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Recognizing Bill Armstrong

Launch of Peter Britton, Everything & Nothing: The Life and Development Work of Bill Armstrong, (2022), Hawke Centre, University of South Australia, Adelaide, 18 May 2023

I had the pleasure four years ago of launching Peter Britton’s first book on Bill and his stellar career with our overseas volunteering movement, Working for the World: The Evolution of Australian Volunteers International, and now Peter has done it again with this full-scale biography, covering Bill’s early family life, his years of dedicated commitment to the Young Christian Worker Movement which set the course for what became his life’s work, and his many subsequent decades of extraordinary leadership not just in volunteering but international and community development generally.

Bill must be gratified to be the beneficiary of something that I certainly never managed to achieve – not just one but two volumes of unqualified hagiography! While saints don’t always deserve their billing, I think we’d all agree that the hagiography in this case is wholly justified. Bill’s personal life has been one of exemplary commitment to Marg and his family, and his professional life has been one of unremitting adherence to principle, unceasing service to his fellow human beings – particularly those dispossessed or struggling, and uncompromising decency.

As Peter summarises Bill’s career, ‘For more than 60 years he has been engaged in the not-for-profit world as Chair, Board member, CEO, staff member, volunteer and supporter of large Australian and international non-government organisations, small community groups, peak bodies and joint committees and delegations with politicians and government officials.’

And it’s all there in detail in the book. From YCW to OSB and AVA and AVI, from AWD to ACFOA and ACFID, from Indigenous Community Volunteers to Community First Development, and to every East Timor organisation that ever gave me a hard time, Bill – as we say in Victoria – seems to have been in everything but the Warrnambool to Melbourne bike race (although, that said, he was as good at sport as everything else, not least as a pretty classy footballer playing a number of games for Carlton in the late ‘50s).

I had a fair bit to do with Bill during my time as Foreign Minister, and – while he gave me a harder time than I think I deserved over East Timor (although he was hardly alone in that) – I was always impressed by his expertise, energy, policy smarts and advocacy skills. When it came to both human rights issues and aid policy generally, I always thought robust debate was totally legitimate, and Bill was always one of the most robust – and effective – in the business. One measure of his effectiveness was his success in extracting for OSB over my term an increase in Commonwealth funding from under $2 million to over $10 million per annum!

Peter Britton has done an admirable job in telling Bill’s story, and no one could have been better placed to do so: Peter wrote some seminal analyses of the Indonesian military in the 1970s as well as working as a researcher and writer on development education, returned to Indonesia as a volunteer in the early 1980s, and then became an enormously valued and influential staff member of OSB/AVI for an extraordinary 32 years, from 1984 to 2016. His new book is a great addition to our national biographical literature, and I am delighted to give it it’s South Australian baptism.