Against the odds

Whether your generation is pre-boomer, baby-boomer, X or Y, Just Passions is an eye-opening account to which Australians can relate. Rhonda Galbally’s autobiography chronicles her important and often behind-the-scenes contributions to community, social justice, and health.

Recounting an upbringing both characterised by disability and fiercely not characterised by disability, Galbally presents a decidedly un-rosy view of Australia’s rosy ‘50s and ‘60s. This was a time when inclusion for people with disabilities was unheard of, when women’s rights were barely nascent, and when households, lungs and public places were full of carcinogenic tobacco smoke.

Galbally’s life includes leadership of the Myer Foundation, the Sidney Myer Fund, the Australian Commission for the Future, VicHealth, and Her achievements and contributions are sometimes so strategic as to be invisible to those who have not lived through the fights and struggles: promoting women’s rights; shifting the focus of community organisations from ‘charity’ to ‘change’; and recognising the rights of people with disabilities. Of course there is the exquisite irony too of using a tobacco tax to fund health promotion initiatives and undermining the tobacco companies’ ability to promote their products.

In Just Passions, Galbally shares some of her innermost thoughts and fears. Despite her public profile, she presents her life and achievements in very human form. In one paragraph we read of her public successes, in the next we read of her acute embarrassment at borrowing a bizarrely oversized jacket from Winsome McCaughey to wear to a job interview. We read of her tenacity in battling the tobacco lobby, then we read of the earth-opening mortification of accidentally overturning her wheelchair in Parliament House.

In addition to offering insights into how one person can achieve so much, Just Passions highlights the relationships between high-profile Australians. Galbally describes her professional and personal relationships with people such as Nugget Coombs, Phillip Adams, Barry Jones, the Myer family and many others. She describes how Jones would ‘bellow at the top of his voice like Thor raining thunderbolts’, and how Phillip Adams once called her ‘purring into the phone, seducing me as only he could’ to head up the Australian Commission for the Future.

More than just an autobiography, Just Passions is a personalised Lonely Planet guide for aspiring community leaders. Galbally takes her own passions and makes them politically and publicly persuasive. Yet she is never condescending or pitying, and she never portrays herself as heroic or as a dynamic leader: she is always merely part of a community of like-minded people working often disparately for a common cause.

Just Passions is not a linear book, and not always easy to read. Throughout, we are treated to a sense of Galbally’s restlessness: a feeling that getting comfortable in life must presage a new adventure. And yet as she moves into the present there appears a certain sense of resolution. Content with (for now), Galbally turns down high profile international positions in favour of the difference she is already making at a local level.

Just Passions offers a human perspective on how much an individual can achieve. This book is as complex, deep and inspiring as its author and her myriad of achievements. Readers are left with the hope that today’s aspiring activists and leaders might draw strength and motivation. Any individual who achieves half as much as Rhonda Galbally, will be deservedly proud.

Richard Dent is CEO of the E.W. Tipping Foundation,a disability and social justice organisation.

Just Passions: The personal is political, Rhonda Galbally. Pluto Press, 2004.
isbn 1 864 03296 0, rrp $29.95




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