‘Rolled gold genius’ Ian Anderson wins top gong


Ian Anderson takes every step with grace. His aura of quiet authority and perspicacity is palpable, and his power lies in being able to tacitly lay down the rules of engagement. By his mere presence, Anderson, who was this week awarded an Order of Australia, demands a corresponding adherence to consideration of the matter at hand.

Although most Australians have never heard of him, he has, in his characteristically understated way, moved mountains.

Operating at the coalface in one of the most fraught and complex areas of public discourse playing out on the Australian landscape, Anderson has moved inexorably through a stellar career, first as a medical doctor and on to the highest levels of university administration. In the process, he’s helped change the way health, services and education are delivered to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In February Ian Anderson was seconded to the Prime Minister’s department to conduct a root and branch review of the government’s ‘Close the Gap’ strategy; to reframe a program that, since its introduction by Tom Calma in 2005, has failed to achieve its aim of reducing disadvantage among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on a wide range of measures.

But facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles is nothing new to Anderson. He’s done this, and successfully, many times in the course of his working life.

Moving with the poise of a dancer, head held high, midriff leading, feet stylishly clad and pointing outwards, Ian Anderson is something of an enigma. Even for those who’ve known and worked with him, Anderson’s unusual approach continues to intrigue, beguile and amaze, perhaps because of its very effectiveness, or perhaps because his influence barely makes a sound, hardly causes a ripple.

Anderson is not like contemporary Indigenous leaders and commentators who operate on the public stage. We’ve heard of them, read their views, know where they stand, what they’ve achieved, are trying to and plan to achieve. Theirs is also an admirable and effective way, but it’s not his.

Marcia Langton reckons one reason for the difference in Anderson’s approach is that he committed to studying medicine straight from school.

“He’s never been a protester, never been oppositional, and therefore doesn’t fit the white trope of the angry Aboriginal,” she says.

Mick Gooda admires and delights in his quiet humility, saying: “The beauty of Ian is that he doesn’t seek recognition for what he does.

“He can glide into a room and, by sheer intellect, take over the room and the conversation. He doesn’t need to talk over the throng to be heard. That’s the other beauty of him.”

The odyssey starts in rural north-west Tasmania and culminates – for now – in Professor Anderson’s secondment to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet from his role as a Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Melbourne.

Anderson’s Aboriginal family is Palawa Trowunna, with kin ties to the north-east clans of Tasmania such as Trawlwoolway, Plairmairrenner and Pairebenne, whose coastal country is known as Trebacanna or Lurupana. Such a classification is something most Australians, ironically, find totally foreign.

His mother can trace her Tasmanian Aboriginal family on her father’s side back to Dolly Briggs in Tasmania from one grandfather, and from the other to George Smith in Wellington New South Wales. On her mother’s, the bloodlines are English and Scottish.

It is in the language of his Aboriginal ancestors that Ian Anderson softly introduces each public appearance. You can hear a pin drop as the audience leans forward to catch the words he’s learnt from members of his family and others who’ve been painstakingly reclaiming their language by trawling historical records and oral histories.

“I think it’s important to cultural pride to reclaim language, and an important part of cultural development,” he says. “It seemed a natural thing to do.”

Anderson’s birth near Devonport in the north-west of Tasmania preceded the 1967 referendum by two years. The first-born child of Sandra Smith (née Anderson), he describes his position at the head of the family as the first of a litter, pushed out in quick succession over a contracted period. Five children, six years, seven moves. Following in his father Glen’s wake, he pursued work and an ultimately unachievable dream of owning a farm of his own – from Devonport to Aberdeen, to Kimberley, back to Aberdeen and on to East Devonport before heading to NSW and Victoria and settling in Bendigo.

The Smith children – three brothers and two sisters – grew up knowing about their Aboriginal heritage. Their mother was emphatic about the importance of imparting this knowledge from an early age, and from her lips. Sandra Smith reckons that in those days Tasmanians were more concerned about denying links to a convict past, saying that “that was the thing you didn’t want to admit to”.

Sandra Smith characterised her eldest son as “very sensitive, bright, but not brilliant”. She must be a hard taskmaster because the people he’s worked for and with over the years see it differently. Marcia Langton is unequivocal, deeming him “just a genius”, a “brilliant strategic thinker”. Mick Gooda concurs. “I say that too, I agree with Marcia, Ian’s a rolled gold genius.”

Looking inside and beyond the realm of Indigenous affairs, University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis says that “even more than that, the way he’s been able to bring his experience working in public health into conversations about what a university could usefully do…allows us to frame programs for Indigenous students that are meaningful because they’re being framed by somebody with an acute understanding of what will work and not work, and why.”

Rather than his intellect, Sandra Smith nominates her eldest son’s “very strong determination” as his defining characteristic. She believes it’s something that’s come through the family from ancestor and “great political man, Mannalargenna, who managed negotiations with the sealers and whalers”. And it is this determination she nominates as the impetus for what he’s done and what he’s been able to achieve from a young age.

From Tasmania, the Smith family moved to the mainland, again chasing work and landing in Urana in outback New South Wales where Glen Smith combined farm labouring with share cropping – a relatively good option, job-wise, for someone who hankered to be a farmer but simply didn’t have the wherewithal to realise his ambition. The family took up residence in what had been the servants’ quarters in a separate wing of a farmer’s homestead. The servants were long gone but Sandra Smith took in the farmer’s washing and ironing, which she did in the old laundry at the far end of their wing.

Anderson thinks limited educational opportunities prompted the next set of moves and schools – another four in fact – before striking gold at Bendigo Senior Secondary College with its high-quality teaching, large range of subjects and an environment that encouraged learning and spawned academic success for those so motivated.

Motivated Anderson was, and, as his mother says, determined. Against a tide of fluctuating levels of disadvantage and distress: crushing loneliness throughout his years of schooling, intermittent bullying, paucity of reading material, domestic disruption, regular moves from house to house, town to town, periods of not having enough food to put on the table.

During the lead-up to Year 12 exams, Ian Anderson faced hardship that would have put paid to most students’ aspirations and hopes of success. At this crucial stage, prompted by what he remembers as the “deep concern of government agencies” and threats that some of the younger children would be taken away, Sandra Smith and the five children finally left Glen – and some essential household items like the refrigerator – behind. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the “Dodgy Brothers” removal van upended on the rough country road, disgorging half the belongings the family had managed to take with them. But still Anderson prevailed, got through swot vac, assumed his share of the care of the younger ones, and not only passed Year 12, but achieved the marks that gave him entry to the University of Melbourne to study medicine. No mean feat in any circumstance.

At university, Anderson started clocking up a number of firsts and with them, a succession of important achievements. In 1988, while still only a fifth-year med student, he wrote his first book. Koorie Health in Koorie Hands is subtitled An orientation manual in Aboriginal health for health-care providers. At the time not only had Australian medical students, for the most part, never met an Aboriginal person, Indigenous health issues were only allocated a couple of hours in an entire six-year university course. Written from the perspective of a Koorie medical student, even at this young age, Anderson assumed – unstintingly – the social responsibility he knew to be his.

Riding out the tough times in that long and gruelling degree and graduating at the end of six years as the University of Melbourne’s first Indigenous medical graduate, Ian Anderson sometimes felt lonely, sometimes terrified, sometimes unsure about his decision.

And there were also times when he felt guilty for not being able to survive off the proceeds of a study grant supplemented by part-time bar jobs, and had to seek assistance from his grandmother and his mother – who was supporting the younger five siblings and trying to live off welfare herself while she completed a social science degree with majors in psychology and sociology.

The list of achievements bearing the stamp of Anderson’s characteristic tact, diplomacy and the iron will that characterises his leadership is too long to enumerate here.

Worthy of reference, though, is the fact that by 2011 Indigenous first-year enrolments in medicine reached general population parity in Australia. LIME, the internationally award-winning network of medical schools in Australia and New Zealand for Indigenous medical education was established. A national agreement for the first Indigenous sexual health strategy was reached in 1997. And in 2016 a philanthropic gift of $US50 million has been donated to support a 20-year leadership program in Australia for midcareer change agents.

Last year the prestigious medical journal The Lancet commissioned Anderson to lead the first-ever comprehensive global survey of Indigenous health.

And when it came to the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, Mick Gooda says his first step was to give Anderson a call.

“He’s busy, but he was able to give us an hour and a bit, listen to the lawyers, the CEO, the community members, and then to us two commissioners … he understood immediately. Within days he came back with a methodology we could work with.”

Wotjobaluk man, Kevin Coombs, Anderson’s first boss and one of the elders he regularly turns to for advice, sums it up: “Ian can be very proud of where he is today. He’s toughed it out and he’s done it well. And as far as I’m concerned, he’s one of our out-and-out leaders in Australia today.”

And, he adds, “he hasn’t finished yet – not by a long shot.”

With his work on Closing the Gap being rolled out across the national arena over the next two years, we’ll have a chance to see how a quiet voice can rise up and be heard over the often less informed noise of policy punditry.


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