HARRIS VAN BEEK 26 December 1951 – 13 September 2017

harris van beek

Reflections from a Eulogy by Eric Sidoti

I did not know Harris as a child or as adolescent nor in his student days. Our lives became intertwined some thirty-six years ago through what was then, in Australia at least, a rather quaint though good-intentioned organisation called Amnesty International. Harris and Andre Frankovits, Roger Gurr and a handful of others had determined that it was time that Amnesty became a national movement and one to be reckoned with. Harris and Andre were already firm friends and slightly battle-scarred when I came on board.

It was perhaps no surprise that Harris found a home in an organisation built upon the simple power of writing a letter.

Indeed, Harris may well have had a very different career but for a letter.

As I recollect it Harris’s first foray into a full-time career position was in the public service. After only a few days he found that he could clear his desk within an hour of arriving. He brought this to the attention of his supervisor and then the unit manager neither of whom showed any apparent interest in his predicament nor his request for more work. So over the next day or two Harris simply documented how he spent his time: coffee breaks, visiting the stationery stores, an occasional phone call. Then he wrote and sent the letter which the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald promptly published. His promising career in the public service ended shortly thereafter.

While he may have set out on a career, he soon found a vocation.

Harris headed to the Netherlands where he settled for some years. For most of that time he was a full-time volunteer with Amnesty’s Dutch Section, earning a little money working in supermarkets and the like. He gradually acquired greater campaigning and membership organising responsibilities. He became a foundation member of a group known within Amnesty from that day to this as the ‘Dutch mafia’: this group became a driving force for change within Amnesty internationally.

You don’t have to believe in destiny to appreciate those life-changing moments of serendipity. Such was the visit to the Dutch section of a small delegation from Amnesty’s NSW Branch in 1978 that saw Harris return home as the Branch’s first paid officer. He initially shared a cubby-hole of a legal office with one of the Executive members which produced more good stories than good campaigns before moving into Pilgrim House in Pitt Street.

Over the next couple of years Amnesty was transformed from a loose association of state groups into a genuinely national organisation and in 1982 Harris became its Director.

He remained Amnesty’s Director for thirteen years.

He always thought that the 1989 Death Penalty campaign the most significant achievement of those years.

But that campaign was only possible because even by 1989 Harris had directed the training, development and expansion of Amnesty groups across the country, a more substantial resource base, the latest technology (Amnesty Australia was one of the first organisations to use computers), new activist options for individual members, specialist campaign and communications staff, the recruitment of growing numbers of Federal politicians not just to the cause but as fully paid up Amnesty members. In fact that death penalty campaign was effectively endorsed by the Governor General and every federal party leader – including to his eternal credit National Party leader Ian Sinclair.

That campaign built on a succession of national campaigns. Perhaps most notable being the 1985 campaign on human rights violations in East Timor which was founded on Australian research Andre undertook leading to the first comprehensive report on violations and, I think I’m right in saying, the first major campaign on the East Timorese tragedy.

Harris had a rare ability to develop staff and build a team of strong-willed individuals. He had recruited specialist campaign, communications and fundraising staff: bright, dedicated and highly skilled people generally even younger than ourselves.

In 1992, alongside his Amnesty involvement, Harris joined the old team in re-inventing the Human Rights Council of Australia as a vehicle for promoting the generally ignored economic and social rights with the permission of our long-time friend Jim Dunn. The Council continues that work.

By the time he decided to move on in 1995, Amnesty had become the most respected and most influential human rights organisation in the country. The policy landscape had changed and extended to institutional changes in the Australian parliament itself including the establishment of the Human Rights Parliamentary Sub-committee. The Australian Section was by then a key player and exerted a strong influence in the international movement.

It wasn’t long before we were working more closely together once again though in a very different field.

The Australian Student Traineeship Foundation (ASTF) was a creative attempt to directly address the appalling hole in young people’s transition from school to work. It was built around community based management of structured workplace learning opportunities for senior secondary students. It was established under Paul Keating’s Working Nation and funded federally. I’d had a bit to do with all that but we needed a top flight CEO with political savvy, negotiation skills and an understanding of how to work from the community level to the Prime Minister’s office.

As CEO Harris took the idea and built a national network from the ground up. An extraordinary achievement in itself especially when it relied on community based cooperative arrangements between schools, employers and training providers as well as relevant state and federal departments.

Some years into the job there was a change of government and name change to the Enterprise and Career Education Foundation. He survived longer than might have been expected. However, more extraordinary than his achievement in building the network is the fact that by the time he left 11 percent of all senior secondary school students across the country were undertaking structured working place training. No one envisaged this could be done.

Harris never took much credit but he was rightly proud of ASTF’s relative success in bringing these opportunities beyond the cities and to areas of high Aboriginal populations.

For a couple of years Harris went freelance. He didn’t much enjoy it as he missed the camaraderie of an organisational home but there was still some fun to be had and we teamed up for some challenging and genuinely fascinating strategic work with JobFutures and even more so with Australian Red Cross: in both cases at the request of Robert Tickner.

His greatest pleasure in these freelance years though was the door that opened to working in Aboriginal communities and the beginning of his relationship with Rob Atkinson at Rio Tinto.

Rob wrote the story of what followed:

I first met Harris in 2006 in of all places Weipa. Little did I realise at that time that the work Harris was facilitating and providing real thought leadership for would lead to a friendship which I really cherished.

The work at that time was to help ensure that the children in the local communities around Weipa were afforded the opportunities through school that could really help them to have the choices later in life that many of us take for granted… These were really tough communities such as Aurukun and Napranum on Cape York and latterly in Jabiru and Gunbalyanya in the Northern Territory.  I never got a sense this was work for Harris but rather it was a passion and an undying belief that a real difference could and should be made… over 10 years later the programmes are still in place and through his work a new generation of young indigenous adults are successfully graduating in greater numbers than ever before from Year 12 and so having the choice to gain an apprenticeship, employment or go on to further education and I have no doubt that without Harris these same young adults would not have such bright futures. A real legacy and one to be very proud of.

Harris was never simply seen as working for the company as he was highly regarded by the community and their leaders, the government and department heads, teachers at the respective schools and of course all the people he dealt with within Rio Tinto. This was testament to his character… most of all he really cared. .. he not only was good at what he did, he was driven by ensuring the right thing was done…

Harris and I spoke regularly by phone and every conversation consisted of a few key elements: our families, the sad state of affairs of leadership within government and opposition parties, our travels and of course Scottish and Australian soccer… He was not only a friend he was good counsel and you always felt that every conversation you had with Harris, you had his full attention and interest.

Harris loved this work, as Rob says, with a passion. He was able to continue the relationship and extend the work to the Pilbara throughout his time at NOUS where Harris was able once again to find an organisational home.

Tim Norton, founder of NOUS, picks up the story in his message to Harris’s colleagues as his condition deteriorated.

…Harris was at the forefront of the wave in helping indigenous people to achieve economic empowerment.

Tim also reminds us that no matter how serious Harris might be about the cause there was always that grin and a mischievous sense of humour. He was just great fun.

Given his own inauspicious career in the public service, and his years as a thorn in the side of Foreign Affairs and other government officials, it seemed ironic but somehow fitting that Harris was so heavily engaged at NOUS in advising government departments and training public servants. But he always recognised that you cannot have good government without a great public service.

In spite of his own eternal youthfulness, Harris felt himself as something of an elder at NOUS. He was so impressed with the verve, intellect and talent of his younger colleagues and found great joy in working with them and, as Tim Orton commented, ‘Harris would always sacrifice himself to support and develop colleagues’.

Harris had a gift for friendship. It is there in all the stories, the messages.

He also had an extraordinary memory for names and faces and the stories people told him. We would be wandering through Parliament House and he would not only know the name of every politician, adviser, journalist, or Parliamentary researcher we met but he would ask them about their partners or children or how that holiday to Italy went.

Sure you can say it’s a gift or to some extent an acquired skill but Harris’s recall was borne of his profound interest in the people he met. They fascinated him and he genuinely wanted to know about them and he listened intently and he never forgot.

On hearing of Harris’s death Phillip Adams described Harris to me as ‘A lovely man. A quiet hero.’

This is true but there was a touch of the Old Testament about Harris for he possessed a righteous anger: as gentle as he always was he had no time for, nor patience with, nor tolerance of prejudice, discrimination, inequality, the cruelty humans can inflict upon each other and he never shied away from calling it out.

Over the weeks leading to Harris’s death, in our conversations and emails, in talking to others, in the stories being told and the messages that flowed, you just knew what we always knew: that Harris never ceased to hunger and to thirst after justice.

Harris had a rare ability to kindle and fan the fire in those around him not with eloquent flourishes or any call to arms but through his own quiet determination.

Harris’s race is not run but his baton has been passed to us and as he would say himself there is much that remains to be done.