Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture

Pioneer in aboriginal affairs remembered at the ACC&C

03 May 2018

A service of celebration and thanksgiving for the life of Barrie Graham Dexter CBE was held at the Chapel of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture on the 26th April 2018.

The former Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs passed away on the 13th April in Canberra (read an obituary in The Canberra Times)

A young Barrie DexterBarrie was born on the 15th of July 1921 in Kilsyth, Victoria and served in both the army and navy before becoming a diplomat. In 1967 he was appointed by Prime Minister Harold Holt along with H. C. "Nugget" Coombs and anthropologist William Stanner to form the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. Concurrently he was appointed Director of the Office of Aboriginal Affairs which later became the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

According to Barrie Dexter’s book, Pandora’s Box: The Council for Aboriginal Affairs 1967-1976, the ‘function of the Council was to advise the Government as to what should be done in the field of Aboriginal Affairs. This remained our sole function throughout our nine gruelling years.’

The funeral was organised by Father Frank Brennan SJ AO who also delivered the homily which has been published on Eureka Street “Public servant to the First Australians”.

Mural of the Holy Spirit in Our LandHe said Barrie would have felt at home being farewell at the Chapel of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture which is next door to a mural of the painting of the Holy Spirit in Our Land by the indigenous artist and lawmaker, Hector Jandany.

“The mural wonderfully bridges Indigenous and Christian spirituality through an interpretation of life of the Spirit in the land and the lives of its people. The original painting was commissioned by Sir William Dean when he was governor general,” he said.

During the service tributes flowed from public servants, academia and those who worked with Barrie during his career.

Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Frances Adamson said Barrie lived a life of great achievement in a number of fields.

“He is remembered as one of our pioneer diplomats, advancing Australia’s interests during is many postings, including as Ambassador to Laos, Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania, and as High Commissioner to Canada,” she said.Fraser government Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Ian Viner AO QC said a long lasting personal and political empathy was created between Barrie and himself when they shaped the small Department of Aboriginal Affairs into a powerful department between 1975 and 1978.

Barrie Dexter wearing awards and medals“Barrie looked after the bureaucracy, and I looked after the Prime Minister and his cabinet. It was a good partnership,” he said.

Former Chief Justice Sir Gerard Brennan AC KBE said Barrie Dexter was a man of sensitivity, empathy and insight.

“The record of Barrie Dexter’s service, both personal and as head of the Department responsible for introducing change, demonstrated his unquestioned integrity and outstanding professional skill,” he said.

Political journalist Michelle Grattan AO said Barrie was one of the first public servants she met when she started working in Canberra.

“I’d inherited the Aboriginal Affairs round from Michael Richardson, who introduced me to him. I had a lot of contact with him in those years, when bureaucrats were much more accessible to the media than now, and came to admire his vast knowledge, sharp mind and deep understanding of issues,” he said.

In 2005 Barrie Dexter’s wife Judith passed away and in 2014 his son Tim died. Barrie is survived by his two daughters: Bridget and Jocelyn.

By Katherine Spackman, ACC&C Communications Officer

Photos: Top: A photo taken during his time as Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Middle: Mural Wall at the ACC&C, Bottom: a photo with Veteran’s medals taken as part of the AIPP Reflections Project