebrate?’

The Bicentennial year was an extremely busy one at the Centre, all staff taking the opportunity to disseminate information on Aboriginal matters while interest was high. Fesl personally delivered thirty papers to community groups and conferences, and wrote numerous articles. Interviewed by the Herald on the eve of the Bicentennial year, Fesl described her goal for 1988: ‘it is to have the principle accepted that by 1990 there will be core units of Aboriginal studies in teaching courses, and special places reserved for Koori lecturers at training colleges’. Fesl wanted research conducted into teachers attitudes towards children of non-English speaking backgrounds: ‘You have to wipe out racist attitudes and practices in schools and that depends on having good anti-racist teachers’, she explained. Since Bourke’s time the Centre had run electives in the Education Department at Monash, seeking to ensure that new teachers entering the school system were ‘conversant with Aboriginal culture/language and the effects of the institutional clash on Aboriginal students’. Student teachers were trained ‘in the selection of non-racist literature and curricula and methods of “unlearning stereotypes” of Aboriginal people and culture’. Fesl’s larger dream was to establish ‘our own colleges’ where Aboriginal children could go from ‘pre-school to HSC level’ and experience ‘no racism’. At such places, she explained: ‘You could ensure the curricula did not include negative things … like teaching kids Captain Cook discovered Australia … and you could include white kids in the school too so they would grow up with a positive attitude to Kooris’. Such a college – Koori Kollij – was established by Bruce McGuinness, a graduate of Monash and former Director of the VAAL, in 1984.

Fesl followed her interview in the Herald with a memorandum to the Vice Chancellor, Professor M. Logan, outlining her plans for the introduction of an Aboriginal Studies minor and major at Monash. Describing as ‘mediocre’ the presentation of Aboriginal Studies at other (unnamed) universities which ‘failed to … have the involvement of at least some Aboriginal lecturers’, Fesl made it clear that Monash was well placed to ‘lead Australia in the field of Aboriginal studies’. Not only did it have an existing core unit (Aboriginal Studies), but ‘a potential workforce of tutors and lecturers’ in Aboriginal students from the MOSA scheme. Eager to commence, and seeking to capitalise on the enthusiasm as well as discomfiture of the bicentenary, Fesl suggested that an announcement ‘at the beginning of 1988’ – or, better yet, timed to correspond with the Centre’s move to its new home – would be particularly effective.

The ARC’s long-standing accommodation worries ended with the move to new premises in 1988. Situated at Monash’s front entrance, the multi-discipline center designed by Daryl Jackson, known as the Gallery Building, was formally opened by the State Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Tom Roper, in May. Rather than announcing the introduction of an Aboriginal Studies minor and major, a development that would take another four years to be realised, Fesl used the occasion to publicise the Centre’s newest initiative: a consultancy service in market research. In a creative bid to supplement its dwindling income, Fesl explained that the ARC would provide market research to Aboriginal people wishing to start new businesses. This followed the withdrawal of funding from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, previously the Centre’s main source of funding for operational costs. Cutbacks in government spending were felt across all areas as a result of the global stock market crash in 1987.

There was little time for seeking additional sources of funding during the bicentennial spree of activities and engagements. By 1989 the situation had deteriorated to such an extent that ‘monetary matters [had] to be watched carefully’. Fesl complained that it was ‘necessary for constant submission writing to be carried out if money [was] to be generated for Centre projects’. This was nothing new: what had changed was the need to include operational costs. In an increasingly crowded field, this made it difficult for the Centre to compete with other organisations and institutions such as the AIAS that were not similarly burdened. Two large projects tendered by the KRC in 1989 were awarded to the AIAS. Without an assured income to cover its operational costs, estimated at $30,000 per annum, the Centre was dependent on donations, money received for services rendered by the Director, and on the provision for administrative costs built into projects. The latter, as noted, had the effect of making the KRC noncompetitive.

Fesl reported in April 1990 that the Centre’s finances were in an ‘unhealthy state’. With an operating balance of only $3903, it was clear that drastic action needed to be taken to keep the Centre alive. At the end of that year, despite reducing the staff to two, the Centre was more than $16,000 in deficit. Convinced that the Centre’s ability to attract funding was dependent on the ‘Director having and maintaining a high public profile’, Fesl was ‘often read in the press, seen on television or heard on the radio’. Increasingly asked to speak on the status of ‘Koorie Women’, she argued that what Koori women needed were role models: ‘we need women to show the way, to visit and encourage others’. An important role model herself, to Fesl’s long list of personal and professional achievements was added ‘Victorian of the Year’ in 1990. At one stage it was even suggested that she might be selected as Governor of Victoria!

By March 1991, the financial situation seemed brighter. A number of substantial private donations had been received, including $6000 from the Elizabeth Eggleston Trust, and $7500 from Norman Rothfield. The Victorian Education Department’s decision to introduce Aboriginal Studies for Year 11 and 12 students presented several potentially lucrative opportunities for the KRC. In 1990 the Centre ran a special tutorial in its Aboriginal Studies program for Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) teachers from Wesley College. The College paid for the tutorial and associated administrative expenses. That year the KRC convened the inaugural meeting of the Hank Young Trust – Koorie Welfare and Education Reference Board (later the Hank Young Foundation for Aboriginal Welfare and Education). The aim of the Trust was to fund research and educational programs on a ‘national basis for the Koorie community of Australia’. Extremely supportive of MOSA (see chapter 4), the Trust also provided generous financial assistance to the KRC. The KRC was invited to act as the Trust’s secretariat during its initial year of operation; Fesl gladly accepted, noting that the Centre would, of course, ‘be reimbursed for extra staff required to handle the workload and administration expenses incurred’. Following discussions with the Department of Education, the Hank Young Trust agreed to finance the development of a kit to aid in the teaching of Aboriginal Studies in schools. It was intended that the VCE kit be developed and marketed by the KRC as an income-generating venture. The first segment of the kit was trialed during 1992.

Although, at the end of 1992 the KRC’s debit balance had increased to $36,858, Fesl expected that this would be ‘fully covered’ from the income from the sale of the VCE kits and a new project funded by Telecom on the ‘needs of Koorie communities in remote areas’. Other creative sources of funding were sought. Negotiations with the newly established Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission resulted in a large grant of more than $200,000 being made to the Lordbja Victorian Language Centre which operated out of the KRC under Fesl’s authority. The financial situation became even more complex following Monash University’s merger with the Gippsland Institute of Advanced Education in 1989 which had its own Centre for Koori Studies (GCKS). During 1992 the Vice Chancellor and the Academic Board agreed that a more unified management structure for Monash’s Aboriginal programs was required. Appointed Head of Aboriginal Programs, Professor Merle Ricklefs produced a management structure designed to bring order and predictability, especially with regard to financial matters, to the KRC, MOSA and the GCKS. There was no suggestion of merging any of the programs.


Professor Merle Ricklefs (left) and Professor Mal Logan

Source: Monash Archives

Since 1988 the ARC/KRC and MOSA had been co-located in the Gallery Building, but they remained separate programs. Following the unexpected departure of MOSA’s Director, John Austin, in March 1992, Fesl stepped ‘into the breach’, agreeing to act as Director of MOSA and the KRC in order ‘to keep MOSA running’ (see chapter 4). Finding MOSA in need of reform, Fesl instituted a number of staff changes that helped to improve administration and communication across the two programs. The Universities’ internal auditor remarked that she seemed ‘well in control of the situation’ in May 1992. Although initially conceived as an ‘unofficial amalgamation’ and perceived by Fesl as beneficial to both units, her experience as head of the two programs led her to believe otherwise. After several months in the role she felt that to amalgamate would be to jeopardise the work of the KRC, for whereas the work of the KRC Director involved the ‘need for long uninterrupted periods’ of research and writing, the major part of the work of the Director of MOSA was ‘interruptive’ in nature. Fesl served in both capacities until April 1993.

Promoted to Associate Professor in January 1993, Fesl tendered her resignation as Director of the KRC in May, and left Monash in June to take up a position as Convener of Murrie Programs for the four campuses of Griffith University in Queensland. Serious questions were raised following her departure about the KRC’s financial situation. Declining contributions from government and greatly reduced public donations coupled with irregularities in accounting meant that the KRC was now more than $50,000 in debt. The University decided to conduct a review of the KRC before a new Director was appointed. Carried out by Lachlan Chipman, Professor of Philosophy and Pro-vice Chancellor (Gippsland), the review took much longer to complete than expected. The position had still not been advertised when Acting Director of the KRC, Dr George Silberbauer, went on sabbatical in the first half of 1994. Meanwhile, the KRC’s bewildered staff, uncertain about their future, ‘withstood [the] assault on their morale’ with courage and loyalty. It was the effect on students and the wider Aboriginal community that most worried Silberbauer. Concerned that their ‘faith and interest in the Centre’ was dissipating, he called on the University to appoint a new Director without delay.

Sharon Firebrace: Committed to Community

A year and a half later, in mid 1995, Sharon Firebrace was appointed Director of the KRC. Descended from the Yorta Yorta people in eastern Victoria, Firebrace grew up in an orphanage in the 1960s. Like many Aboriginal people, she gained confidence through sport, representing Australia and Victoria in volleyball and netball. Firebrace attended the University of Melbourne, graduating with a Fine Arts degree; later she gained a Diploma of Education. Strongly community minded, she served as a senior executive with the VAAL for several years before establishing Palm River, an Aboriginal-focused public relations and cultural awareness training business, in the early 1990s. Her business achievements were recognised in her selection as the 1993–94 National and Victorian Indigenous Businesswoman of the Year. In 1995 Palm River was contracted by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to work on the national Reconciliation project. Firebrace, who commenced work at Monash in May that year, negotiated a less than full-time load as KRC Director in order to accommodate her extensive business and community interests.

Conscious of the extent to which the Centre’s work had stalled, during her first month in the job Firebrace produced a register of proposed new projects for the KRC. These included: the establishment of an Aboriginal language laboratory which, building upon the KRC’s earlier Bundjalung program, would develop Aboriginal languages suitable for primary and secondary school curricula; an anthology of Aboriginal literature that could be employed in Aboriginal studies programs in universities; and a library supplementation program to enhance the scope of available reference material in the Elizabeth Eggleston library. Further brainstorming produced a list of potential research topics and supplementary questions, including: Aboriginal Women and the Law (‘how responsive is the law to Aboriginal women’s needs?’); Aboriginal Women and Feminism (‘what is more important – race or gender?’); The Dialectic of Aboriginality (‘what does Aboriginality entail for Aborigines?’); ATSIC (‘what do Aboriginal people think of ATSIC?’); Survival of the Kinship System in Urban Settings (‘to what extent has it survived?’). A program of possible new courses, based on suggestions from KRC students and staff, was also compiled. These included: Women’s Role and Status in Aboriginal Society; Aborigines in Sport/ the Mass Media / Art; and Aboriginal Literature.

Reflecting a burgeoning interest in the status of Aboriginal women and other contemporary issues, Firebrace’s proposed research topics and courses demonstrated her engagement with the world of academia. The larger projects represented her attempt to engage with the findings of various reviews into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education which had highlighted the need for greater inclusion of Indigenous Studies in mainstream education, as well as the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Death in Custody (RCADIC) which stressed the importance of valuing and maintaining Aboriginal culture. Although not all of her ideas were taken up, several new subjects, including Aborigines and Women, were introduced during her directorship that proved successful in attracting both indigenous and non-indigenous students to the KRC. A measure of the impact of the report of the RCADIC, the University now considered Koori Studies subjects to be ‘exercises in reconciliation, as well as awareness raising strategies’.

Firebrace visited several Asian countries in 1995 and made contacts at universities in Japan, Thailand and Hong-Kong. The following year, as a guest of the American government through the International Visitors Program, she visited the United States. During the course of the visit, she gave interviews comparing the socio-political circumstances of Australia’s Indigenous people with Indigenous Americans of the Navajo Nation, and African-Americans. Soon after her return, the KRC launched a series of three discussion papers on Aboriginal peoples’ contact with the Victorian criminal justice, education, and health systems. The initial paper, written by KRC research fellow Michael Mackay, comprised the first comprehensive survey of Aboriginal arrests in Victoria since the 1991 RCADIC. Showing a sharp rise in the rate of police processing of Aboriginal youth between 1993–95, it attracted considerable media attention.

Heavily involved in the reconciliation process, Firebrace resigned as Director of the KRC in February 1997 to devote more time to community and business activities. Under her directorship, the Centre had begun to regain some of its lost energy and focus, but it was a long way from reclaiming its preeminent position as a leading research facility. Her resignation coincided with the commencement of a review of Monash’s Aboriginal programs conducted by Professor Colin Bourke and Associate Professor Eleanor Bourke from the University of South Australia. Given a broad brief from the Vice Chancellor, David Robinson, the Bourkes’ were tasked with investigating the strengths and weaknesses of MOSA, the KRC and the GCKS. Their report, completed towards the end of 1997, heralded the beginning of a new regime that is described in chapter five.


Over the two decades reviewed here, the employment and training of young Aboriginal people stands out as one of the CRAA/ARC/ KRC’s main achievements. In providing opportunities for young Aboriginal people to learn skills and develop confidence in their interactions with the white world, the Centre played an important role in the growth of a new generation of Aboriginal community leaders. At the same time, in conducting research of direct relevance to Aboriginal people by Aboriginal people, it helped to promote agency and ownership of Aboriginal studies. It also helped to change wider community attitudes, generating deeper understandings of Aboriginal people, Aboriginal culture and the effects of discrimination. Set against the constant battle to gain funding from the University and federal bureaucracy, the need to seek private donors just to stay alive, the need to convince the University of the academic merit of its courses, and divisions within the Aboriginal community, these achievements appear all the more remarkable. Although, by the end of the 1990s the University was becoming more supportive of Koori research and the teaching of Koori studies, seeing these as part of its contribution to reconciliation, for most of its history the Centre faced challenges not experienced by other academic units. These challenges called for an exceptionally high level of leadership capability, as well as personal charisma and charm, which each Director had, but which, over time and under extreme pressure, inevitably wore down, contributing to the difficulties experienced by Fesl, the Centre’s longest serving Director to that point. Viewed in this light, keeping the Centre going in the face of multiple extreme pressures must also stand as a significant achievement.

Making a Difference: Fifty Years of Indigenous Programs at Monash University, 1964–2014

   by Rani Kerin