Canberra Citizen of the Year


Kath Bourke (circa 1920-2001)

Kath Bourke, left, with Margrit Davies and John Halsem at a Meeting of the BuildersSub-Committee of Woden Senior Citizens Club, 1980 

Kath Bourke,left, with Margrit Davies and John Haslem at a meeting of the Builders Sub-Committee of Woden Senior Citizens Club, 31 January 1980.

SOURCE: ACT Heritage Library image 008191, Canberra Times Collection.  Photographer Michael Porter

Kath Whiteley was born and educated in Perth, WA, the eldest of three daughters of Mr and Mrs A Whiteley of Scarborough, WA.

Her mother believed that women should have training for employment; Kath completed a secretarial course in 1939 and was appointed to the Department of Defence in Canberra. As a single woman she did not qualify for removal expenses so paid her own way.

In Canberra Kath worked as a stenographer in the War Cabinet secretariat, one of only four people cleared to work in the Defence complex. Her reminiscences are included in David Horner’s High Command. On her marriage in 1943 she was required to resign from the public service, but special arrangements were made to allow her to continue working as a temporary officer until she returned to Perth. Incensed at this further inequity Kath joined the newly formed ACT branch of the National Council of Women. She fought first for equal pay, then in 1965 she was part of the three-woman deputation to Prime Minister Menzies to request the repeal of the marriage bar. The bar was removed in 1966 but equal pay for women in the public service did not start until 1972.

Kath married Warrant Officer Henry Stuart Bourke at St Christopher’s Church, Manuka on 20 January 1943. Her two sisters Glen and Carmel were bridesmaids. Harry Bourke, born at Undercliffe, Sydney, in 1918 had joined the Prime Minister’s Department in 1936 as a messenger, enlisting soon afterwards in 3 Battalion, a militia unit based in Queanbeyan, transferring to the AIF when the Battalion went to New Guinea in 1942.

Before Kath returned to Perth the three sisters took part in Canberra’s wartime social life; Glen and Carmel formed part of the Swing Quintette, a singing group within the Catholic Musical Society, and all three acted in a comedy play the Society staged to entertain the soldiers.

Kath and Harry returned to Canberra in 1947 and bought a house in Narrabundah, then a new suburb with few amenities. As their seven children grew up, Kath naturally became involved in child-related organisations – mothercraft centres, preschools, tuck shops, parents and citizens committees. From there it was inevitable that she would join community groups and help provide the services and support that were in short supply from the government, including community nursing and home help. “Of course we did community work then”, she said on receiving the 1989 Canberra Citizen of the Year award. “Everybody did.”

In the early 1950s Kath registered with the government Welfare Branch as an emergency carer for children in distress. Indirectly, this led to her involvement with the establishment and ongoing management of Marymead.

At this time she also became more involved with the National Council of Women, an organisation that was by then being taken seriously by governments. Among other things, the Council in the ACT initiated the District Nursing Service, the Emergency Housekeeper Service and the Goodwin Homes for the Aged. Kath was part of them all, rising from committee member to ACT president and later national vice-president.

In 1958 Kath went back to paid work, spending the next 14 years full-time at the Australian National University. With children still at home, she nonetheless managed to work with an additional half-dozen community organisations: the Churchill Fellowship, the Catholic Women's League, the Community Services Council of the ACT, the ACT Consultative Committee on Social Welfare, the community health services board of the ACT Health Authority, and the ACT Library Service advisory committee.

From the early 1960s Kath’s interests expanded into services for the aged. The National Council of Women built a Senior Citizens Hall at Turner, and Kath foresaw a growing need to set up a consultative body that would advise government on aged care. As Canberra grew, retirees were staying in Canberra and older parents of Canberrans were moving to the city to be closer to their families. Kath was instrumental in establishing the ACT Council on the Ageing (COTA), the Abbeyfield Society (ACT) which provides accommodation, the Aged Care Advisory Committee and Goodwin Retirement Villages. She was also responsible in large part for the establishment of the Respite Care Program and the Carers’ Support Group. It was for these services that Kath was chosen as the inaugural Canberra Citizen of the Year in 1989.

Kath was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1979 for her outstanding contribution in the field of community service, and ten years later was one of the first three Canberrans to receive the Advance Australia Foundation award. By then she had finally managed, at the third attempt, to step down from the chair of COTA.

In December 1990 Kath’s lobbying for concessions for seniors was crowned with the launch of the Seniors Card; she was issued with card number 1. Earlier in the year she was appointed the ACT chair of a national health forum inquiring into the rise in the incidence of dementia and what services were required.

Also in 1990 Kath was interviewed for an oral history project conducted by the University of Canberra. The project was part of research into the processes involved in the transition of the ACT to self-government, and Kath represented community involvement.

Harry died in 1989, just one week after Kath received the Canberra Citizen of the Year award. Kath carried on until 30 December 2001. They are buried at Gungahlin cemetery.

Awards and Distinctions

  • 1979 Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to the community
    1989 Canberra Citizen of the Year
    1989 Advance Australia Foundation award


1984 Bourke, Kath, Community resources / day care centres, Hughes, Council on the Ageing

Select Bibliography

1988 ‘The growth of social services: Kathleen Bourke’, in Rudduck, Loma, A celebration of women in the growth of Canberra, Canberra, Australian Federation of Business and Professional Women Inc. A.C.T. Division
1989 'ACT citizens of the year.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 12 March, p. 1, viewed 20 December, 2015,
1990 Transition to self government oral history project, interview number 46: Bourke, Kath – community involvement. ACT Heritage Library HMSS 0107

See other Canberra Citizens of the Year.