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Julian Hill MPFederal Member for Bruce

Julian Hill MP

There are untold thousands of people across the world who will never know how lucky they are that Bill chose to live his values and devote his life to international development.

Launch of Everything and Nothing: The Life and Development Work of Bill Armstrong AO

Middle Park Bowls Club - 16 October, 2022


Great to be back in COPP – old friends … especially FoSuai Scary, exciting and a slightly stressful honour to be asked to launch this book – well the Melbourne launch.

A bit like Bill's retirement from AVI with a national tour of dinners, events and gatherings, he's already launched the book in Canberra. And probably has more planned!

  • Scary and exciting as I've never actually launched a book before.
  • An honour, as Bill Armstrong is someone I respect enormously.
  • Slightly stressful due to a confession I will make at the outset.

When Bill asked me to do launch this book, my internal voice went no no, please not another thing in the diary before Christmas especially if I have to find time to read an entire book'. So I girded myself to politely hedge.

As is Bill's way, his invitation was extremely warm. Friendly and generous. An empowering tone – of course the choice was mine. I said 'oh I'd love to if the diary permits'. But forgot that Bill has dealt with politicians for decades. He followed up with a big smile, 'that's great, it's a Sunday on 16 October, so I'll start promoting it'. Resistance was futile – Bill had decided this was what needed to happen. So in the diary it went.

Julian Hill MP and Bill Armstrong AO at book launch

Some weeks ago a copy of the book was ferried to me in Canberra by one of Bill's loyal cadres. And so I have carried it around for weeks. At first adopting the strategy I used with very mixed success at Monash Law School – hoping, praying that psychic osmosis would become a thing and if only I carried the book around for long enough, its wisdom would infuse me without me actually having to read it. Steadily, the book got bigger in my bag.

I told my partner a couple of weeks ago about the growing problem of The Book That Had to Be Read. I received a very bemused stare and was told "well why don't you just do what every other politician does who has to launch a book. Get your staff to read it, grab some random quotes and write something for you to sound clever with?"

But I couldn't. It felt like cheating on Bill.

By last Monday I was beginning to panic slightly, having still found not an hour to start the book. So after the week from diary hell, finally, yesterday at 6am, I started to read. And what a terrific read it is. Thank you to Peter Britton, for your skill in sharing Bill's remarkable life story in this way.

The choices we make along the way define our lives.

It is abundantly clear that Bill could have made any numbers of choices given his intellect, moral clarity, charisma and commitment to make a difference in the lives of other people. Bill self describes himself as a "could-a-been".

  • He could have been a footballer (Carlton!), farmer, wool classer, runner or salesman (well he admitted he wasn't sure how good he'd be at that).
  • He could have continued with everyday work – having started life as a fitter and turner, and briefly worked on an assembly line at Holden Dandenong – and made community work his social justice outlet.
  • He could have channelled his powerful mission for social justice and become a progressive scourge of the Catholic Church – A sort of Father Bob Father Bill! (Well, aside from the small issue of Marg and the kids! And his often ambivalent relationship with the Church as is outlined).
  • He could have aligned himself much earlier with Labor as the logical fit for his passion for social justice and determination to actually achieve something (Greens) and sought public office had he wanted to do so. Later in life, after he retired and didn't have to be bipartisan, Bill promptly joined the ALP.

But Bill made different choices, and there are untold thousands of people across the world who will never know how lucky they are that Bill chose to live his values and devote his life to international development. Over the more than 60 years he has been engaged in the not-for-profit world as in every conceivable role you could imagine.

I first met Bill around the year 2000 when I was elected Mayor of Port Phillip, soon after Bill and Marg moved to Port Melbourne. The Council had decided to form a friendship with a province in Timor Leste. Our then visionary CEO, Anne Dunn, with typical foresight found and engaged Bill and Megs Alston. He was there at the signing with Xanana Guomao at the Town Hall, but didn't become Chair until 2003, after he retired as CEO of AVI.

For Bill, this was an opportunity to put into practice the development philosophy he had always espoused. He moved our friendship with Suai from a sort of aid activity – shipping containers of stuff – to a people-to-people, community-to-community partnership.

Bill believes our role is to learn from one another, and build relationships with one another. A major milestone of success came when the people in Suai said to Bill after 6 or 7 years 'I reckon we can do this ourselves now, we don't think we need a replacement for the last volunteer'.

"So, at the end of my international career, Friends of Suai gave me a chance to see that what I believed, and what I was taught way back at the beginning, worked. So that's why Friends of Suai is so important to me."

When you read the book one of the wonderful things that emerges is this remarkable clarity about Bill's views and life's work in international development, and consistency in his stance and messaging.

What he taught us and did in the Friends of Suai, echoes his reflections in the 1960s on the early OSB volunteer program which "wasn't about aid, it was about building relationships…We don't want people going there as aid workers, to tell local people what to do".No superiordesires to help the less fortunate.

Re: PNG "You must be invited in. And then when you are invited in, you sit. They call it "sit nothing, sit there and wait to be invited to speak."

It's abundantly clear that this book is not about Bill "blowing his own trumpet" despite his many achievements, including his Order of Australia award. Author Peter Britton explains explains that Bill wanted a book that was pedagogical – "investigate and reveal his ideas about development, his methodology and theory of change".

Given the significance of Bill's life in the development field this is an important historical record – and an ongoing challenge to what Bill described in 1992 as a "self-sustaining, self-supporting and self-interested development industry"anda recognition of the nature of official aid. "Official aid is never neutral. It is shaped within DFAT, and its projects have to support the interest of ruling powers. 'Aid reinforces power relationships, A basically fallacy inherent in official development assistance is that it can reach the powerless by going through the powerful."

It's also relatively rare that friends and colleagues from different eras get a chronological account of a person and their life's journey. Usually only happens at a funeral. So thanks! Though it is strange defaulting to the past tense for a man and friend sitting right in front of you.
Bill's development philosophy is clearly the product of deep reflection and thought, and grounded Christian social justice principles. In Bill's own words, "the values that we got, that came out of the Church's teachings on social justice".

In particular the Young Christian Workers movement. In YCW "he found an approach to personal and social responsibility that was to underpin his social and political activism and his approach to community development".

The YCW "was on the fringe of the church rather than in the centre of the Church". Following the teachings of Joseph Cardijn the YCW "encouraged young workers to seek social justice and to recognise the unique value of the individual". Adopting a "See Judge Act" approach, in a process always led by questions rather than assertions.

I suspect most here would see it as a badge of honour for Bill that pretty much all of the Christian movements and organisations Bill was involved in or led over many years, including the Young Christian Workers Movement and the Action for World Development, were thoroughly disapproved of and actively opposed by B.A. Santamaria! As the church in the 1960's started to reject the findings of Vatican II Bill recalls "it was so opposed to that sort of social action. They were so right-wing and it was all clericalism". Despite bill's Christian convictions, and that many of his friends worked in the Church "it wasn't for me". Bill was always very clear about what he was trying to do.

In case you're curious about the title of the book, it helpfully in BOLD ITALICS early on. It's a summation of the YCW community development method of being "everything and nothing"  - "the community development worker is nothing, in the background, but without them you don't have the formation and the leadership."

Bill left the YCW when he married Marg. As strange as the Commonwealth Public Service's rule then that women had to retire when they got married, the YCW did not permit married people to be members!

One thing that shines through is Bill's love of family and Marg. Clear from when I first met Bill that it's a true partnership of equals, a relationship built on mutual respect. Bill and Margaret met in 1958 when she was President of the girls' YCW. It took a while for them to get together. Bill was a bit slow. He only took Marg out when he needed a partner at a dance. He failed to write back when Marg wrote to him. She wrote again advising "I'm not a fish on the end of your line to be dangled." They then reconnected in 1960. And here they are.

"Throughout Bill's career the YCW methods of inquiry, formation and development remained his base." While Bill's philosophy and work remained remarkably faithful to his early beliefs and YCW training, he continued to build on this both intellectually and experientially throughout his life.

It's pretty clear Bill doesn't sit on the Right of politics – or the Labor Party! –  when you read his reflections on the radical analyses of society by the brilliant Brazillian educator and philosopher Paulo Friere or Ivan Ilich. Bill's work always sat in a clear context of beliefs and his belief in systemic change. "Changing the system is what we must work for" he wrote in a letter sent back to Action for World Development during the family's 18 months living in Brussels in the 1970s.

For young folks like me (LOL!) who engage with aid and development policy, the account of Bill's work with Action for World Development (AWD) is a humbling and helpful reminder that much of what we grapple with is not really new. One of the conundrums we still grapple with is how to build and maintain community support for our development program, imperfect as it is. The Christian churches are probably the best organised advocates around.

But I hadn't realised the history of this in Australia and was enthralled to read of the AWD's formation and work in the 1970s. A joint collaboration of Christian churches to "put in place a national education program to sensitise Christians about the responsibility Australians had for world development". Bill became the Victorian organiser, later National Director, and it was remarkably successful. It scaled up and in July 1972, 200,000 people participated.
The campaign grew to have national political impact, with lobbying resulting in an increase in the Overseas Aid Budget.

Badge of honour that Andrew Peacock called Bill in 1972 to blame AWD for the government's loss. A testament to Bill – and Andrew – that they later went on to maintain a relationship on regional development issues.

It was on those early foundations that Bill then built his eminent national and international career, moving into the CEO's role of the then Overseas Service Bureau (later AVI) and a remarkable journey of over 20 years of empowering and impactful leadership through which Bill developed a national profile.

Time does not permit a full examination now. You'll have to read the book! But it's just a truly incredible contribution.

Bill's legacy of work in the Pacific Islands lives on through the Solomon Islands Development Trust, and PIANGO (Pacific Islands Association of NGOs) from its now permanent base in Fiji. The Commonwealth and the UNDP "never knew what hit them" when Bill came begging for money fore PIANGO in 1983!

Bill's moral clarity also repeatedly landed him on the right side of history.

As an early and steadfast advocate for East Timor's self-determination, driving this work from the 1970s through ACFOA (now ACFID), Chapter 6 beautifully outlines this historical legacy. It was Bill's work via ACFOA that secured Labor support for a major Senate inquiry in 1982 into conditions in East Timor to shed more light on what was really happening.

Bill's support for development work in Cambodia, with the remarkable Sister Joan Healy and Meas Nee who I met a few years ago when pretending to be a tourist there. The activities were pragmatic – the goal was always for people to lead their own development.

Bill's active and abiding support for First Nations communities in Australia, work he continued after retiring from AVI with his involvement in Indigenous Community Volunteers. Drawing on all his long experience and years in dealing with Ministers to manage to remain patient during funding debates with that idiot former Minister Nigel Scullion.

In closing, as you finish the book and reflect on Bill's work, one of the things are struck by is not just the moral clarity and consistency of his approach, but of Bill's personal courage and dogged persistence. A contemporary, Archie Law, recalled "Bill is a master of sitting with disagreement, tension and edging conversations further towards the conclusion he was looking for. It was always about the long game for Bill".

Bill had no fear in standing up to Ministers when required. Unfazed by lectures from Alexander Downer – another badge of honour to be lectured by that pompous prick. But a real medal of courage to publicly disagree with then Foreign Minister Gareth Evans via a press release! But it was a mark of Bill's standing that Gareth later engaged him as the official NGO advisor when negotiating for peace.

When AWD was under attack by Bob Santamaria's National Civic Council for hosting the Timor Information Service, Bill ensured they simply stood their ground. "Just be straight about it. We shouldn't be backing off about this. It's here because we supported, and we should be clear about that and take responsibility for it." As John Whittingham recalls "it made quite a difference knowing how to respond when you're under attack do you accommodate and back off, or do you own it and go forward with it?" Bill always went forward.

Jose Ramos-Horta described Bill as having "the approach of an enlightened diplomat. Who believes in something, and cares, but also understands that you couldn't just speak out and acknowledge it and you have to keep open channels of communication with DFAT and others…. Bill makes his whole life a struggle for justice, human freedom and dignity."

I will close by reading a short extract from a talk Bill gave on education for development in 1978 to an ACFOA Summer School session. As Peter notes it has the quality of a personal manifesto. It was a precursor of what was to come with Bill's leadership at OSB/AVI and within ACFOA, was intended to challenge the development community, a challenge that should & will live on:

"Economic growth and the improvement in feeding, clothing and sheltering people are not necessarily absent in my understanding of development, but they are supplementary and/or secondary to the primary meaning of development, that is, the development of people…

Development is about people, the liberation of people, people taking control of their own lives, people participating in the decisions to shake their lives, people being free to love and build relationships, genuine relationships, devoid of manipulation.

Development is a process of change best undertaken in the community with others, in which people:

  • Work for the full human development of persons everywhere, so that economically, culturally & spiritually they are freed for a life of dignity and fulfilment.
  • Respect the aspirations of persons in their right to participate in the decisions that shape their lives.
  • Work for a national and international economic and social order which is rooted in social justice."

Thank you Bill. It's an honour to launch this book.