Shane Houston inside the tent

By Chris Rodley

Professor Shane Houston

Professor Shane Houston

“I like to approach the cup as half full,” says Professor Shane Houston, a mug of Earl Grey tea cradled in his hands.

It is the first week on the job for Sydney University’s new Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Indigenous Strategy and Services. Sitting in his office overlooking the Quad, the softly spoken former health administrator is describing his approach to advancing Aboriginal rights – and life in general.

He gives as an example the time he was starting a new job as the regional director of a large Western Australian health service and encountered an ugly case of institutional racism.

Houston had gone to visit one of the hospitals under his authority and approached the triage nurse, asking to see a staff member. “They told me, ‘Oh no, the Aboriginal people need go to the area out the back’,” he recalls. “They actually made you go through a glass door and sit in a separate area, because they didn’t like Aboriginal people sitting in the same room.”

Needing to address the issue, Houston found a way of turning the problem into an opportunity: the previously segregated area was converted into an inviting outdoor space decorated with Aboriginal artworks, giving Aboriginal people who may have been nervous about coming to the hospital “a place where they could feel safe and strong”.

It is typical of the unfailingly positive attitude of Houston, 54 (“I am lucky to have lived that long: the life expectancy of an Aboriginal male is 56”, he says). In his newly-created role at Sydney, he will lead a whole-of-university strategy to increase Indigenous participation, education and research.

Houston is, unashamedly, an activist whose outlook was forged during the early years of the struggle for Aboriginal equality. Back in the 1980s, he recalls storming the steps of Parliament House when the Hawke Government tried to retreat from its policy on land rights. (At a recent function, Houston says, a young Aboriginal woman approached the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence, and told him he had “brought in a real radical” in Shane. The Vice-Chancellor replied, “Yes, that’s what we wanted”.)

At the same time, Houston’s strategy has changed as Australian society has advanced. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel and we don’t need to have the old fights again,” he says. “We used to march in the street, but now we’ve found ways of sitting down and moving forward together.”

War has nothing to do with it

Shane Houston is a descendant of Queensland’s Gangulu people, the son of an Aboriginal father and a white Australian mother. He says that his “coat-pegs” – the values on which he has hung his life – come from his father, Stan: a veteran of WW2 and the Korean War. Houston recalls his father stubbornly refusing to accept compensation from the Federal Government for the years he was underpaid as an Aboriginal serviceman: “He said that war has nothing to do with what you were paid, and that there are more important things in life than the shillings you earn.”

On the other hand, Houston says his mother Pat gave him his abiding sense of optimism. She had begun dating his father against the vocal objections of her family, he explains: “They told her, ‘You marry that man and don’t you ever walk through the gate again’. So she packed up her bags and left for the country. I don’t think you can walk out on a life you’ve known like that unless you have an enormous well of hope.”

Houston grew up in Mount Morgan in central Queensland and later moved with his family to Sydney’s western suburbs. There he began working for a number of local Aboriginal organisations that were springing up in the heady days of 1970s community activism. A key early achievement was setting up the Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation, a community-controlled health and community service organisation which still exists today, serving 12,000 people.

In 1982, Houston spent time working in Canada for the UN-affiliated World Council of Indigenous People. He says the experience deepened his views about humanity, teaching him that all people are interconnected: “I saw the common bonds between the lives of the 400 million Indigenous people around the world, and that cultural, spiritual and social values are shared by this international Indigenous family.”

On his return to Australia, Houston was elected as head of the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation (NAIHO), the peak body of Aboriginal community health services. In 10 years in the role, he oversaw a doubling in the number of Aboriginal health services, not least due to his strident approach to lobbying: “Some ministers didn’t like the fact I’d send them three-foot long telexes berating them about their failure to resolve issues relating to Aboriginal health,” he remembers.

In his role at NAIHO, he made an important contribution to what became the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Houston’s idea of equality – “it’s not about being the same, but about having the right to be different and not suffer any disadvantage” – was accepted by the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations and eventually made its way into the Declaration’s preamble.

Eventually, the long-time community activist came round to the idea that he might have a role to play in government. His decision was influenced by his great mentor, Charles Perkins: “He said to me: don’t forget we need people inside the tent as much as we need people outside it.”

A reputation for innovative strategies

Houston worked initially for the Western Australian health department in a senior executive role, then in 2003 took on a central management role with the Northern Territory health service. He gained a reputation for his innovative strategies to strengthen Aboriginal cultural security within the department: one scheme involved permitting employees to purchase leave in order to attend family funerals, which vastly improved Aboriginal staff retention. He also undertook a PhD from Curtin University that explored the way Aboriginal values are incorporated into health funding decisions.

Today, in his role at the University, he has a number of immediate priorities, including finding ways to nurture the next generation of Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) leaders; expanding research into the many challenges facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; and increasing Indigenous employment within the University. More broadly, he is also focusing on the spectrum of strategic issues facing the University as part of the leadership team of Deputy Vice-Chancellors.

Houston says he wants Sydney to take a leading national role in bridging the social divide that confronts Indigenous people.

“The University sits on the land of the Gadigal people, the first people to confront the colony of NSW,” he says. “The first Aboriginal man to graduate from an Australian university studied here. The Freedom Ride started from here in 1965. And we are a stone’s throw from Redfern, the cradle of Aboriginal-owned services. We are right where all those things occurred, and we have an obligation to take those opportunities and do something with them.”