John Aquilina, Politician and Protector

The Hon. John Aquilina, MP


Alderman Blacktown Municipal Council (1977-79); City Council (1979-83); Mayor of Blacktown (1977-81); NSW Member of Parliament (1981-2011), Minister for Natural Resources (1986), Minister for Youth and Community Services (1986-1988), Minister for Youth (1995-1999); Minister for Education and Training (1995-2001); Minister for Fair Trading & Land and Water Conservation (2001-2003); Speaker of the NSW Legislative Assembly (2003-2007); Leader of the House (2007-2011)

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Born in Malta in 1950, John Aquilina grew up in Leichhardt and Blacktown on stories of wartime penury and the values of education. His mother was illiterate, and his father a self-taught Mintoffist unionist, ‘intensely proud’ of the history of their rocky little island. Catholic schooling gave him professional aspiration and an acceptance of divine providence, which would guide him, and 'ease my sorrow during a dark period in my life' when his first wife died. For years, he caught the train from Blacktown to school in Lewisham ‘with patched trousers, and a patched jacket. The Globite bag I had was repaired by my father many times over.’  The combination of a sense of obligation to the parents who had sacrificed so much to give their sons an opportunity, and their work ethic, pushed him to work hard for academic success. While many of his classmates aspired to go into law or medicine, Aquilina's love of history and the arts, and his family's lack of means, led him to accept a teacher’s scholarship to the University of Sydney. University allowed him to integrate his love of history and English with studies in politics: he joined the Labor Party (Blacktown branch) and completed three units in government. It had not been a major step for him to choose the University of Sydney: he had been catching the train for education for most of his high school years. There, his sense of ‘cultural isolation’, however, increased.

When I went to University, I found that I was the only one in any of the tutorials that I had who was from Western Sydney. There were three of us who used to travel in from Western Sydney, one was doing engineering, one was doing law, and I was doing Arts for an education course. So we never got to see each other during the day much, unless we made an arrangement to have lunch together outside the Fisher Library. There was no one I could relate to on the local scene, whereas everybody else seemed to know everyone, because they had school friends. The other thing is because all my friends from school ended up doing medicine, law or engineering, nobody else did arts and went into the education field. I found University life very lonely. In fact, from a psychological perspective, I struggled quite a lot at university because of that. That was another thing that spurred me on to have a university in the West. Not only were there limited horizons, limited opportunities, and limited expectations, for young kids graduating from schools at worst, but even if they did make it to university, they were isolated. There was this social isolation, but also there was this cultural isolation as well: in the sense that I didn’t feel that I had much of an affinity with young people who came from the eastern suburbs, or the northern suburbs. As a result, I never joined in very much with university social life, and I found it a lonely experience. Later on in life, I said to myself I don’t want others to have to continue to experience that. There was this cultural divide, as many of us who grew up in the West understand only too well… Added to that was the ethnic element as well. I was desperate to prove myself — insanely ambitious. It just kept driving me and driving me. It probably still does. (Interview, John Aquilina, 9.2.11, UWS Archives.)

On completing university in 1971, and taking a Diploma in Education, Aquilina was placed in the country for two years before returning to teach history as one of the foundation staff at the new Shalvey High School (opened 1974; buildings opened 1975) in Mount Druitt. 25 or so demountable classrooms had been prepared on the perimeter of Mount Druitt High School while the construction works on Shalvey were completed. He would remain fascinated by the history that he taught, and conscious of the historical context in which he acted for his whole life. ‘That started it all over again for me.’ Despite having a significant number of very capable students, the ‘cultural isolation’ and life chances in the West weighed against academic success: 'the concept of going to university for those kids out of Mount Druitt, and later in Blacktown, just wasn’t there… There was no expectation, no ambition to go to a university, because it was just totally off their radar. (Interview, John Aquilina, 9.2.11, UWS Archives.)

After four years at Shalvey, he transferred to Mitchell High School in Blacktown. In the interim, his observations as to the lack of resources led him to work with visiting American and Canadian teachers (invited by the New South Wales government in a period of insufficient teacher supply) to set up after-school clubs for sports, chess, homework and other pastimes which would keep school children from wandering the streets while their parents were at work. Not yet married, and with time on his hands, he began agitating with Blacktown Council for facilities for the after-school and school programs. At the 1977 Council elections he was elected as an Alderman, and at the age of 27 became mayor of Blacktown. As mayor of Blacktown, he gained considerable press attention, particularly due to his involvement in the campaign against a second airport being located in Western Sydney. He used his attention to draw a broader focus on the issues of the West, including the lack of educational opportunity.

The fact that the universities in New South Wales were predominantly in Liberal areas or associated with Liberal districts really grated with Labor Party people. It meant that the sons and daughters of working class families didn’t have the same opportunities as the sons and daughters of established professionals, or people who lived in Liberal areas. (Interview, John Aquilina, 9.2.11, UWS Archives.)

During his term, Aquilina led the successful campaign for Blacktown to be declared a city in its own right. There were those (and Aquilina was not among them) who considered that a “city” was – as in the European tradition — defined by the presence of a university and a cathedral. The declaration of Blacktown as a City in 1979 (at which point Aquilina became the first in his position to carry the title “Lord Mayor”) increased the pressure in the new cities (such as Penrith and Parramatta) for the establishment of a university in the West.

In 1979, his local profile, his involvement in the Ethnic Affairs Commission and the support of John Armitage made him a natural candidate for state parliament. In the elections of June 1980, he campaigned on “quadruplicating the Western Sydney railway line and on bringing more beds to the west, including the rebuilding and extension of Blacktown Hospital and the building of Mount Druitt Hospital” (Aquilina, Valedictory Speech to NSW Parliament, 3 Dec 2010). He would be returned eight times as member for Blacktown, and then for Riverstone, serving in Parliament for 30 years.

When Neville Wran resigned in 1986, Aquilina had just been made Minister for Natural Resources. It was the last time he would sit on the back bench – he and Ken Gabb replacing “two Labor legends, the Hon. Eric Bedford and the Hon. Kevin Stewart”. In the Unsworth Government, he was made Minister for Youth and Community Services. After the fall of the Unsworth government, Aquilina became Shadow Minister for Education (1995-1999), and later Minister for Education and Training (1995-1999) in the Carr State Labor Government (1995-2005), a space of 14 years. From 2003-2007 he was Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, and after that Labor Leader in the House and Parliamentary Secretary, assisting the Premier. Aquilina became Leader of the Labor Party in the House, and Shadow Minister for Education, after the widespread Labor defeats of 1988. The sharp tongue of John Books, Liberal member for Parramatta, distinguished him from his unrelated namesake by referring to Eagle 1 (Tony Aquilina, Member for Mulgoa) and Eagle 2 (John Aquilina, Blacktown). His achievements were substantial. He made one of the original Aboriginal land grants at Letitia Spit many years before the famous Mabo case. He reformed the Department of Youth and Community Services, in 1987 rewriting all the legislation and so substantially replacing the Child Welfare Act 1939. This included the introduction of the first Adoptions Register, the new Higher School Certificate, action on youth literacy (e.g. through the Reading Recovery Program), and the deinstitutionalisation and mainstreaming of children with physical and mental disabilities. The latter entailed the closure of the Werrington Child Welfare facility, leading to its availability for use as the headquarters campus for the future University of Western Sydney. As Speaker of the House, he introduced the acknowledgement of country at the start of each day’s session.

Aquilina would remain an important element through UWS’s early years. Graham Swain remembers him (counter to his own memory that he had always thought for a University for the whole of the western suburbs) as a local Lord Mayor agitating for a University for Blacktown. ’I can remember getting John out to Hawkesbury very early in the 1980s, and saying: ”John, you’ve got one, it’s here, it’s Hawkesbury”’. He was not going to be convinced — Richmond was not Blacktown!’ Nor, when the Greiner government began to change the nomenclature and design of the University, did Aquilina give in to local interests even when they were in his own electorate. He dismissed proposals by Blacktown City Council to relocate the University to Doonside because reopening the proposal for review threatened to abort the opportunity for a University of Western Sydney at all. (SMH April 27, 1988.) He was in a key position to help, however, when the Navy's HMS Nirimba site became available, finally giving Blacktown its own campus. The connection between the two remained a strong one, and very helpful as the groundswell for a university grew and Aquilina became a key member of state government.

When, in 1995, it looked like the fragile federation which had been established under the first University of Western Sydney Act (1988) was likely to come apart, the University’s first Chancellor (Sir Ian Turbott) turned to Aquilina in order to counterbalance the political influence of several campus heads who were seeking to elevate their campuses into full universities, at least one with the support of other ALP members. Aquilina always had a strong conviction that the University was for all of Western Sydney, and just as he opposed the local interests who sought to monopolise the University for one of the Western Sydney centres (including his own, Blacktown), he also opposed the dismembering of the University. This led, successfully, to the passing of The University of Western Sydney Act, 1997 on 26 November 1997. With the emergence of the University of Western Sydney as a large, full spectrum University with special access schemes for those living in the West, Aquilina’s dream of providing equity of higher education access for the culturally and geographically marginalised suburbs was realised.

John Aquilina stepped out of public life prior to the NSW State elections of March 2011. He remained in the memory of the University’s leadership as one its strongest, most consistent supporters, both in parliament and in the community.