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Making Change Happen

Making Change Happen: Black and White Activists talk to Kevin Cook about Aboriginal, Union and Liberation Politics

Kevin Cook
Heather Goodall
Volume: Aboriginal History Monograph Number 27
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: ANU Press
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  • Book Info
    Making Change Happen
    Book Description:

    This book is a unique window into a dynamic time in the politics and history of Australia. The two decades from 1970 to the Bicentennial in 1988 saw the emergence of a new landscape in Australian Indigenous politics. There were struggles, triumphs and defeats around land rights, community control of organisations, national coalitions and the international movement for Indigenous rights. The changes of these years generated new roles for Aboriginal people. Leaders had to grapple with demands to be administrators and managers as well as spokespeople and lobbyists. The challenges were personal as well as organisational, with a central one being how to retain personal integrity in the highly politicised atmosphere of the ‘Aboriginal Industry’. Kevin Cook was in the middle of many of these changes – as a unionist, educator, land rights campaigner, cultural activist and advocate for liberation movements in Southern Africa, the Pacific and around the world. But ‘Cookie’ has not wanted to tell the story of his own life in these pages. Instead, with Heather Goodall, a long time friend, he has gathered together many of the activists with whom he worked to tell their stories of this important time. Readers are invited into the frank and vivid conversations Cookie had with forty-five black and white activists about what they wanted to achieve, the plans they made, and the risks they took to make change happen. “You never doubted Kevin Cook. His very presence made you confident because the guiding hand is always there. Equal attention is given to all. I am one of many who worked with Cookie and Judy through the Tranby days and in particular the 1988 Bicentennial March for Freedom, Justice and Hope. What days they were. I’m glad this story is being told.” Linda Burney, MLA New South Wales “Kevin Cook was a giant in the post-war struggle for Aboriginal rights. His ability to connect the dots and make things happen was important in both the political and cultural resurgence of the 1970s onwards.” Meredith Burgmann, former MLC, New South Wales “Kevin has had a transformative effect on the direction of my life and the lives of so many other people. This book is an important contribution to understanding not only Kevin’s life but also the broader struggles for social and economic justice, for community empowerment and of the cooperative progressive movement. It will greatly assist the ongoing campaign for full and sustainable reconciliation.” Paddy Crumlin, National Secretary, Maritime Union of Australia “Cookie has made great contributions in enhancing the struggles of our people. He is a motivator, an astute strategist, and an excellent communicator with wonderful people skills. It’s a pleasure to be able to call him a mate and a brother.” John Ah Kit, former MLA, Northern Territory

    eISBN: 978-1-921666-74-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Cookie and Heather
  4. An introduction to Cookie’s book
    (pp. 1-6)
    Heather Goodall

    Cookie was still an organiser in the NSW Builders Labourers when I met him first in the early 1970s. I had just started at university then, a young and inexperienced student taking history but learning far more in the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and disrupting the visits of all-white sporting teams from South Africa. Meredith Burgmann, a fellow student and experienced activist, introduced me to Kevin when she took me to the Criterion, a city pub where her political and her union mates drank.

    Cookie stood out – but not because he was the centre of attention – in fact far...


    • 1. Growing up Koorie — in Wollongong
      (pp. 9-24)

      This book will focus on the movements in which Kevin has been involved, not on Kevin’s life story. But – to understand those movements it is important to understand where Kevin was coming from. The communities in which Kevin grew up shaped the networks into which he was welcomed and the approaches he took in all of them.

      A central foundation for Cookie was the fact that he had grown up Koorie¹ – his Wandandian family had their roots in the country of the South Coast of New South Wales (NSW). All Aboriginal communities are embedded within a context – a landscape and...

    • 2. Life and death on the job: The Builders Labourers’ Federation — rank and file democracy, 1970 to 1975
      (pp. 25-44)

      Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s was being transformed almost overnight from a small, low city huddled round the harbour into a city of sky scrapers.¹ There were big profits to be made by the building companies if they could harness the money flowing into the city. So this new high rise cityscape was being built from scratch with short cuts and no previous experience. The workers were mostly members of the Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) which, until then, had been a small, powerless union. A few others were in the Building Workers’ Industrial Union (the BWIU). They were all...

    • 3. In the wider struggle: The union, gender, race and environment
      (pp. 45-60)

      The new ways to organise the union that the Builders Labourers developed to meet the new conditions they faced on the job were not the only thing they experimented with. One of the big changes the union made was to look outwards. The Builders Labourers’ Federation began to see itself not just as a more powerful union in the building industry, but as a force in the society that was changing all around them in the 1970s. Unionists like Joe Owens, Bob Pringle and Jack Mundey believed the union had a responsibility to express their members’ views about the environments...

    • 4. Tranby, co-operatives and empowerment
      (pp. 61-84)

      The first time Kevin heard about Tranby College was when he was still a builders labourer and met the Reverend Alf Clint. Alf had enjoyed strong union support over many years. When Kevin met him, Alf was continuing to get on a lot better with unionists and communists than he did with the church hierarchy!

      As Kevin tells the story: Yeah, old Alf Clint wrote a letter to the union about getting some finances for Tranby College,¹ and I think it was Pringle said ‘Ring Kevin, he’ll deal with it!’ So he come in to see me and we had...

  6. PART 2: TRANBY 1980s

    • 5. Aboriginal-directed education: Getting started
      (pp. 87-106)

      Kevin returned from Canada early in 1980, bringing new confidence in the directions he wanted to head for community learning and development. At the same time, he kept in mind that Coady advice to make sure he carried his colleagues and comrades along with him in whatever he did. This chapter traces out the first impact of that strong sense of direction which Cookie had brought back. To do this, the chapter has drawn on Kevin’s memories and those of the people who contributed to the development of Tranby from 1980, when Cookie returned from the Coady International Institute, to...

    • 6. Exploring possibilities: Teaching and learning at Tranby
      (pp. 107-122)

      This chapter is about how the teachers Kevin brought into Tranby tried to experiment further with teaching and learning. The contributors include: Terry Widders, Chris Milne, Isabel Flick, Karen Flick and myself, Heather Goodall, as interviewer.

      Terry Widders is an Indigenous researcher and teacher from Armidale on the northern tablelands of New South Wales. After he had finished his Honours degree in Linguistics at Macquarie University in 1980, he and his wife Margaret had gone to Japan where Terry was studying Japanese language so he could learn more about the history and politics of the Ainu and other indigenous minorities...

    • 7. Politics and real education
      (pp. 123-144)

      The last two chapters looked at the emergence of formal educational courses on site at Tranby. Over the same time, as Karen Flick pointed out, Kevin was involved in the political campaigning for land rights across the state, culminating in the achievement of the New South Wales Land Rights Act in 1983.¹ These different tracks – education and politics – are often seen separately. But they worked together in the way Kevin and his comrades understood real learning could take place through Tranby, as they explain in this chapter.

      In the first section of this chapter, Kevin and Brian Doolan talk over...

    • 8. Reaching out for change
      (pp. 145-172)

      ‘Outreach’ or ‘extension’ are words which often seem to be the defining characteristics of Adult Education, but these words keep the focus on a central institution. The Co-operative for Aborigines, although housed at Tranby, had instead always seen itself as belonging in communities. The Tranby building in inner city Glebe was only one part of a much wider network. So for Tranby, ‘outreach’ had many different meanings.

      This chapter has been written by drawing on Kevin’s memories in conversation with some of the people who explored and invented and developed those different types of ‘outreach’.

      Black Books was a Tranby...

  7. PART 3: LAND RIGHTS NSW 1980s

    • 9. Strategies: 1976 to 1981
      (pp. 175-208)

      By 1976, the campaign for Aboriginal land rights in the state of New South Wales badly needed a kick start.

      There had been a long history of land rights demands in eastern Australia from at least the 1860s, and they had been escalating ever since, most often on a local or state level.¹ But by the early 1970s, the attention of Aboriginal people all over Australia had become focused on the national stage as the way to achieve land justice. The states had slipped from view.

      This was because in 1972 the growing sense that a change of the national...

    • 10. Experiences: 1981 to 1982 — Street demos and bush camps
      (pp. 209-236)

      The state election in mid September 1981 brought Neville Wran’s Labor Government back into power – but it gave no real sign that the land rights issue would be advanced in the coming term. Aboriginal activists escalated their campaign to force the government into action, however reluctant the Premier himself appeared to be.

      This campaign took some well-worn paths, with deputations, petitions and demonstrations. Street marches had been an important way to publicise land issues and a memorable one had been in July 1980, before the Select Committee’s First Report, when the Aboriginal Legal Service demanded support for its legal challenge...

    • 11. Hard decisions: 1983 to 1985
      (pp. 237-254)

      This chapter follows the experiences of the Aboriginal activists from the release of the ‘Green Paper’ in December 1982 to the tumultuous passage of the Land Rights Act through parliament early in 1983 and on to the formal establishment of its structures in 1984 and 1985.¹ This is not a history of the Act itself – there is already valuable work on it and new work emerging.² Instead in this chapter the people involved speak about their experiences of this period. They struggled first with the difficult decisions about whether to take part in the Land Rights Act implementation, and then...

    • 12. Getting land back
      (pp. 255-272)

      By 9 June 1983, when the Interim Land Council met for the first time, the day before the Land Rights Act was proclaimed, Aboriginal people had been forced to come to terms with the compromised Act.¹ The difficulties and challenges they then went through to set up the land council structures, described in Chapter 9, were undertaken so they could push the Act to make it work as well as possible given its shortcomings. The test for the land rights activists would be how much land it enabled to pass directly into Aboriginal control.

      The restriction on what types of...

  8. PART 4: NETWORKS 1980s

    • 13. National networks
      (pp. 275-294)

      Aboriginal voices were heard powerfully at state, national and international levels in the 1980s. This was largely because there were networks of support and solidarity which were operating. In the earlier chapters about land rights activism we have seen the way that local campaigns in NSW developed into regional networks of grass roots organisations and that these in turn provided the base for networks across the state. Similar processes had occurred in many other states during the 1970s but there were few bonds between grass roots communities – or even land rights activists – across state borders, despite the earlier existence of...

    • 14. Onto the streets
      (pp. 295-312)

      There were two important national demonstrations in the first half of the 1980s which brought together Aboriginal people from key areas across the country. The first, in 1982, used the occasion of the Commonwealth Games being held in Brisbane to focus the anger that Aboriginal people felt towards the Queensland state government which kept them trapped under century old ‘Protection’ laws but at the same time, changed the land laws to make it impossible for them to gain recognition of their rights to land. These demonstrations focused national attention on the State of Queensland. The continuing racism of policies about...

    • 15. International networks
      (pp. 313-332)

      Aboriginal people had been speaking up on the international stage since at least as early as Anthony Martin Fernando had walked the streets of Italy in 1913. He had spoken in Geneva in the 1920s in the first days of the League of Nations and then demonstrated in London in the 1930s against British settler brutality towards Aboriginal people. The forces of Imperial power had of course been very evident to Aboriginal people: they had been appealing to the British monarchy from the earliest days of the British invasion. And when William Cooper had spoken to the press in the...


    • 16. Bicentennial
      (pp. 335-366)

      In 1938, William Cooper had thrown down a challenge. It was 150 years since the landing of the ragtag British ‘first fleet’ in Sydney Cove on 26 January in 1788. As white Australians were preparing to celebrate, Cooper had branded that landing as the beginning of 150 years of invasion, dispossession and exploitation. Cooper dared white Australia to recognise that their ‘Australia Day’ was no celebration but instead a ‘Day of Mourning’ for invaded Australia.

      Over the decades since 1938, Aboriginal Australia had echoed that challenge, using 26 January to mourn their losses and marking the landing of Captain Cook...

    • 17. Beyond the Bicentennial: Victories, defeats and more struggles for change
      (pp. 367-402)

      The Bicentennial March had been moving and impressive. It had demonstrated unarguably the passion and conviction of Aboriginal people themselves in demanding justice but also in insisting their goal was celebration of survival not retribution or revenge. It was a moral triumph as well as a political one. And it had demonstrated the widespread admiration and support of many Australians of all backgrounds for the Aboriginal struggle.

      By the end of 1988, many things had changed. Some could not have been imagined at the beginning of the year. Some of them had arisen because of the huge impact generated by...

    • 18. Reflections: Networks, hubs, pathways – and leadership
      (pp. 403-420)
      Heather Goodall

      The photographs of Cookie’s 70th birthday in 2009 tell a great deal about his life. They all show Judy Chester beside him. Cookie is sitting in a wheelchair, older of course and more frail, but around him as always are the family, mates and campaigners who had stood shoulder to shoulder with him in the exciting process of making changes happen. In front of him was a big cake, iced in the Aboriginal colours of black, red and yellow and next to the cake, a huge plate of oysters!

      His aunty Kit is sitting on one side and on the...

  10. Appendix 1. Interviewees
    (pp. 421-422)
  11. Appendix 2. Glossary and abbreviations
    (pp. 423-426)
  12. Appendix 3. Bibliography and further reading
    (pp. 427-430)
  13. Index
    (pp. 431-440)