This is a guest post by Brenda L. Croft.
Helen Ester (Cunningham) was born in Sydney during the final year of the World War II to Dr William Davies Cunningham and Ella Margaret Lindsay Cunningham (née Hudson). Helen’s early life was spent in the privileged environs of Sydney’s Eastern suburbs, in Woollahra and Bronte.
Educated at Ascham in Edgecliff and at Frensham in the Southern Highlands, Helen described herself as always feeling somewhat of an outsider. Disinterested in climbing the establishment ladder, a requisite for many of her fellow students, she left before receiving her Leaving Certificate matriculation.
Like many young women, Helen trained as a typist but found the work stultifying. Enrolled in a writing and journalism correspondence course her first article – on scuba-diving with sharks – was published in Walkabout, an illustrated magazine covering cultural, geographic and scientific topics, with contributions by some of Australia’s best known authors and photographers of the day. Her chosen topic could be viewed as a prescient metaphor for her later stint with the Federal Press Gallery in Canberra.
She moved to Canberra in the mid 1960s where she got typing work in the Department of Zoology at the Australian National University. Wanting to study English Literature, Helen enrolled part-time in 1st year English as a non-degree student, the only option since she had not gained her Leaving Certificate.
Determined to study full-time Helen completed ‘provisional’ matriculation through night classes at Canberra High School and enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts at the ANU in 1966, graduating in 1973.
This was a period of great personal and professional change – Helen met her future husband Michael Shepherd, they married in 1967, becoming mother to Ella in 1969 and Niki in 1971. As little more than a year separated the girls Helen had to set aside study and work for a time.
Never prepared to be idle, Helen did part-time volunteer work with Labor MP for Canberra, Keppel Earl ‘Kep’ Enderby – later Minister for Territories and Attorney-General – just prior to the Whitlam Government’s euphoric rise to power in 1972. Of this time Helen stated:
… it was a highly charged time. I had a stint as editor of the ANU newspaper, Woroni, and we covered issues such as Aboriginal Land Rights, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, young men dodging the draft for Vietnam, Women’s Liberation … Whitlam promis[ing] that Australia would give full independence to Papua New Guinea … pull troops out of Vietnam and introduce Land Rights laws … a radical reaction against 23 years of conservative government … I got involved in these issues and also joined Women’s Liberation … [then] I decided I wanted to work as a journalist … rather than work for a minister.’
A highly active member of the women’s movement Helen was a founding member of Women’s Electoral Lobby in 1972. That same year she made a brief appearance in ‘Ningla A-Na’, a film directed and produced by Alessandro Cavadini documenting events surrounding the establishment of the Aboriginal tent embassy on the lawns of Parliament House.
In a scene where Indigenous women activists are engaged in heated discussion with white feminists, Helen’s composure contrasts with some of her posturing non-Indigenous colleagues. This was classic Helen – remaining independent whether stating her position or querying a decision, never one for affectation.
By the time Helen started work at the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery 1976 her marriage had ended. Rather than revert to Cunningham, she changed her surname to Ester as a nod to a respected maternal great-aunt. The Press Gallery was a male-dominated bastion and she was among a small number of women journalists.
Effectively a single mother every second week, she initially worked from home. Helen established and edited Monitor, an NGO newsletter highlighting issues on health, welfare, women and Indigenous issues, generating much needed income from subscriptions.
Monitor’s profile enabled Helen to apply for a Press Gallery desk and she shared office space with renowned journalist and commentator Mungo MacCallum, who became a lifelong friend. She remained with the Press Gallery until 1982, working tirelessly on inter-connected social justice issues, travelling extensively as the Canberra correspondent for Nation Review and the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Her work involved being one of the first women journalists to interview PLO Leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza. For the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1979/80 she travelled to Cambodia (then Kampuchea) interviewing displaced people in refugee camps along the Thai/Cambodia border area, a result of the war in Vietnam.
Helen’s reportage of the escalating human rights violations in Cambodia/Kampuchea and the fall-out from the war in Vietnam offended the Chinese government, which successfully lobbied for her removal from the Press Gallery as Canberra correspondent.
Unable to secure work in Canberra, Helen returned to Sydney in 1983, working with the Peace and Disarmament movement, while completing a Diploma of Education at the University of Sydney.
From 1984 – 88 Helen worked as media officer for the Central Land Council in Alice Springs, hired for her expertise and knowledge of Canberra politics and the Press Gallery. Her role involved co-editing Land Rights News, covering land rights in central Australia for national distribution, supplementing work by journalists at the Northern Land Council in Darwin for Top End Aboriginal communities.
A secondment with Imparja TV/CAAMA TV Productions enabled Helen to providing journalism training for Indigenous staff, a job she loved.
In August ‘88, Helen’s mother became seriously ill while overseas with her sister’s family in Europe. CAAMA colleagues put the hat around to raise funds for Helen to travel to her mother’s side in hospital – she never forgot that support and generosity.
Returning from Europe she resigned from CLC and CAAMA to organise her mother’s expected return to Sydney. Her mother’s unexpected death overseas left Helen to look for work once again while grappling with her grief.
In early 1989 Cyndia Roberts, Producer for ‘First in line’, a new Indigenous magazine program at SBS-TV, contracted Helen as a media trainer for Indigenous reporters and researchers. Helen’s official role was to mentor and train Christine Christophersen, a young Iwadja activist and reporter.
As ever with Helen, she generously assisted and mentored others, including this writer, and we remained firm friends. Helen was selfless in her friendships and professional support, never seeking credit for herself. She was innately loyal to her friends and in turn, this engendered reciprocal allegiance.
After SBS, from 1990 – 97 Helen worked in diverse roles including a return stint as CLC Media Officer, and the NSW CFMEU Construction Division, and for the Member for Wollongong. Project Officer with the NSW Department for Women and Rural Women’s Network she lectured in journalism at UTS. Helen also completed a Masters of Arts at the University of Wollongong (1995).
A decade’s contract as Senior Lecturer at Central Queensland University (1998 – 2007) provided professional security if not personal satisfaction. Always multi-tasking Helen commenced her PhD at Griffith University in Politics and Public Policy in 2007, awarded in 2009. Her thesis, ‘Fault lines in the Federal Fourth Estate’, revealed the machinations of the Federal Press Gallery. Expanding on her MA thesis it earned the ire of some former colleagues while gaining critical peer approval.
While a Visiting Fellow in the School of Politics at the ANU in 2010, Helen also did volunteer research on new media, social networking, and representation and governance issues for ACT Senator Kate Lundy’s office. The isolation of Canberra prompted Helen’s move to Byron Bay in 2011 – 12, where she fulfilled diverse roles: casual journalism tutor at Southern Cross University, casual IELTS (International English Language Testing System) examiner, and volunteer media liaison/grant writer for Byron Bay Community Association, securing $.25m for projects.
In early 2013 Helen experienced breathlessness, finally stopped smoking, but the damage was done. After returning to live in Sydney she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given six months. Determined to be around for her grandchildren Helen commenced intensive medical treatment, in conjunction with traditional ‘bush’ medicine.
Although the treatment was debilitating and Helen resented the resulting enervation and boredom, true to form she continued with casual IELTS examination work for the University of Cambridge, IDP Education Australia and the British Council.
Helen always believed in contributing to her community; continuing with volunteer work in between treatment, grant writing for community organisations The Newtown Neighbourhood Centre, Search Foundation, Windgap Foundation and the Climate Institute, among others. Always the journalist, Helen also sub-edited and contributed to Eastern Suburbs community newsletter, The Eastsider.
Helen led by example, her belief in social justice and equal rights for all people never wavering while she kept kicking against the pricks to the very end. Her affiliations were with those consigned to the margins: working-class men and women, immigrants and refugees, and especially Indigenous peoples, who she considered her greatest educators and mentors.
We shall miss her twinkling eyes, ready laugh, piercing intellect and gigantic, generous spirit. Small of stature, huge of heart, her spirit is soaring with all those fighters she worked with, supported and championed. We champion you now, Vale Helen.
Helen is survived by her siblings Margaret Vischer, William Cunningham and Andrew Cunningham, and her beloved daughters, Ella and Niki, and beloved grandchildren Kaia, Javahn, Selena and Alanah.
Brenda L Croft, 2015