Canberra Citizen of the Year
Graham Downie (born 1948)
SOURCE: Downie, Graham. Scout Snaps. O'Connor, A.C.T : G. Downie, 1991?
Graham and his identical twin brother were born in Wellington, NSW, to “loving and practical” parents – a fortunate combination since both boys were born virtually blind. What little sight Graham had was lost in an accident at school when he was eleven. Before World War 2 their father had been a tank sinker but after the twins were born he moved the family to Oberne Creek, near Tarcutta, and became a farmer.
The farm had no proper access road, no telephone, no electricity, and no water supply except the creek, but to Graham it was glorious freedom. His parents were not overprotective – the boys rode horses and helped on the farm – and it was always understood that they would leave home and make their own lives. They were sent to a school for the blind in Sydney, which Graham hated. It offered a limited range of poorly taught subjects that did not include science, which he would have liked, although it did have a good music teacher. Graham tried the piano, had more success with the recorder, learned the ukulele from his scout leader and finally learned to play the guitar, which he still enjoys both playing and listening to.
Graham left school at year 10 and came home to the farm, where he helped more or less successfully until at 18 he was offered a job in Chatswood, Sydney, with Warburton Franki. Their factory made electrical components and Graham stayed there for 18 months, enjoying working with migrants from Italy and Armenia. It was clearly not a long-term option and, with a desire to work in radio, he applied (unsuccessfully) to 2WG Wagga Wagga. Canberra looked more promising. The Canberra Times was advertising for a male telephonist, and he took up the position in July 1968.
Meanwhile, with a vague idea of becoming a minister, he had undertaken a short course in counselling. This skill proved surprisingly useful in his new job. The paper ran a column called Voters’ Voice, initially because the ACT Advisory Council had resigned in protest at being ignored by the federal government and the column was established to deal with Canberrans’ problems that should have gone to the Council. Over time the focus broadened to include consumer affairs, and in 1992 the column was renamed Consumer Voice. Graham found that he could either supply the answer directly, or was able to research it and pass the information to the journalist in charge. This roused his interest in journalism, and in 1972 he asked to be considered for a position as a cadet journalist. He was refused.
Graham moved to Victoria and worked for the Guide Dog Association as their public relations officer. The name then included the words “for the Blind”, which he considered was a tautology and persuaded the Association to remove. Although he was good at the job he disliked having to talk about himself, and within a year he reapplied to the Canberra Times. This time he was successful, and “Downie” took over Voters’ Voice from December 1973. He wrote his final column for Consumer Voice in October 2012, making it probably the longest-running column by an individual in an Australian metropolitan newspaper. It was estimated that he had dealt with 14,600 enquiries.
His appointment had depended on his proving that he was a good journalist. This was evident in very short order, and not long before he retired in 2012 he earned the accolade from Jack Waterford that he was “the best note-taker in the game, an old-style reporter dedicated to accuracy”. Despite negotiating solutions to consumer complaints for nearly 40 years, Graham was never sued.
Graham gathered other columns, including a regular weekly report on religious affairs that earned the nickname “the God report”. He once said that his parents, if not exactly bigoted, retained a very narrow religious focus; his own views developed a more ecumenical flavour, and he was seen as a “persistent but fair” reporter on church matters. He was particularly proud of scooping the Sydney Morning Herald in its own city with the news that the Anglican General Synod, meeting in Sydney in 1992, had agreed to admit women to the priesthood.
The scoop depended on Graham’s legendary ability to move around with extraordinary ease despite his blindness. After his only guide dog was retired he used a cane and a succession of electronic devices to “see” his environment. In 1970 he was chosen to be the first person in Australia to wear sonic spectacles. When computers came into more general use in the early 1980s he abandoned his typewriter and snail mail and reported directly by email. His views on the benefits of technological developments for disabled people were included in Technological change - impact of in formation technology 1981; he saw greater job opportunities and wider inclusion in recreational and general activities. He learned Braille at school but seldom used it.
Not that Graham lacked recreational and community involvement. His move to Melbourne in 1972 caused dismay to several organisations in Canberra: he was vice-president of the Canberra Jaycees and the ACT Guide Dogs for the Blind and was an assistant leader in the 13th Canberra Scout Troop. After his return in 1973 he was elected president of the Jaycees, later being awarded life membership of Jaycee International. He rejoined the 13th scout troop and in 1991 published an anecdotal history of scouting as he and the troop had experienced it – disasters and all. He has been a mentor and friend as well as a practical example of the true role of scouting, that of character building.
Graham enjoys tandem cycling, cross country skiing and the occasional game of golf, but perhaps the most thrilling of his sporting adventures occurred as a member of the Canberra Times team in a 1971 race for unconventional craft. He sailed down the Murrumbidgee on a table.
Awards and Distinctions
- 1983 Scout Medal of Merit
- 1985 RSL ANZAC of the Year award for service to the community, the blind and numerous other associations
- 1990 Canberra Citizen of the Year for his community involvement, particularly with the Scouting movement
- 1994 Silver Acorn for continuing excellent service to the Scout movement
- 2005 Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for service to the community, particularly youth through the Scouting movement, and to journalism
1991 Downie, Graham, Scout snaps, O’Connor, the Author
2015 Downie, Graham, Living on the edge: the life of John Mackay, Canberra, Halstead Press
2015 Downie, Graham, Servants and leaders: eminent Christians in their own words, Ultimo, NSW, Halstead Press
1991 'Scouting vignettes.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 11 May, p. 24, viewed 7 February, 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article122361556
2011 ‘Canberra Conversations: Graham Downie’,by Alex Sloan and Gabrielle Rumble, 11 May, heard 7 February 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2011/05/11/3213464.htm
2012 He saw things his own way, Canberra Times, 6 October, viewed 7 February 2016, https://global-factiva-com.rp.nla.gov.au/ha/default.aspx#./!?&_suid=145481220551109397689595375639
2012 Addressing concerns for 39 years, Canberra Times, 7 October, viewed 7 February 2016, https://global-factiva-com.rp.nla.gov.au/ha/default.aspx#./!?&_suid=145481220551109397689595375639