Betty Johnson AO 1926 – 2018 – A battler for social justice who became a leader in health consumer activism

A spirited and courageous woman with immense capacities for love and empathy, Betty Johnson was an effective and passionate activist for social justice  in many spheres. Her indomitable, at times feisty, spirit was united with a compelling enthusiasm for life and all that it has to offer.

Betty Dorothy Johnson was born in Sydney on 21st July 1926 to Marjorie and Edward Fligg.  Her father died of TB when she was four years old.  She was very fortunate to have a younger sister by then, her much loved Patricia, Pat Collins.  Her mother remarried after several years and with this marriage Betty acquired another four siblings, including Audrey with whom she maintained a warm  friendship to the end.

Contracting TB of the hip at the age of 5, Betty was to spend a total of 8 years of her childhood in the Children’s Convalescent Hospital in Collaroy. Determined to prove the doctors who had told her that she would never walk again without assistance wrong, she practiced walking in the hospital when the lights were out and no one could see or stop her. This will power and resilience characterized how she faced challenges all through her life.

Educated in the school attached to the Collaroy hospital, she was taught the curriculum of the School of the Air correspondence course and did not complete formal schooling because of her lengthy stays in hospital.  At the age of 14 she was employed by what was then called the Crippled Children’s Society and received secretarial training.

By the mid 1940s Betty, looking for a systemic diagnosis and response to the devastation of the depression years and the horror of world war, joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). This experience was to provide her with some of the vital cultural education that she had been deprived of.  She met Brian Johnson at a Sydney Tech branch party meeting and they were married in September 1945. They both left the CPA in 1956 as part of the general despair at the Soviet Invasion of Hungary. Betty would never lose her passionate conviction that the world needed to be better and that ordinary people might begin to take their fate into their own hands if they worked together to change the contexts that they found themselves in.

While her three children were still young Betty was a full-time mother in a Sydney suburb. Perhaps this was an unlikely place to try and make changes and build activist communities, however, Betty mobilized neighbours and parents to volunteer in the school canteen and to organize the library at Denistone East Primary School and then later the library of Ryde High School.  She and Brian also led a campaign and funding initiatives, the community ‘bottle drives’ and school fetes, to build the swimming pool at Denistone East Primary School that remains a standout achievement in Sydney primary schools.

In the 1960s Betty began working as a secretary at the University of Sydney where she remained until her retirement in 1991.  While there, she became involved in the Health and Research Employees’ Association, the union that worked for the interests of the general staff.  She was elected by them to the Senate, the governing body of the University, and rapidly gained the admiration and great affection of the University executive, academic staff and general staff across the University.  She acquired a reputation as a brilliant negotiator in this context.  As colleague and long-term friend, Jan O’Reilly says of her, ‘it wasn’t so much about changing an opposing view but making them see that perhaps there could be another way. And she would do this with a strength of purpose but also with grace and goodwill.  And always with the aim of basically just trying to make things better for everyone.’

Betty was a member of the Senate from 1984 to 1991. In 1992 she was awarded an honorary Masters Degree in Industrial Relations by the University in recognition of her huge contribution.  A wonderful achievement for a woman who had never completed formal schooling.

Much to her chagrin, in 1991 Betty was obliged to retire at the then obigatory age of 65 but she never really retired moving almost immediately from paid work into a dedicated life of, mostly unpaid, voluntary work.   She became involved in the Older Women’s Network (OWN), one of its earliest members. She was President of both the NSW branch and OWN Australia at various times, continuing this high level of commitment up until 2016.  Much to her delight she attended meetings as a representative of older women at the Fourth World Conference in Beijing in 1995 and later at the UN in New York to report on this conference.

It was her work in OWN that led to her becoming increasingly involved in health consumer issues, advocating for the active involvement of health consumers in their own health care and for their involvement in research about their issues.  She was a member of the committees of both New South Wales and federally-based organizations with interests in safety and quality in health care, aged care, aboriginal rights and health care, and clinical governance.  She worked with several others to persuade the NSW Government to fund and establish a not-for-profit organization called Health Consumers NSW in 2010 and she co-chaired, with Sally Crossing, then chaired this body for a number of years, only stepping down in 2016.  She became widely known and respected as a leader in the area of health consumer activism in NSW and, more broadly, Australia.

From 2011 to 2016 Betty was a member of the Board of the Northern Sydney Local Health District appointed to that position by the then Minister of Health of NSW, Gillian Skinner. In the last ten or more years of all these activities, she was on about 20 committees at a time often going to three meetings a day, sometimes catching taxis between her home in Hunters Hill to Hornsby to the CBD all in the one day to attend. Nobody worked harder than Betty Johnson and. with a fine, practiced eye for the telling detail, she forensically trawled through the papers that would stake out the terrain upon which the battles she cared deeply about would be fought.

Betty was appointed an Officer of the General Division of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2000 ‘for service to the community as a consumer advocate in the areas of aged care and related health issues, to the Older Women’s Network (Australia) and to the Australian Pensioners’ and Superannuants’ Federation’. An honour of which she was immensely proud. She was also an Honorary Fellow of the College of Nursing and in 2017 she was made an Honorary Aboriginal Elder, a superb tribute announced by Associate Professor Peter Shine, Director of Aboriginal Health  of the Northern Sydney Local Health District, at a Consumer Forum held at the Royal North Shore Hospital to honour her and announce the inaugural Betty Johnson AO Award.

As well as her interests in OWN and various health policy organizations over the last 30 or so years, Betty still found time to pursue her passions for music, movies, her garden, and her house that she loved so much.  She was a long-term attendee at the Sydney Film Festival, starting in the second year of that festival when it was still located at the University of Sydney; her boss at the time, Henry Mayer, soon learnt that nothing would keep Betty from attending this festival, as did her family.  She also had annual subscriptions to the Australian Opera commencing in the 1980s and from the time of her retirement began attending the Tea and Symphony concerts of the Sydney Symphony orchestra.

In a very definite sense, the brilliant career of this self–fashioned woman came to a shocking termination in 2016 with the onset of vascular dementia. However, the quiet reflective times that her family was able to share with her when she moved into an aged care facility in late 2016 allowed them to fully appreciate the building blocks in Betty’s capacities and dispositions that had resourced her public successes. Her intellectual and analytic acuity survived well into the advancing dementia as did her enthusiasm for life and her will to live. She continued to enjoy, music, movies, talking politics and being with her family.

Betty Johnson leaves behind her children Lesley, Pauline and Terry, her sister Patricia and step-sister Audrey, her grand-daughter Harriet and their families, and the difference she made in the many spheres of her interest in and passion for social justice.