Deirdre Mason dies - 8 October 2017

DEIRDRE MASON OBITUARY 

(16 March 1946 – 8 October 2017) 

On March 10, 2017 sisters Deirdre and Chloë Mason from Sydney participated in a vigil outside London’s Royal Courts of Justice, seeking justice for their great-grandmother. 

Despite her failing health, Deirdre Mason had flown from the other side of the world to join her sister Chloë seeking exoneration for their great grandmother, Alice Wheeldon, who was jailed with their grandparents, in 1917, for allegedly conspiring to poison British Prime Minister Lloyd George. 

The campaign to overturn this miscarriage of justice was the culmination of a lifetime of activism for Deirdre, but she unfortunately did not live long enough to see the mission through. 

The English-born Deirdre passed away in a Sydney hospice on October 8, with her brother Paul, and sister Chloë near, and as she held the hand of her wife Jenni Neary. 

The outpouring of grief for Deirdre – a trailblazer in telecommunications, a corporate mentor to many, and an anti-apartheid and gay and lesbian rights activist - was immediate and profound. 

Jenni – who had married her partner of 30 years just a few weeks earlier in their inner-Sydney home in a simple service officiated by the British Pro Consul – told friends that the “bastard cancer” had finally won. 

For the past ten years, Deirdre had been battling Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but not once had she given up on the rich life she’d enjoyed since being born on March 16, 1946 in the English county of Essex. 

At the age of fifteen, her father Peter took up a fellowship with CSIRO and the family moved to Australia where they were met off the ship by his new boss Victor Burgmann and the Burgmann family. So began a lifetime friendship with sisters, Beverley and Meredith.  

A decade later, the Burgmann sisters gained notoriety when they jumped the fence at the Sydney Cricket Ground during the 1971 rugby test between the Wallabies and Springboks. 

Meredith Burgmann, who was President of the NSW Legislative Council for eight years and spent a total of 16 years as a Labor representative, recalls Deirdre, with her Quaker background, was totally opposed to the Vietnam War “but there was nothing meek about her pacifism”. “Deirdre was a good humoured and entertaining force of nature. She took no prisoners. She even got involved in direct action militancy and obstructionist tactics and loved doing ‘post-ups’ and late night graffiti raids.” 

Deirdre’s natural enthusiasm meant that her involvement in demonstrations was always inventive and often very effective, including one celebrated incident. 

“Who can forget her intervention during the tour of an all-white South African women's netball team in 1970” Burgmann recalls. 

“She disguised herself as a lady netballer and almost made it onto the court. Who knows what she would have done if she'd got there.” 

A larger-than-life-size photo of this one-person protest, showing a fiercely determined Deirdre attempting to break through a police cordon, was displayed last year in Johannesburg's famous Constitution Court Museum as part of an exhibition Memories of the Struggle: Australians against Apartheid. 

Majoring in History and French from Sydney University, Deirdre began a teaching career, firstly in Sydney before making the trek to Canberra in 1973 to help establish School Without Walls, a public alternative school that operated until 1997. 

The move to the national capital allowed Deirdre to rekindle friendships with a number of the rising stars of Australia’s foreign affairs cohort including recently-retired career diplomat and former High Commissioner to Britain, John Dauth. 

Now retired and living in London, John recalls a 50-year relationship with Deirdre “characterised by constant acts of friendship which bookended our time and indeed were its defining feature”. 

Dauth recalls meeting Deirdre for the first time in the History Department of Sydney University where “Deirdre was a much cooler and cleverer participant in a remarkable group than me”.

“When I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in 1969 she drove with me to Canberra in my new VW and taught me how to turn the headlights on as dusk fell along Lake George. Always smart, always practical. And there was no guffawing at my expense,” John says. 

“And we saw a lot of each other in Canberra over the next few years, she teaching at the wonderful School Without Walls and hanging around periodically with that remarkable group of foreign-service officers, the class of ‘69.” 

“Ironically Deirdre teamed up with Jenni, who I went to school with from the age of 12. They were both my loving and powerful friends over all these years.” Moving to Melbourne several years later, Deirdre joined the Australian Labor Party and was elected to the Fitzroy Council, taking up causes such as the independence of East Timor as well as independence for the Kanaks in New Caledonia. 

After starting work in the Victorian Premier’s Department, Deirdre was appointed Women’s Advisor to Labor Premier John Cain, a position that put her in touch with other up-and-coming female leaders including Ann Sherry who recalls late-night sessions putting together women’s policy initiatives to be fed into the Victorian budgetary process. 

“She had such a knack of identifying issues, finding a solution and getting it sold into cabinet and funded,” recalls Ann, who is the Executive Chairman of Carnival Australia and one of Australia’s leading female business leaders. The two women were driven by a shared commitment to improve a range of policy areas in women’s health, including the introduction of neighbourhood centres and rural women’s programs. 

“Deirdre had a passion to drive change, was vigilant and was persuasive,” Ann says. “She was a community activist, cared about her environment and was vocal when she saw issues that needed sorting out.” There was no issue she was louder in speaking out against than apartheid in South Africa and in late 1990 she met Nelson Mandela during his visit to Melbourne and just months after his release from prison. Deirdre shook the great man’s hand as she told Mandela that her family had gone without oranges for many years while living in England because the oranges were imported from South Africa. This was one family’s small but effective means of protesting apartheid and supporting the campaign to Free Mandela.  

A trailblazer in the telecommunications industry, Deirdre first began work for Telstra – or Telecom as it was then known – in 1990 and later became the first woman to serve on the Telstra Executive Team. As Director of Corporate Affairs, she worked closely with Frank Blount, the smooth-talking southern American headhunted to drive change at the national carrier ahead of the introduction of competition in the telecommunications arena. 

Former Federal Minister for Communications and the Arts Michael Lee recalls “fond memories of working with Deirdre and Frank Blount on the introduction of competition” in the mid-1990s. 

She left Telstra in 1999 after falling out with the direction of the then Howard Government and its combative Communications Minister Richard Alston, only to be appointed as Chief Executive of the Committee for Sydney. 

In 2007 – the same year that Kevin Rudd and his Labor paratroopers stormed into office – Deirdre was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She started treatment with chemotherapy even as she worked on the campaign for former television journalist Maxine McKew, who became Labor’s famed giant-slayer when she defeated Prime Minister John Howard in his previously impregnable seat of Bennelong. 

A year later, Deirdre was diagnosed with another cancer, non Hodgkin’s lymphoma. What followed was another nine years of treatment including the usage, at times, of experimental medicines. 

But despite the constant treatment Deirdre continued to work – including as independent Chair of the industry body Communications Compliance - and to travel the globe with her beloved Jenni. And all the while, Deirdre Mason never gave up agitating and mentoring and talking up the importance of education for girls and entertaining, right up to the moment the bastard cancer finally took its toll, in early October, in a small room in a Sydney hospice, a sad end to a life lived to the full. 

Steve Lewis and Jenni Neary