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Thirty Years of Australian Union Aid Abroad

Launch by Gareth Evans of Livelihoods and Liberation Struggles: 30 Years of Australian Worker Solidarity by Dani Cooper for Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA, at ACTU Congress, Melbourne, 27 May 2015

There are many things over the decades of which the trade union movement, and broader Australian Labor movement, can be proud – but one of the greatest of all sources of pride must be the birth, growth and longevity of the ACTU’s international humanitarian aid and development arm, Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad (APHEDA, or since 1997 Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA), whose 30-year story is so superbly told by Dani Cooper in this book we are launching today.

It’s never been the biggest, or the best funded, or had the most staff of the Australian non-government aid agencies. Nor has it had the most visibility – except when being attacked from time to time by the Tories.

But APHEDA can rightly claim to be distinctive – in the intensely collaborative way in which it has always worked on the ground; in the sustained quality of its achievement in local grass roots empowerment; and in the way in which it has always focused on projects that started small but could be scaled up to national, and sometimes international, level when their worth was proved. It has always been the little engine who could…

But APHEDA has been also been even more obviously unique, certainly in Australia, in its identity as an arm of the trade union movement; in the spirit of worker solidarity it has always embodied; and its willingness to get into high risk political situations – starting with its support for the Palestinians and ANC in apartheid-South Africa – where other aid angels have feared to tread.

APHEDA has had many heroes over the course of its 30-year history among the executive officers, and chairs and board members, and staff and advisers and volunteers, and partners. Their names are all listed in the appendix, and their contributions in many cases are more fully described in the main text – in entirely deserved detail in the case of long-serving directors like Philip Hazelton and Peter Jennings, who drove operations so successfully in so many countries for so many years, fighting innumerable dragons along the way, and that late, great warrior of the Left, Tas Bull, who picked up the reins as Chair so successfully in 1995.

But I don't think anyone will mind me describing two of this cast of outstanding characters as heroes with a capital H, because without them APHEDA would never have got off the ground.

Helen McCue was the inspiration and driving force from the outset. She was APHEDA’s first Executive Officer, from 1984 to 1990, then worked back in the field as a regional adviser in  South Africa and the Middle East for another four years – and for all that she did then, and has done since for Indigenous people, refugees and Muslim women, deserves to be recognized as a living national treasure.

As the book describes, it all started when working as a young nurse for the WHO with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, driven by a passion for social justice, having the gut-wrenching experience of seeing at first hand the aftermath of the horrific Sabra-Shatila massacre in 1982, and excited by the election of the Hawke Government in March 1983, she conceived the idea of a trade union based international aid organization that could harness the values and skills of Australian workers to deliver not just transient emergency relief, but education, training and real social justice for those in crying need of it.

But for all the passion of her advocacy back in Australia, the idea would have been still-born – seen as too flaky-lefty by many in the right, too marginal to mainstream union concerns to many in the left, and too expensive by almost everyone –  had it not been for Cliff Dolan,the new ACTU President  As anybody who ever knew Cliff will testify, he was  an absolutely salt-of-the-earth, totally decent, totally selfless, old-time union official,  maybe at the opposite end of the charisma chart to Bob Hawke, but  totally empathetic to anyone, anywhere, who was doing it tough –  and he responded to his first encounter with Helen by saying “We should have been doing this years ago”.    It was his call – nobody else could have carried it – that led to the ACTU Executive endorsing the idea in December 1983 and the birth of the organization in 1984; and it was Cliff who was its totally engaged and active Chair until he had to retire from ill-health in 1995.

The critical thing to appreciate about the birth of APHEDA was that it had nothing to do with realpolitik - in the sense of being aimed at winning personal or factional advantage for some individual or union, or winning recognition for the Australian union movement in international organizations. Nor, even, did it  have much to do, at least in the early years, in building and winning support for trade unions in developing countries that lacked them.

APHEDA was initiated by Helen McCue, embraced by Cliff Dolan, and initially endorsed and supported by the wider Australian union movement, simply because it was the right thing to do – its humanitarian mission; its commitment to the victims of conflict; to the downtrodden, the underdogs and the powerless; its determination to give a voice to the voiceless, was simply an appeal to our common humanity, and it was to the sheer, innate decency of that appeal to which the movement responded.

APHEDA has had its ups and downs along the way, as all aid organisations do financially and organizationally, but with the additional overlay of difficulty associated with changes of government. The present environment under the Abbott Government is as tough for all the aid providers as it is ever going to get, with the Government announcing  last December and confirming in the Budget the biggest cuts ever to the aid budget –  providing one-third less than under Labor’s final year, and with the ratio of our aid (ODA)  to Gross National Income scheduled to fall next year to 0.22%, the  lowest it has ever been, and putting us right back down among the least generous  members of the OECD (ranking 19th out of 28).

Add to that the recurring problem for APHEDA of getting conservative governments to understand and accept not only the critical human importance of properly delivered aid, but to accept without crude political stereotyping and hostility what APHEDA in particular has always been about – not just giving humanitarian support, but helping the politically disempowered in the developing world find their voice.

But for all that, APHEDA has been there when it mattered:

  • in Eritrea in 1984;
  • in Palestine, beginning with the training of nurses in Australia in 1984, continuing in multiple ways ever since, through all the crises and trauma that have beset the West Bank and Gaza;
  • in South Africa,  working with the ANC through the crucial transition period from the mid ‘80s to the mid ‘90s;
  • in Cambodia, building health services when the country was still isolated and torn by civil war;
  • in Vietnam, when it was still in the early stages of recovering from the ravages of war;
  • in Burma,  helping the  border  minorities at the height of their oppression  by the military;
  • in New Caledonia, doing media training in the early days of the Kanak independence struggle
  • in East Timor, picking up the pieces after the catastrophic fighting in 1999, and again in 2006;
  • in Bouganville and the Solomons, helping those displaced by war  to rebuild their  lives;
  • in Aceh after it was shattered by the tsunami  in December 2004;

And it has been there in many other places as well, and working as well not just on narrowly focused local projects, but big thematic issues – from HIV/AIDS to asbestos, from child labour to disability to climate risk mitigation –  but always with the needs of ordinary people doing it hard at the core of its concerns.

While Labor in government hasn’t always agreed with all the positions APHEDA has taken, I think it’s fair to say that the relationship for both of us has been tremendously productive. Bill Hayden, as Foreign Minister when APHEDA was formed, was wholly supportive, and I was only too happy to be able to consolidate and extend that support through our aid budget over the eight years I was in the job from 1988 to ’96.

As Dani’s book records, APHEDA was pushing at an open door with me not least because of the huge soft spots I had for its work in South Africa and the Middle East given my own long history of activism in the anti-apartheid and justice-for-Palestinians movements, but my ministerial  door would not have remained anything like as open had I not so strongly also believed in APHEDA’s professionalism, and its capacity to deliver excellent programs.  

I have to say that with Helen McCue driving the organization in those early years it was a pretty easy sell: she was, and remains, a force of nature.   She certainly got me into some interesting spots, as the book describes:

  • I remember vividly plunging with her into the war-ravaged warren of the Burj-el-Bourajneh refugee camp in Beirut, accompanied by a detail of incredibly nervy and trigger-happy Lebanese soldiers,  to visit Olfat Mahmoud and the APHEDA women’s project –  when, climbing the narrow staircase, an almighty crash sounded on the landing below us, leading all the jumpy soldiers to swing their rifles in unison only to discover that it was a clumsy antipodean who had knocked a big clay pot off its perch on a landing, sending it crashing two floors below;
  • And I remember even more vividly travelling out to the Khayelitsha then-largely-squatter township outside  Cape Town in 1991 to visit some community workers and projects  which APHEDA was partnering, which everyone wanted to be totally unobtrusive because of the incredible tensions still in the air, but with the security services accompanying me deliberately going totally over the top with sirens and flashing lights in a way that was manifestly designed to embarrass our community hosts.
  • That led me to describe their performance to my wife – rather gently, in fact, given the provocation –   as “fucking useless” – which happened to be overheard by our Afrikaner police driver, who reported it back to the foreign ministry, who  leaked it to the  local press generating the headline “Foreign Minister abuses South African security forces”. That generated quite a commotion in the country, with for years afterwards Black South Africans saying admiringly “Man, you really stuck it to them”.  What I was a bit less prepared for was the hostile sea of Australian press greeting me when I flew back into Perth the next day, all consumed by the bilateral ‘row’ that I had provoked  (and reinforcing in the process my long-held view that there were only two kinds of foreign  affairs stories that ever interested the mainstream press: a perception that you had caused a row, or that you had engaged in some craven kow-tow).

That first decade of APHEDA, when I knew it best – with Helen immensely active in the executive chair or in the field, with Cliff Dolan in the chair, and a strongly supportive Labor Government still in office –  is described by Dani Cooper as the ‘heroic age’ of APHEDA,

But what is clear from Dani’s  book is that in the twenty years since there has been  a long, long record of further immense achievement; that the organization is now in very good hands indeed with Kate Lee as Executive Officer and Angelo Gavrielatos in the Chair; and that Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA is now so deeply embedded in the consciousness, and conscience, of the Australian trade union and Labor movement, that it is destined to go on doing great things for many decades more.