Kevin Cook:

unionist, Aboriginal activist,man of exceptional integrity and dynamism

Kevin Cook was born in Wollongong in September 1939, a Wandandian man from the Yuin people of South Coast NSW. Cookie grew up in the multicultural steel city, spending time with his Wandandian Uncle Stan fishing and exploring his mother’s country to the south. As a young man, he worked in the mills of Wollongong, in New Zealand and did time in national service. Then on the suggestion from a friend he came to work in Sydney on the new high rise city buildings, starting in the dangerous job of riding the loads all the way up to the top of the new towers.

Green bans and organising

Australian building companies’ methods were experimental at best and reckless at worst. Cookie joined the Builders Labourers’ Federation when the BLF was changing the face of unionism in Australia. Rank and file members had taken control of the union; its leaders were now workers from the jobsites and they put worker safety at the centre of their demands.

This was the time that the BLF invented the term ‘green bans’, previously they had used ‘black bans’ to describe their refusal to demolish socially useful buildings, but the union changed it to ‘green bans’ out of respect for their Aboriginal allies. Cookie was the organiser working with Aboriginal workers on the Redfern Housing Company and worked with the National Black Theatre in Redfern, before becoming involved in Tranby Aboriginal Adult Education Cooperative College in 1975.

Cookie brought his knowledge of Aboriginal and migrant communities together with the new ways of working: rank and file members’ control, limited tenure of office and social and environmental responsibility.

Indigenous movements worldwide

He believed that cooperatives were a culturally appropriate way for Aboriginal enterprises and community groups to organise themselves. But he went further; he had seen for himself in Wollongong how the education system was failing Aboriginal kids, and he saw the need for post secondary training so that Aboriginal people could take active roles in the work force and in tertiary education. Sponsored by Tranby College in 1979, Cookie spent six months in Canada studying community development and cooperatives, at the Coady International Cooperative Institute. There Cookie met activists from the liberation movements across Africa and from the Indigenous movements of India, the Pacific and the Americas. This internationalism stayed with him in his later work.

Cookie became General Secretary of the Cooperative for Aborigines and worked to build Tranby College into a centre for adult learning and cultural revival. Young Aboriginal men and women travelled from across the country to undertake courses in basic literacy, community studies, business training and preparation for tertiary education.

Tranby and teacher from Wilcannia

Brian Doolan, a teacher working in the Wilcannia community, came to Cookie’s attention and he brought him in to help develop courses at the Mansfield Street Glebe college. Cookie used his many contacts and his enthusiasm to draw in activists to come to Tranby as teachers and mentors. At first it was mostly unpaid, but then Cookie and Doolan were able to tap some of the new Federal Aboriginal Education structures of the Whitlam years.

First in the crowded hostel at the back of the college, then in an arrangement with Aboriginal Hostels, Tranby was able to offer secure spaces for students from communities all over Australia as well as from Sydney. Among a wide range of innovations introduced under Cookie’s direction were a course in Legal Studies to ensure Aboriginal people could speak up for their rights and a critical Photography course to teach students skills not just in taking photos but how to identify and counter media racism.

IEU played a role with TUCAR and CUAR

Kevin Cook was building his trade union networks to set up the Trade Union Committee on Aboriginal Rights (TUCAR) at Tranby to strengthen communication between unions and Indigenous organisations, and later Tranby was part of the Combined Unions Against Racism (CUAR). The IEU took an active role in both TUCAR and CUAR, raising awareness about Aboriginal rights with union members and supporting Tranby and its campaigns within the wider union movement and the community.

But Cookie was not thinking of Tranby only as a place for political campaigns and on site classes. His priority was education in the community and before long, Tranby College was able to start courses in the outer Sydney suburbs of Green Valley and many in the bush. Cookie funded these community-based courses, just as he brought in funds for the whole college, through endless meetings and phone calls and getting others to write endless submissions. While government education bodies gradually started to fund the college, the mainstays were unions like the Maritime Union of Australia, activist sections of the church such as the Australian Council of Churches and individual donors.

Cookie opened Tranby College up as a centre for groups campaigning on issues such as Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Stolen Generations. He also developed Tranby as a base for bush people from throughout NSW involved in the struggle for Land Rights in NSW. From 1979 to 1983, Kevin was the chairperson of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, a community organisation, which led the campaign for the recognition of Aboriginal land rights. In this role, Cookie travelled from one end of the state to another, getting to know and listen to communities and to bring their concerns to centre stage.

He didn’t ever advertise his own role, but for decades, Kevin Cook was central in the national and international networks voicing Aboriginal demands for justice in education, politics, the economy and land rights.

National and international push

Together with Indigenous unionists like Terry O’Shane and Jak Ah-Kit and with land rights activists in all states like Barbara Flick, Rob Riley, David Ross, Yami Lester, Pat Dodson, and others, Cookie built those national relationships which brought the Federation of Land Councils into being. This allowed a unified rejection of federal attempts in 1985 to undermine existing land rights in the Northern Territory and NSW in order to offer a weaker version of land rights to other states.

This network built the foundation for the first push into the international arena. In the mid 1980s, Cookie and another Aboriginal unionist, Patricia Anderson, used their ACTU connections and credibility to take the arguments for Indigenous rights into the International Labour Organisation. The ILO began revising its Convention 107 on Indigenous people earlier than the UN undertook such work – and the ILO rulings were legally binding, much stronger than those of the UN. But delegates to the ILO could only be governments, unions or employers. So Cookie sent Terry O’Shane as a member of the MUA and he later went himself as part of the ACTU delegation. As unionists, they demanded that the ILO must listen to Indigenous people if there was a vote on Indigenous labour conditions. The Aboriginal unionists’ arguments won: the ILO meetings were henceforth opened each day to hear Indigenous people speak at the convention.

Vision and education

Cookie had a vision of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians working together in mutual respect to develop a nation where all people lived freely and with dignity.

In the late 1980s, he continued to nurture the innovative role of Tranby in education, national and international politics; he oversaw the introduction of new Tranby courses, in association with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

The Diploma of National Indigenous Legal Advocacy, which was a nationally accredited Abstudy-approved course, was offered at no cost to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples based anywhere in the country.

Cookie fostered new ways for Tranby to reach out to take an active role in communities through activities like the Aboriginal Development Unit and in mainstream education, through BlackBooks. As a national hub, Cookie enabled Tranby to be the base for many of the people from outside Sydney and outside NSW, who came for the long march Bicentenary Celebrations in 1988. Over this same time, his support for international movements was extensive, building on the links he had made at Coady International Cooperative Institute in Canada.

Tranby had visits from Hilda Lini and Barak Sope from Vanuatu; from Herbert Chitepo, the great Zimbabwean leader; from Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela’s ANC comrade and from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, along with many other activists and liberation workers from across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Bedbound but making change happen

In the last years of his life, bedbound on oxygen with a mask in a small hospital in Summer Hill, Cookie remained more active than most healthy people. He read and corrected every word of Making Change Happen, the book he wrote with Heather Goodall about the movements he had been in. Not content with just one book, he had already begun to develop a new research project to learn more about the experiences of students while they are at Tranby and afterwards. At the same time, he had continued to assist other young Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal researchers, who would often drop in to visit him. And on top of all that, he stayed closely in touch by phone with activists from across the country.

Cookie was not someone who came to believe that everyone was equal. It just never occurred to him that it would be any other way.

Kevin Cook, unionist, Aboriginal activist, man of exceptional integrity and dynamism died on 25 July 2015. The Sydney Morning Herald paid tribute to him in Timelines on Thursday 20 August 2015.

Bronwyn Ridgeway Communications and Media Officer with thanks to Dr Paul Torzillo and Professor Heather Goodall.

Making Change Happen by Kevin Cook and Heather Goodall

First published in 2013, 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.
Download free from ANU E Press

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