It's just one of those things LV makes happen

By Conal Thwaite

1 - Unnamed

John Milkins and Rich Gilmore, both WCLP '11 Alumni, were international observers of the elections in Timor-Leste last year. To John the excitement was palpable even in remote areas.

“Going down a bush track, down across a creek, and into this beautiful one way street that the whole village was built around, it was literally another world,” he said.

In the western corner of the country is the township of Balibo, in Bobonaro District near the Indonesian border.

“It felt particularly good to be able to be there and see that democracy occurring in Balibo, for me personally,” John said.

No place is more emblematic of the shared history of Australians and the people of Timor-Leste, than Balibo. For John the personal and political in this story, stretching across decades, could not be more entwined. 

In 2011 when John suggested Balibo House Trust as a project for a Williamson Community Leadership Program project group to work on, he opened the way for other LV Alumni to contribute to the story of Balibo and the relationship between Australia and Timor-Leste.

Each year as part of LV's Williamson program, participants are invited to volunteer twenty hours of their time towards a charitable project, working in small project groups to lend their workplace skills to a community initiative.

“That project group, including Rich, asked if the [Balibo House Trust] board needed assistance, and I saw it as a fantastic opportunity,” John said.

“We just needed assistance in some of the strategic nouse… some of the sorts of things that it was obvious to me that the project team and others in that year had.”

The challenge was taken up by Clare Amies of Worksafe Victoria, Stella Avramopoulos of Kildonan Uniting Care, Luba Grigorovitch of the Victorian Rail Tram and Bus Union, John Keating of AMP and Rich Gilmore, then of Earthwatch.

They developed a strategic fundraising and marketing report designed to assist the trust to make decisions about its fundraising objectives, and made recommendations such as clarifying the organisation's mission and aligning marketing material to be consistent with its goals.

Rich continued working with Balibo House Trust long after the project group delivered its report.

“The project group hasn’t just handed in the project and said good luck, every member of that team has continued to offer their support whenever the board needs it, and so have the other colleagues from the WCLP 2011 year, with the provision of advice, services, or in kind goods,” he said.

The report concluded that the trust was on the precipice of major change, that the opportunities that had presented themselves to the organisation were exciting, but implied a greater workload, and therefore suggested the appointment of a part-time Executive Officer.

John welcomed the opportunity to build the capacity and impact of the trust.

“It’s probably fair to say that the board and its purpose hadn’t changed necessarily, but it’s partnerships had over the ten years that it had been operating,” he said.

“It had some high level partnerships with World Vision Australia and World Vision Timor. It’s now working with a local NGO called Belun in Timor.”

The trust is also working on the restoration of a Portuguese era fort in Balibo to provide  environmentally responsible visitor accommodation, direct employment and stimulate further employment through tourism. Almost everything required will be sourced in the local community.

As an Environmental Sustainability Coordinator who works for Banyule City Council in Melbourne, John is keen to push the environmental credentials of such a development plan, being aware that Timor-Leste is one of the most oil-dependent nations in the world.

“Timor is very dependent on oil for the next few years, but they’re going to run out, and we want to boost other alternatives in the country, such as tourism,” he said.

“If we can provide an eco-tourism sort of model, that’s a good thing.”

Rich explains that the trust tends not to provide recurrent funding for projects, but rather seed capital that can lead to an ongoing social dividend to the community, looking to develop sustainable income and employment, high standards of early childhood education, and community wellbeing.

“The idea is that any kind of return the trust made out of it would be paid back to the community as a social dividend,” he said.

“If the trust is on its way to making itself redundant, that would be the best possible outcome.”

When the Executive Officer position was eventually advertised, Rich decided he wanted to stay involved.

“I didn’t hesitate to apply,” he said, pointing to the ongoing relationship he and other Alumni had established with the Balibo House Trust.

“It’s just one of those things LV makes happen.”

Since taking on the role of Executive Officer Rich has visited Timor-Leste and even rode the Tour de Timor in October, while for John the trust remains an important way of looking forward after having rediscovered the past. 

“It’s something about life, and light, and looking forward and trying to help a community that is a lot less well off than we are,” he said.

“I was trying to find out who I was as a young man... I think it’s not dissimilar to Australia’s journey to maturity. If a nation is going to be truly mature it needs to accept its past, it needs to acknowledge that, and then it can move forward.”

At the international level the official story of the Balibo Five remains that the journalists were killed by crossfire between opposing armed forces.

“Until the acknowledgement occurs at the national and international level about what happened in the Balibo case, I think it’s a running sore that will always be a problem between Australia, Indonesia and East Timor,” John said.

“I’d like to see that healed, because I think we’ve got important things to do in the future.”

John's connection with Balibo

John’s connection with Balibo started many years prior when he discovered his familial link to one of the five Australian-press journalists who died there in 1975.

Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters, and Malcolm Rennie were killed by Indonesian Special Forces prior to the invasion of then Portuguese Timor (now Timor-Leste), according to a coronial inquest held in Sydney in 2007.

The coroner found that a sixth journalist, Roger East, was murdered in Dili two months later after travelling to Timor to investigate the deaths.

The five journalists' last place of refuge was a house in Balibo.

Today, Australia Flag House takes its name from the flag Greg Shackleton painted on the wall of the house in an attempt to protect the group as Indonesian forces advanced.

Some 20 years later, John studied the incident in a politics class at university. Several weeks later John, who was adopted as a baby, met his birth-mother Heather Norman for the first time.

She told him that his biological father was Gary Cunningham, a young cameraman who worked for Channel Seven who had died at Balibo.  John’s story of self-discovery was chronicled on Australian Story in 2009.

Like many of the relatives of the Balibo Five, uncovering the truth and remembering their legacy became lifelong passions for John.

Assisting the people of Timor-Leste was one way of securing that legacy, and Balibo House Trust is the organisation through which many relatives of the journalists pursue this goal.

The trust was established in 2002 with grants from the Victorian government and Australian television stations Seven and Nine, principally to restore and conserve Australia Flag House, but also to assist in creating a positive relationship between Timor-Leste and Australia.

Today the house contains a Community Learning Centre that has provided training in woodworking, sewing, mechanical and computer skills, and English lessons.

A few hundred yards from the house is a kindergarten also supported by the trust, which employs two assistants teaching 62 children in 2012, up from 43 the previous year, after a $35,000 refurbishment with the assistance of donations from Melbourne Rotary groups, kindergartens and private individuals.

It was this community involvement that attracted Rich Gilmore to the group.

“The fact that they’re able to not only honor that memory, but to be forward looking and thinking about reducing poverty and disadvantage for the people of Balibo, was just a really great balance, and a really inspiring thing to do,” he said.

If you would like to learn more about the work of Balibo House Trust, please email Rich Gilmore at

Photos courtesy of the Balibo Trust website and show the people involved in the project.