Canberra Citizen of the Year


Jack Waterford (born 1952)

Jack Waterford, Canberra, 1976 

SOURCE: Waterford, Jack. "Back in the Day" , 19 March 2013, on The Newspaper Works (website)

Jack was born into the Irish-Australian Waterford clan on 12 February 1952, one of eight children of John Arthur Waterford and Nance Marion nee O’Brien. His early childhood was spent on a sheep station near Quambone NSW, in Coonamble Shire, about 300km northwest of Dubbo. In 1963 the family left ‘Wombaluna’ and moved further north to a property two hours out of Goodooga, a small township almost on the border with Queensland.

John Waterford (1920-1995) began as a station hand, as did several of his brothers and many members of the wider family. Although not well educated, John was bright and interested in subjects from poetry to politics, and later co-wrote three books on the family’s history. He enlisted in the 8th Division in World War 2 and was taken prisoner when Singapore fell, spending the rest of the war in Changi and on the Burma Railway. He wrote of this time in Footprints: from prisoner-of-war days in Singapore and Thailand to Japanese-Australian relations today, published in English in 1980 and also translated into Japanese. It is notable for its almost complete lack of hostility towards the Japanese, as well as being a good story.

Nance came from Warren, south of Quambone, where her family were all on the land (“except a few nuns”, says Jack). She did well at high school and wanted to be a doctor, but at the end of the war found herself competing unsuccessfully for a place against many returned servicemen who were taking up the government’s offer of further education. In any case, the prevailing attitude was to discourage women from higher education because they would marry and leave the workforce. Nance decided to follow her older sister to New Zealand and become a Roman Catholic nun; after a while she realised it was not her vocation and came home, married and raised a family. Jack’s six year old sister drowned in a farm dam when Jack was four; as a country boy he understood death, but the legacy he carries is “to count heads about every minute” whenever he is around children and water.

Jack was sent to boarding school in Sydney from age 10. He was already fairly broadly educated, having learned to read when he was “bored witless” after breaking his leg when he was five. There was no television, the house was well stocked with books of all kinds, and lively family discussions on politics and other social concerns honed his thinking and discussion skills.

Boarding school was a wonderful experience – except for regular presentations at the headmaster’s office for “six of the best” for being cheeky and disobedient. On the other hand, classrooms were academically free, with students encouraged to raise dissenting views with their teachers. One teacher, an older man, did once exclaim in a mix of admiration and exasperation: “You are the most infuriating student I’ve had since I taught your great uncle Leo in 1900!”

Ill-health caused Jack’s father to leave Goodooga and move to Glebe, an inner suburb of Sydney. From the mid 1960s Glebe was in transition from a working class suburb to a trendy student dormitory; Germaine Greer lived nearby. Jack’s mother in particular enjoyed keeping open house not only for visiting family but also for their interesting neighbours. Jack was studying law at the Australian National University in Canberra.

He graduated in 1972, in no particular hurry to take up a career. Deeply involved in social protest, including rights for both women and Indigenous people, Jack was especially active over conscription and the Vietnam War. He had been thrown out of school cadets because his anti-war ideas were “bad for morale”, and successfully avoided conscription himself. However, protesting required organisation and the phone bill for his group house was astronomical. The only solution was to get a job.

The Canberra Times took Jack on as a copy boy, basically a messenger but close enough to the exhilarating events of the early Whitlam era to spark Jack’s journalistic instincts. The editor was less than pleased to have a long-haired radical on staff and predicted an early departure. Jack progressed from cadet to journalist, then through various editorial ranks to become Chief Editor in 2001 and Editor-at-Large in 2006. He retired in 2015, to start afresh as a freelance columnist.

Jack learned on the job, before journalism was taught in universities, and acknowledges a great debt to his early editors. A zest for news, a passion for accuracy, a broad outlook, a love for and loyalty to Canberra and the Canberra Times, and a willingness to take risks were all taught by example. His first Parliamentary Press Gallery boss taught him much about reading source material and not making assumptions. Jack also learned very quickly never to underestimate the Canberra public: “on almost anything one wrote about, a third or more of the audience knew more about the subject than you did, and it was easy to make a fool of oneself”.

 Jack was an outstanding pupil, and has become one of Australia’s finest journalists. In 1985 he won the prestigious Graham Perkins award for his pioneering work on accessing government documents through Freedom of Information legislation, and was appointed to a Jefferson Fellowship at the East-West Center in Hawaii in 1987. He has been a director of the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre, which trains journalists from the region, and was appointed Adjunct Professor at the University of Queensland in 1999, reappointed in 2002.

Over the years Jack has written on law, government, industrial relations, ACT politics and planning, indigenous affairs and the public service. On his retirement, the editorial director of Fairfax Media's Australian Community Media division, Rod Quinn, said: "He has held politicians and bureaucrats to account, delighted and provoked readers and inspired his colleagues.” Jack’s 2015 article on being an editor is at once a philosophical analysis and a personal history, and as always with Jack’s writing, in plain English.

Jack is also an engaging public speaker, knowledgeable about his topic and gently humorous in his delivery.

In 1977 Jack took two years leave from the Canberra Times to work first with Indigenous groups in Central Australia who were establishing local medical services and then with Fred Hollows in his National Trachoma and Eye Health Program as an organiser and report writer. Jack called it ‘scribing’, writing daily case notes as Fred worked with patients, then preparing reports. It was an exhilarating experience, and like events in his childhood in country NSW, one he has referred to in several later articles.

Jack’s extensive library has also been a subject visited in articles and photographs. He sometimes despairs of those who cannot find time to read: “Frankly I do not see how one can be a soldier in the battle of ideas if one does not read.”

In 2015 Jack decided to retire from “headlines and deadlines” so he could spend time with his grandchildren – and read more poetry.

Awards and Distinctions

  • 1985 Graham Perkins Journalist of the Year for his work on Freedom of Information legislation
  • 2007 Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for service to journalism, particularly as a commentator on national politics and the law; to raising debate on ethical issues and public sector accountability, and to the community in the area of Indigenous affairs
  • 2007 Canberra Citizen of the Year for his contribution to journalism and Aboriginal health
  • 2010 ACT Honour Walk

Selected Publications

1989 Waterford, Jack, Why plan, Walter Burley Griffin Memorial Lecture, Canberra, Royal Australian Institute of Architects

1992 Waterford, Jack, ‘The best days of my life. Reminiscences of Jack Waterford’s times at school’, Eureka Street, vol 2 no 2, March, pp 29-32

1996 Waterford, Jack, The future of public administration in Australia, Canberra, Public Service and Merit Protection Commission

Select Bibliography

2007 ‘Jack Waterford named Canberra Citizen of the Year’, Canberra Times 12 March, viewed 19 February 2016,

2013 Waterford, Jack, ‘Back in the day: Jack Waterford’, Canberra Times 19 March, viewed 19 February 2016,

2014 Conversations with Richard Fidler. 30 Oct, heard 25 February 2016,

2015 ‘Jack Waterford to leave the Canberra Times’, Canberra Times 22 April, viewed 19 February 2016,

See other Canberra Citizens of the Year.