Foundation of the Refugee Council of Australia

The foundation meeting of the Refugee Council of Australia was held on 19 November 1981 in the boardroom of the Australian Council of Churches, 199 Clarence Street, Sydney. The meeting was called by Major General Paul Cullen, the president of Austcare, who informed the six others present that he had been instructed by the Executive Committee of Austcare to convene a foundation meeting of the Council. Those present discussed and modified the Interim Constitution and elected office bearers:

  • President – Major General Paul Cullen (representing the Federation of Australian Jewish Welfare Societies);
  • Chairman – Rev Martin Chittleborough (Australian Council of Churches)
  • Vice Chairman – Rex Hubbard (Save the Children Fund)
  • Secretary/Treasurer – Michael Carroll (Austcare)
  • Executive members – Roger Walker (World Vision), Sid Bartsch (Lutheran World Federation) and Ted Bacon (St Vincent de Paul Society)

The following afternoon, 20 November 1981, a public meeting of the Council was held in the boardroom of the Local Government Association, 215 Clarence Street, Sydney. With 41 people present, Major General Cullen outlined the background to the Council’s formation and presented the Constitution for adoption. Regional Representative of UNHCR, Dr Hugo Idoyaga, was on hand to pass of the congratulations of the High Commissioner and express his hopes for a significant and deepening relationship between the new Council and UNHCR. The Council also received its first donation, from Canberra Times editor, Ian Mathews, who forwarded his newspaper’s share of the UN Association of Australia Media Peace Prize.

The following week, on 25 November 1981, a delegation of four members of the Council met the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Ian Macphee, in response to a request of the Minister. This was the first of many meetings between the Council and senior Ministers to discuss the community sector’s ideas and concerns about Australia’s approach to supporting refugees.

Senior office bearers


1981-1990 – Major General Paul Cullen AC CBE DSE ED

1991-1995 – Rev Fr Jeffries Foale

1996-2006 – David Bitel

2006-2012 – John Gibson

2012-present – Phil Glendenning


1981-1990 – Rev Martin Chittleborough

1991-1992 – Alan Matheson

1992-1994 – Robert Mister

1994-1995 – David Bitel

1996-1998 – Barbara Young

1998-2003 – Professor William Maley AM

2003-2008 – Barbara Young AO

2008-2011 – Esta Paschalidis-Chilas

2011-2016 – Sonia Caton

2016-present – Lis de Vries

Vice Chairpersons

1981-1982 – Rex Hubbard

1982-1990 – Rev Fr Jeffries Foale

1987-1989 – Kerry Boland

1990-1991 – Marion Webster

1991 – Rev John Mavor

1992 – Robert Mister

1992-1995 – Hermine Partamian

1992-1995 – Alan Matheson

(Two Vice-Chairpersons from 1987-1995)

Vice President

1995-2004 – Kevin Liston

2004-2006 – John Gibson

2006-present – Professor William Maley AM


A full-time secretariat was established in March 1985 when a full-time Executive Officer was appointed. This position was renamed Executive Director in 1986 and Chief Executive Officer in 2006. From 1985, the secretariat was based at Austcare’s Sydney office, initially in Broadway and then in Camperdown. A separate RCOA office was established in Glebe in 1999. In 2006, the Sydney office moved to its current location in Surry Hills.

Executive Director

1985-1991 – Luke Hardy

1991-2005 – Margaret Piper

Chief Executive Officer

2006-present – Paul Power