Canberra Citizen of the Year
Geoff McPherson (born 1949)
Chair of the Canberra Refugee Service, Jim McPherson, with University of Canberra Lecturer, Julie Posetti, signing an agreement, 2011
SOURCE: University of Canberra Monitor Online, 2 September 2011. Photographer Michelle McAulay
Geoff McPherson was born at home on 3 August 1949 in Lismore, the second of five children of Norman Allan McPherson and Esther nee Dwyer. His parents lived in Sydney in austere post-war circumstances, and Esther gratefully accepted her family’s suggestion that she would be more comfortable having the child at home.
Norman (born 1923) grew up in Ballina, the oldest of five children. To ease the family’s finances during the Depression he went to Sydney when he was 14 to live with an aunt and uncle, and qualified as a fitter and turner before enlisting in the army. Esther’s father managed a department store in Lismore. Esther was a bookkeeper before her marriage and returned to work after her fifth child was born, one of the first mothers in the district to work full time.
Geoff also grew up in tight financial circumstances. He attended the Guilford Catholic parish school and then secondary schools run by the Patrician Brothers at Granville and Fairfield. They are a predominantly Irish order, outspoken on social issues. He believes that his awareness of right and wrong and his well-developed sense of social justice derive from this upbringing.
He passed the rigorous selection process into the Royal Military College, Duntroon in 1968 and graduated as a Lieutenant in 1972. The well-ordered life and strict discipline were familiar, although his major studies in English and History provided some intellectual escape. The tension between academic and military disciplines taught him how to deal with conflict and get on with the important matters.
This was the Vietnam War period, but Geoff graduated as it was winding down and in fact never saw active service. His army career followed a typical peace-time path, with postings around Australia and in the United Kingdom. He specialised in transportation and logistics and in 1981 attended a course at the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham, England, which prepared him for project management for large capital acquisition projects. From there he moved into capability development before retiring from the army in 1998, having received a Chief of Army commendation for enhancing the Australian Defence Force's amphibious warfare capability.
Throughout his adult life Geoff has contributed in some way to the communities he lived in. From the late 1990s he was also aware of the difficulties experienced by refugees and people displaced by conflicts in East Timor. He realised that most of all, refugees lacked local administrative knowledge as well as language skills, and so established a community support service for refugees. While he freely acknowledges the value of skills learned during his army career, Geoff equally freely admits that it offers the chance to make a contribution without the constraints imposed by working for an official organisation.
Canberra Refugees Support (CRS) began in 1999 as a Community Refugee Support Service, established under the Department of Immigration Settlement Programme. As the Department moved towards contracting out such services, Geoff saw that his group would end up being sub-contracted to a contractor, instead of offering community settlement activities geared to a personal situation. He also recognised that asylum seekers in particular were in danger of being overlooked amid the services set up in the more formal refugee programs, and resolved to be independent.
CRS works with and between the various bureaucracies that govern the lives of refugees. As a community group it can volunteer its services to contractors, and does so when appropriate. Otherwise, it has four roles: to train and organise its own people to be able to support refugees; to help settle refugees in Canberra; to be ready to undertake advocacy, because experience showed that a case by case approach was the most useful; and to provide policy advice to the bureaucracy at either territory or federal level.
Providing policy advice at ACT government level has been very productive. If existing policy does not support a reasonable position in a particular case, Geoff discusses the situation with the appropriate person and often achieves either a specific interpretation for that case or a general change of policy. In one notable instance Geoff pointed out that although the visa permitted the holder to work, lack of competency in English was a barrier. The ACT government decided to provide free English classes, and after a further suggestion from Geoff, also agreed to pay for child care so women could attend classes.
The case by case, humanitarian approach is the major strength of CRS. Assistance can be as small as writing an explanatory paragraph in an application or as large as equipping an entire house. After the 2003 bushfires refugee families in particular had great difficulty in finding accommodation and household necessities. CRS, which then had a storehouse full of such supplies, was able to locate and then immediately fully furnish and equip six houses. A continuing project is to provide scholarships, not for the education itself but for the uniforms, computers and other expenses entailed.
Settling people who have already arrived is one thing. Helping other family members to come to Australia to join them can be quite another. In several highly publicised cases CRS has drawn community support and then provided the advocacy, at international as well as local level, to reunite families.
In 2001 Canberra Refugee Support was incorporated. One of the founding group was an old army friend of Geoff, but the others represented a wide range of ages (twenties to seventies), backgrounds and skills, including former public servants and military people, retired professionals, and university students. The common denominator is a desire to do something from a humanitarian perspective.
Funding comes from the community in much the same way as CRS was established – Geoff just talks to people, generates enthusiasm and a plan of action emerges. If money is needed for a particular purpose, such as bringing out a family member or equipping a family of several children with bicycles, fundraising is carefully targeted. There is no physical office and therefore no real overheads except what are needed for computer links and a post office box; meetings happen whenever and wherever there is a need. Clubs, professional associations and businesses have been generous, sometimes providing up to a year’s budget in one donation.
Geoff may be operating in a considerably more flexible administrative atmosphere than in his army days, but organisational structure bears more than a passing resemblance to that of a military task force.
Apart from advocacy at all levels, where Geoff’s vision has had arguably the greatest benefit is in the small details of everyday life in a new country. For traumatised refugees, to find someone who will write a letter, arrange a social visit, locate and deliver household furniture, pay a bill or take a child to a doctor is to find peace of mind and rediscover their own value as human beings.
Awards and Distinctions
1998 Chief of Army commendation particularly for enhancing the Australian Defence Force's amphibious warfare capability
2004 Canberra Citizen of the Year for work with the Canberra Refugee Group in assisting refugees to settle into the community
2014 Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for work with refugees
2004 He's our man: refugee advocate wins gong, The Canberra Times, 13 March, viewed 22 February 2016,
2005 Law Week Events, The Canberra Times, 16 May,
2006 Scholarships put dreams within reach, The Canberra Times, 24 November,
2007 Geoffrey McPherson interviewed by Ann-Mari Jordens, http://www.nla.gov.au/amad/nla.oh-vn3945039?searchTerm=%22geoff+mcpherson%22