Kevin Cook: “They thought he was ten foot tall and bullet-proof”

By Paul Torzillo and Heather Goodall

In July 1972, the Aboriginal Land Rights flag flew proudly from the top of the highest crane in Sydney. Kevin Cook had got it there. Thousands of Aboriginal protesters and supporters marched down Sydney streets in the Black Moratorium, but it was that flag on the crane which brought Aboriginal demands for Land Rights onto the TV screens, newspapers and radios of people all over the country. Kevin, an organiser with the Builders Labourers’ Federation, had convinced his BL mates to put the flag up there. Cookie, as he was known, had unfailing judgement about the symbolic power of key events and in finding just the right people to make them happen.

In later years, Terry O’Shane, Aboriginal seaman and long time activist, would joke about Kevin’s enormous influence on people across the country. Kevin was a vivid personality, but as Terry pointed out in the interviews for Kevin’s book, Cookie was also a man of very short stature. Before they met him, Terry says, ‘…. people sometimes thought Cookie must be ten foot tall and bullet-proof! But look at the size of him!!’

That flag in 1972 is an example of the way Kevin shaped key events. 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.

Kevin Cook was born in Wollongong on September 1939, a Wandandian man from the Yuin people of South Coast NSW. Cookie grew up in the multicultural steel city, and spent 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 his mate Roy Bishop called him up to Sydney to work on the new high-rise city buildings.

Cookie started as a dogman, the dangerous job of riding the loads all the way up to the top of these new towers. Australian building companies had never put up such high buildings before – their methods were experimental at best and just reckless at worst. Cookie joined the union at a time when the Builders Labourers’ Federation 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. Cookie could bring his knowledge of Aboriginal and migrant communities together with the new ways of working which were being developed within the BLF – rank-and-file members’ control, limited tenure of office, social and environmental responsibility.

This was the time that the BLF invented the term Green Bans – they had used ‘black bans’ to describe their refusal to demolish socially useful buildings, but changed it to ‘green bans’ out of respect for their Aboriginal allies. Cookie was the organiser working with Aboriginal BLs 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 believed, like Rev. Alf Clint who had started Tranby, that cooperatives were a culturally appropriate way for Aboriginal enterprises and community groups to organise themselves. But Cookie 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. He was sponsored by Tranby in 1979 to spend 6 months in Canada studying community development and cooperatives, at the Coady International Cooperative Institute. At Coady, 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.

So when Cookie came back to Tranby, he had ideas and support from three networks to build on – Aboriginal communities, path-breaking unions and international liberation movements. He became General Secretary of the Cooperative for Aborigines and worked to build Tranby 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. Cookie found Brian Doolan, a teacher working in the Wilcannia community and brought him in to help develop these courses at the Mansfield Street college. Cookie used his many contacts and his enthusiasm to draw in activists – some from unions like Joe Owens and Rod Pickette, some from Aboriginal education like Lynette Riley and Terry Widders and some from university research like Heather Goodall, Chris Milne and Dave Morrisey - to come to Tranby as teachers and mentors. At first it was mostly unpaid – but then Cookie and Brian 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 Kevin’s direction were included 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 in how to identify and counter media racism.

Kevin was taking an active role in NSW political life too, where he had become involved in the Labor Party’s Aboriginal Affairs Policy Committee, working closely with Bob Bellear and Rod Pickette and becoming Chair after Bob left to develop his legal studies. At the same time, Kevin was building his Trade Union networks, expanding beyond the left wing allies of the BLF to take in the much more diverse networks established around Tranby College by Alf Clint, and including some towering figures in right wing unions. As always, Cookie was able to build close relations across all sides of the factional divisions, and so he was able to set up the Trade Union Committee on Aboriginal Rights (TUCAR) at Tranby to strengthen communication between unions and Indigenous organisations.

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. Before long, again with limited resources and a lot of hard talking to fund them, Tranby was able to start courses in communities – some in the outer Sydney suburbs of Green Valley and many in the bush. Cookie funded these community-based courses – just like he brought in funds for the whole college – through endless meetings and phone calls – and getting Brian Doolan and others to write endless submissions. While government education bodies gradually started to fund the College, the mainstays were Unions like the MUA, individual donations and the backing of the more activist wings of the Church movement like the Australian Council of Churches.

Kevin 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.

The final NSW Bill in 1983 was a frustrating mix which recognized some rights but took away others. Kevin, after much consultation with his South Coast community and other respected Aboriginal leaders, decided to work with the new Land Rights Act. He took on the role of Chairperson of the Interim Land Council, set up after the Act was passed to organise the structures within which the Act would function. Throughout this difficult time, Cookie’s insistence that community voices should be heard was a sustaining thread. With fellow ILC members like William Bates, Barbara Flick, Tombo Winters and others, Cookie encouraged many different strategies to achieve land rights in the following years – ranging from using the Act to purchase or claim land through to working outside the Act altogether to get better Heritage and other recognitions. Through this time too, Tranby offered support for the many communities struggling with the demands which the Land Rights Act and other new legislation placed on them, developing new courses to be held in rural areas to build skills in the accounting, legal and procedural skills the new Land Council structure demanded.

National Land Rights laws were promised by both Labor and Conservative governments in the early 1980s but each had major limitations. A unified Aboriginal response was needed but the earlier campaigns for Land Rights had been separate in each state because land tenure was managed at state level. Cookie played a key role in building relationships of trust and confidence between state and territory leaders. Pat Dodson, from Alice Springs and Broome, has said of Kevin that he ‘opened’ the pathways by which leaders from all states could feel safe and confident in their relationships with those from other states. Tranby offered safe ground for these inter-state negotiations just as before it had offered such safe meeting spaces for people from different regions of NSW.

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, Kevin 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.

Terry O’Shane explained it this way: So when I first ran into Cookie, we just sat down and talked. And I listened to how he analysed things, and then how he developed a strategy from there and a way to plot a course. Because the movement was much bigger than one or two people. It was based on how best we had advanced this issue on behalf of the Indigenous peoples and the broader community.

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 Maritime Union 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 on the convention.

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. Terry O’Shane described Kevin’s role this way:

What has developed in this country, in terms of reconciliation, in terms of national movements, in terms of representation overseas – the person who was doing the strategies and bringing people together and developing unity and ensuring discipline reigned — that was Cookie. And that’s just the truth of it.

Cookie just transferred his understanding of things! He gave that credit to people like Joe McGuiness and others, you know. But it started because Cookie had a different view on how we should approach things, and he just used to transfer it on.

And his view was that these were issues of social justice. We needed to take it out of this narrow focus of ‘these are issues for Aboriginal people and Aboriginal people need to be the ones that fight it’. These issues do restrict and oppress indigenous peoples. But these were issues about justice and human rights and things like that. We needed to involve a much larger portion of the community to achieve what needed to be achieved because it was a thing for all of us.

It wasn’t just a thing for black fellas. It was a thing for all Australians.

In the later 1980s, Kevin continued to nurture the innovative role of Tranby in education, national and international politics. In education, Kevin oversaw the introduction of new Tranby courses like NILA (in association with HREOC), the Diploma of National Indigenous Legal Advocacy, which was a nationally accredited, Abstudy-approved course, 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, Kevin enabled Tranby to be the base for many of the people from outside Sydney and outside New South Wales, 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.

In the last years of his life, bed-bound 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.

So Kevin was an Aboriginal activist, a worker, a Trade Unionist, a leftie and an internationalist. All those things explain why he was admired but they don’t explain the mourning which has occurred following his death.

This is more about the core of the person. He thought that everyone had a value and he worked on that principle. In an era when many of our leaders have PAs - and egos that need their own postcode – Cookie had no need for an ego to be stroked and did not have a grain of pretentiousness. Kevin deliberately took the position of ‘one behind and one off the rail’, to use a metaphor from racing, the sport he loved. He liked to assist, help, promote and encourage other people and never to take the limelight. It was why people who might not work with each other outside Kevin’s framework, would come and do so with him at Tranby.

It was central to his gift as a leader but also as a person. Kevin 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 is survived by his younger brother, Ronnie, his sister Joy Steep, cousin Kathy and by his children Suzie and Mereki, his first wife, Margaret, and Suzie’s children, Jake, Adam, Ben and Emma. In the early 1980s, Kevin entered a life long partnership with Judy Chester, with whom he lived until her sudden death some years ago. Kevin is survived by Judy’s three children whom he helped to raise, Peter, Jody and Janette, and by their children John, Talea, Karana, Tjanara, Ngahla and Yamirra.