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Barry Christophers

(1922 to 2020)

Barry Christophers

Source: Tribune, courtesy of Search Foundation

In 1957, Barry Christophers became the president of the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights (CAR), beginning more than two decades of work for Aboriginal rights. In 1963 he became the secretary of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement's Equal Wages Committee, which campaigned for equal wages and access to social service benefits, and opposed repressive legislation in Queensland and wherever else it was found.

As a medical student at the University of Melbourne in the 1940s, Christophers had joined the Melbourne University Labour Club, a meeting place for Melbourne left-wing thinkers. He recalls that racial discrimination was not a concern in the club at this time. However, his interest in anatomy led him to the work of Professor Frederic Wood Jones, a scientist with a humanitarian regard for Aboriginal Australians who in 1926 wrote of the 'colonists' huge debt' to those they had dispossessed. Wood Jones argued that they were under 'a moral obligation ... for the filching of a whole vast continent from its real owners'.

In an interview in 1996 Barry Christophers spoke of the influence of Mary Bennett on early members of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement:

Well, Mary Bennett you could say was our spiritual leader. She had grown up on her father's property in central Queensland. He had friendly relationships with the Aborigines in the region and when he took over his selection he told them they were very welcome to stay on his property. She had very progressive ideas for the time. She pointed out the reasons for lack of Aboriginal development past nomadism by arguing that there were no animals suitable for domestication and no Indigenous plants which could be cultivated for food. The nomadic lifestyle was a necessity. Her work, The Australian Aboriginal as a Human Being (1930), influenced Frederick Wood Jones who was Professor of Anatomy at the University of Melbourne from 1930 to 1937. She was the first one to explain Aboriginal lifestyle in a way that was understandable to Europeans.

She had a much broader view of the Aboriginal question than most at that time. She suggested the use of the ILO Convention 107, which argued for the right to protection of indigenous populations. She wanted the Federal Council to use this convention in arguing for Aboriginal rights and in pressing for Australia to ratify it. She pointed out that we were parochial in our approach. I met her when she attended the 1959 Melbourne meeting. This was the only time I met her, but we had corresponded since 1956. She was far ahead of her time in another way too. As I suggested earlier, she had taken a strong stance against the Church and the administration of Aboriginal affairs in WA on the issue of separating children from their parents. She strongly disapproved of this practice, at a time when most whites working in the field seemed not to be able to see the harm in this policy. She had been involved with the Mount Margaret mission, but she withdrew from active involvement over this issue. Shirley [Andrews] wrote to her over many years and I did from 1956 onwards.

In 1957 the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights was looking for a replacement president. Barry accepted nomination as president, a position he would hold for the next two decades.

Barry Christophers worked as a medical doctor in working-class Richmond. He was driven by a vision of Australian society in which Aboriginal Australians were true citizens, unhampered by repressive and limiting legislation, and as fully eligible for social service benefits and award wages as other Australians. He co-ordinated campaigns for equal wages for Aboriginal workers, for access to the Commonwealth's Tuberculosis Allowance Scheme for Aboriginal patients, and against the Queensland Trust Fund, often working closely and effectively with Joe McGinness. He was one of the few non-Indigenous members of Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) who continued to work, in an advisory capacity, for this body after 1973, when people contacted him with questions, for example, about how to deal most effectively with politicians. Barry's friendship with co-campaigner Joe McGinness continued until Joe's death in 2003.

Barry speaks of some key Indigenous activists of the 1960s.

Doug Nicholls was an important figurehead in the organisation. He was well known, but Joe McGinness was really the most important Aboriginal person in the organisation during the first decade. I didn't notice Joe at first, until he addressed the [1961 Brisbane] conference. He spoke about Aboriginal returned servicemen and the question of repatriation benefits. He had been in the armed forces himself and had an ability to paint the broad political picture, of Aboriginal returned servicemen who had fought for Australia but who were not receiving their repatriation entitlements, and he was able to personalise the issue so it was really communicated as an issue which affected people's lives. I was impressed when I heard him and I nominated him for president of the Federal Council, a position he held almost continuously for the life of the organisation.

Joe was at home with prince and pauper alike; with rich and poor; with black and white. It didn't matter where he was, be it in the desert or in a big city.

Barry recalls the campaign to remove discrimination from the Commonwealth's Tuberculosis Act.

Another campaign that comes to mind which shows what could be done was the work to amend the Tuberculosis Act. This was a good example of the sort of teamwork which took place in the Federal Council.

Joe McGinness was visiting a friend, a white friend sick with TB in a Cairns hospital one day. He got talking to the Aboriginal bloke in the next bed, also in for TB. He found out that the Aboriginal patient was not getting the TB allowance which the white bloke was getting. He wrote down to me, asking me to check the legislation. Sure enough, the Act excluded Aboriginal sufferers who had not, prior to contracting the illness, been working. The idea behind the allowance was to encourage patients to stay at home until they were better, so as not to infect others. It wasn't paid to Aborigines who were under the control of the Act. Joe McGinness collected all the names, addresses and other such details from Aboriginal patients in hospitals from Brisbane to Cairns, 20 or 30 such cases. He sent the details down to me. As well I wrote to Dr EW Abrahams, Director of the National Tuberculosis Advisory Council for Queensland, and he provided information of other cases in Queensland. We then had the detailed information necessary to mount a campaign to get this discriminatory legislation amended. After all, if the legislation had specified that the allowance would not be paid to Jews or Catholics who had not supported themselves before they contracted the disease, the discrimination would have been clearly recognised. And we wouldn't have complained if the Act specified that no-one who had not maintained themselves before they got sick was eligible, but because it clearly specified Aborigines as those excluded, we argued that this was discrimination on the basis of race alone. It was a two year campaign. We wrote to unions such as the Waterside Workers Federation, women's groups such as the Union of Australian Women, Christian groups like the Women's Christian Temperance Union. I wrote to the Medical Journal of Australia and got the issue on the agenda of the Victorian AMA annual general meeting. From there we were able to argue for the issue to be raised at the AMA federal annual general meeting. Once we got the AMA onside we were right. And of course this could only happen because we had collected the detailed factual information which demonstrated the discrimination in practice. Abrahams' support was of key importance in providing the information from the rest of the state. He really put his job on the line in providing this information; he would have been sacked if the authorities had found out how we got this information!

But this campaign was an illustration of the strength of the Federal Council. As I said Joe McGinness provided the case histories up in Queensland and sent them to me. As an executive member of the Federal Council I was able to write to organisations, collect information, present the case to the AMA and write to Swartz, the Minister for Health at the time, and present him with the evidence of discrimination in law and as put into effect in Queensland. Kath Walker was also involved in this, and Joyce Tattersall was another person.

In 2015 Barry was awarded an AO for significant service to the Indigenous community through advocacy roles, and to medicine as a general practitioner.

Source: The extracts on this page are from an interview with Barry Christophers conducted by Sue Taffe on 27 September 1996

Further reading

Sue Taffe, The Council for Aboriginal Rights (Victoria)’, Obituaries Australia, 2014

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